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R&D and Competition in England and the United States: The Case of the Aluminum Dirigible

  • Margaret B. W. Graham (a1)


This historical comparison of the Vickers and Alcoa experiences with “borrowed” German airship technology highlights the importance of studying the way industrial R&D has been organized, both within industries and inside individual companies. Professor Graham shows that Alcoa's move in 1919 to organize its corporate Technical Department to include balanced research and development capabilities allowed it not only to appropriate Duralumin technology, but also to build on that technology so that it could be used to supply the infant U.S. airframe industry. Lacking such integrated R&D at the corporate level, Vickers obtained only short–term financial returns on its investment in Duralumin expertise. This article suggests that the differences in exploitation of high–strength aluminum derived partly from different national climates for R&D in the United States and England after the First World War.



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1 Alan Farnham, “The Battle to Build the Navy's Blimp,” The New York Times, 22 March 1987.

2 Rosenberg, Nathan, “The Historiography of Technical Progress,” in Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics (New York, 1982), 333.

3 Trebilcock, Clive, The Vickers Brothers: Armaments and Enterprise, 1854–1914 (London, 1977). Trebilcock claims that Vickers employed several hundred staff members in R&D organization before the war but, given the nature of the work, the majority of these are likely to have been draftsmen.

4 Rosenhain, Walter, “A Quarter Century of Metallurgical Progress,” Canadian Chemistry and Metallurgy 17 (Oct.–Nov. 1933): 210–35.

5 Meriea, Paul, “Heat Treatment and the Constitution of Duralumin,” in Scientific Paper of the United States Bureau of Standards 347 (Washington, D.C., 1919).

6 A few earlier airship designs had used aluminum tubing, which had turned out not to be strong enough.

7 Commander Hunsaker's notes quoted in Hood, John W., “History of Alcoa Aluminum in Aircraft, Alcoa Contribution toward Aluminum Alloy and Structural Developments in Aircraft,” March 1971, p. 9, unpub. MS in Alcoa Corporate Archives, Pittsburgh, Pa.

8 Graham, Margaret B. W., “Industrial Research in the Age of Big Science,” Research on Technological Innovation, Management and Policy 2 (1985): 4749.

9 This account is based on the Vickers, Ltd., papers located in Cambridge University Library, on Higham's, Robin book, The British Rigid Airship: A Study in Weapons Policy (London, 1964), and on Davenport–Hines, Richard, “British Armaments Industry during Disarmament, 1918–1936” (Ph.D diss Cambridge University, 1979).

10 Vickers papers. Duralumin File, #501; Eckener, Hugo, My Zeppelins (Berlin, 1957).

11 Higham, The British Rigid Airship, 39–54. Apparently the obvious conclusion that there was a lot to be learned about maneuvering airships while aground or afloat, and about flying airships, did not seem a relevant explanation. Yet according to Hugo Eckener, author of My Zeppelins, who joined Count Zeppelin in his enterprise, the Germans had spent four years operating a civilian zeppelin service between 1910 and 1914, and had used that opportunity to train fliers and navigators, to acquaint military personnel from the Imperial Navy and Army with the mysteries of flight and to develop the art of weather forecasting.

12 Trebilcock, The Vickers Brothers, 109–13; Ernest V. Pannell (of the British Aluminum [sic] Company, Ltd.), Aluminum in Airship Construction,” The Metal Industry 18, no. 6 (June 1920).

13 Four companies received airship contracts during the war, but other than Vickers only Shorts Brothers ever delivered, and the Shorts airships incorporated a wooden structure.

14 Vickers papers, Duralumin File containing summary patent and production history, #541.

15 Ibid., Duralumin File, #631.

16 This program began at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington in 1906 and published a series of groundbreaking reports thereafter. The culminating report was the eleventh, delivered in 1919, summarizing all the valuable information that had been learned during the war. “The Eleventh Report of the Alloys Research Committee,” 1920.

17 “Confidential Report on Proposed Admiralty Actions,” 11 April 1918, Vickers papers, microfilm 275–WD4.

18 Rosenhain was convinced at the time that an aluminum–zinc alloy had better properties, especially in that it age–hardened at room temperatures and should in theory be much less difficult and expensive to produce. It was only in the 1920s that this class of alloys could be made to work.

