Barnes Wallis

Barnes Wallis is a personal hero. Inventor of geodesic construction analysis, architect for the R100 airship and the Wellington bomber, destroyer of Nazi dams.

If you like mannered British romance, airships and aviation, machine-age progress, or teaching young people, you will love this book and the two lovers whose 250 letters it contains. You will also admire the felicity of Mary Stopes-Roe, the daughter who assembled and annotated the letters - her biography (including the fireworks with her eugenicist mother-in-law Marie Stopes, recounted elsewhere) would also make splendid reading.

Barnes Wallis invented the 1943 "Dam Buster" bouncing bomb, which crippled Nazi war production for six months, diverted Nazi construction resources away from the West Wall, and was a vital contribution to Normandy's success in 1944 and Germany's defeat in 1945, saving millions of lives, including my soldier-in-training father.

In 1922, Barnes Wallis was a shy 35 yo airship designer between jobs, smitten by his 17 yo cousin-by-marriage, Molly Bloxam, whose father permitted them only to correspond by instructional letters until she was 20. What started as amusingly-written calculus and trigonometry instruction turned into prim and polite yet passionate romance between two intelligent people, launching the marriage that produced 4 very intelligent children.

An interlude in Switzerland, teaching at an english-language boys school, shows that Barnes Wallis might have been a great teacher had he not gone back to Vickers to design the best airship ever built (the R100) and develop geodesic construction. His protege, Nevil Shute Norway, became another great aircraft designer, and later a great novelist; read "Nevil Shute's" autobiographical "Slide Rule", and novels "Trustee from the Tool Room", "No Highway", and "A Town Like Alice". I imagine Barnes Wallis helped Nevil Shute Norway become a great aircraft designer, and Molly encouraged Nevil Shute to be a great writer. Our best contributions are the encouragement of the young, and you can see that in "Mathematics With Love". Great engineering projects are like first class universities, and great project leaders develop teams of bright young people who later surpass them.

Perhaps Wallis's time as a teacher in Switzerland also had such ripple effects - I can imagine one of his students later teaching graduate-level mathematics to Verena Huber, who married Freeman Dyson to produce Esther and George Dyson, all prolific and intelligent writers.

The 1955 movie "The Dam Busters" (a favorite) portrays the help that Molly and the family contributed to the invention of the bouncing bomb. Without them enriching and supporting his life, Wallis might not have made his discovery, or had such a strong personal desire to help end the war the way he did. The 1951 Brickhill "Dam Busters" and the 1972 Morpurgo "Barnes Wallis, a Biography" shed more light on Wallis's career and challenges.

I am still reading this book, slowly, a few letters per week. That helps me savor and enjoy the pace and development of this romance, the discipline and the eagerness that drove these two, and the patience that led to so many good things for their family and for the rest of the world. Yes, I cheated and read the last half-dozen letters out of sequence; I am not patient enough. The romance is touching, the meeting of the minds is thrilling, and the insight into how we help each other learn can help leaders and teachers. I'm buying a few of the used copies and sending them as just-for-the-hell-of-it gifts for friends - sorry, you will have to buy the more expensive copies :-(

BarnesWallis (last edited 2015-11-02 17:35:14 by KeithLofstrom)