Dambuster spirit needed to tackle climate change

Today’s engineers need the kind of ‘extreme lateral thinking’ that drove wartime inventor Barnes Wallis to develop his famous dambusting bouncing bombs, if they are to successfully tackle climate change, according to a Cambridge engineering academic.

Today’s engineers need the kind of drive and determination shown by great wartime innovators like Barnes Wallis if they are to respond effectively to challenges such as climate change, University of Cambridge Reader in Engineering Dr Hugh Hunt told the Royal Academy of Engineering recently.

Climate change solutions

Giving the Academy’s Autumn Lecture in early November, Dr Hunt compared today’s challenge of adapting to future climate change with the imperative to develop new technologies to tip the balance of military capability in favour of the Allies during World War 2. Necessity fuelled many technological developments during the 1939-45 period that decisively influenced the course of WW2, including radar, the Enigma machine and the jet engine.

Extreme lateral thinking

However, it is the sheer scope of Barnes Wallis’s lateral thinking in developing the bouncing bomb that fascinates Dr Hunt and epitomises the approach he thinks is now required from modern engineers in responding to climate change. Despite Bomber Command’s belief in the effectiveness of area bombing, Wallis saw it as a very blunt instrument and managed to persuade "Bomber" Harris to consider his idea of blowing up key German dams in order to cripple the steel industry.

"Barnes Wallis responded to the emergency of his time with extreme lateral thinking," said Dr Hunt, "and we need that mentality again now if we are to move towards low carbon energy and provide clean water and food for the world’s population. These are the great challenges of our time and we need to look at much bolder solutions, like designing structures to have multiple functions.

Flood defences are a great example of where this might help - you can use them to generate tidal power when they are not needed to prevent flooding. Perhaps such a scheme at the mouth of the River Parrott could be used both to generate power and to protect the Somerset Levels from flooding.

"Personally, I think we may actually be too late to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and that we also need to be looking at truly radical geoengineering schemes like re-freezing the polar ice caps. The fact that it sounds completely mad would not have put Barnes Wallis off, and we need more of his kind of unrestrained imagination coupled with technological genius," he added.

Who was Barnes Wallis?

Barnes Neville Wallis was born on 26 September 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire. Wallis worked first at a marine engineering firm and in 1913 moved to Vickers to design airships. He was involved in the development of the R100, the largest airship ever designed. In 1930, Wallis transferred to working on aircraft and pioneered the use of geodesic design, which was used in the Wellesley and Wellington bombers. When World War Two broke in 1939, Wallis was assistant chief designer of Vickers' aviation section.

In February 1943, Wallis revealed his plans for air attacks on dams in Germany. His idea was a drum-shaped, rotating bomb that would bounce over the water, roll down the dam's wall and explode at the base. The bomb, codenamed 'Upkeep', impressed his superiors who ordered Wallis to prepare the bombs for an attack on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the German industrial region of the Ruhr.

Operation Chastise, the 'Dambusters Raid', was carried out on the night of 16-17 May 1943 by the specially created 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Later, Wallis began looking at the design of aircraft that could drop heavy bombs. The adapted Avro Lancaster was able to drop two bombs developed by Wallis, the 'Tallboy' designed in 1944 (used to sink the German battleship 'Tirpitz') and the 'Grand Slam' the following year.

After the war, Wallis led aeronautical research and development at the British Aircraft Corporation until 1971. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1954 and was knighted in 1968. He died on 20 October 1979.

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