19 Heat treatment for Duralumin involved heating to over 400 degrees centigrade and then chilling in oil and water baths. This required careful temperature control within ranges that were both lower and tighter than those used for heat treating ferrous metals, and existing electric furnace technology was not up to it. J. Towns Robinson (technical superintendent, High Duty Alloys, Ltd., formerly James Booth and Company), Development of Aluminium Alloy Forgings and Stampings,” Metallurgia 31–32 (Feb. 1945): 182.

20 Freeman Horn (of the British Aluminium Company, Ltd.), 100 Years of Aluminium,” Metallurgia 31–32 (Feb. 1945): 194. Indeed, writing as late as the end of the Second World War, Horn marveled that both the composition and the heat treatment techniques for Duralumin remained substantially the same in Great Britain “until quite recently.”

21 Shorts received only a fraction of the investment it had made in the works, and was not particularly disposed to be cooperative. Cf. Higham, The British Rigid Airship.

23 The Airship Guarantee Company, Ltd. Minute Book, 1923–1927, Vickers papers, film #913 and #1199. Cf. Davenport–Hines, “British Armaments Industry during Disarmament.”

24 Higham, The British Rigid Airship, 95.

25 “Development of Strong Alloys by Alcoa,” memorandum prepared by Earl Blough for Roy A. Hunt, 23 June 1953, Alcoa Archives, “Duralumin” file 10–486.

26 Laboratory correspondence, Blough to J. H. Finney, 16 Oct. 1916.

27 Hood MS, 204.

28 Laboratory correspondence, J. H. Finney to General Sales Office, 8 Sept. 1919. Finney calls the “submarine Boat people a serious threat because they claim the sole right to distribute Duralumin in the United states and propose to supply it from Britain. They threaten a suit versus all other suppliers.” In the end the navy contracted with Alcoa as an agent of the government and worked out a purchase of patent by the Chemical Foundation.

29 Hunsaker testimony: “We had in fact stolen it from the Germans,” quoted in Hood MS, 60. Discussions about the research program in 1919 and 1920 make repeated reference to Alcoa chairman A. V. Davis's concern for finding a Duralumin substitute.

30 Major Finney, Alcoa's marketer in Washington, wrote warning letters to Davis and Blough that the potential for losing this business was high.

31 Blough, “Development of Strong Alloys by Alcoa.”

32 Hood MS, 175.

33 Alcoa laboratory correspondence, Blough to Finney, 4 Oct. 1923.

34 The New York Times, 12 Dec. 1925, and Hood MS, 189.

33 Alcoa laboratory correspondence, Weyerbacher to Blough, 30 Oct. 1925.

36 Alcoa laboratory correspondence, R. V. Davies (Washington office) to Blough, 27 Jan. 1927, and Blough to R. V. Davies, 29 Jan. 1927. “Test results of USS Shenandoah show that the material in the girders is as good as the day it was put in.” This “for practical purposes nullifies many of the statements previously made by the Bureau of Standards in their earlier report.”

37 The Liberty engine itself had been perfected during the war at the Lynite Laboratory of the Aluminum Castings Company and had been used extensively to power non–metal aircraft.

31 Alcoa laboratory correspondence, Major Leslie McDill to Richard Templin, Sept. 1928, Hood MS, 205.

39 These airships were to be built by the Goodyear Zeppelin Company. Another company, the Aircraft Development Corporation of Detroit, announced plans in 1926 to build an all–metal airship two and a half times as big as the Shenandoah. The New York Times, 8 Jan. 1926, 1:6.

40 Testimony of Commander Jerome Clarke Hunsaker, in United States vs. Aluminum Company of America, New York, 25 April 1940, quoted extensively in Hood MS, 44ff., 69.

41 “Dr. Walter Rosenhain,” Obituaries of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1933; the quote is from “Science and Industry in America,” no. 3, Rosenhain, Walter, “Aluminium and Light Alloys,” The Engineer 136 (28 Sept. 1923): 330–31.

42 Mortimer, George (the British Aluminium Company, Ltd.), “The War–Time Aluminium Foundry,” Metallurgia 31–32 (Feb. 1945): 187–92.

43 Robinson, “Development of Aluminium Alloy Forgings and Stampings,” 183.

R&D and Competition in England and the United States: The Case of the Aluminum Dirigible

  • Margaret B. W. Graham (a1)


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