"We have not inherited an easy world. If developments like the Industrial Revolution, which began here in England, and the gifts of science and technology have made life much easier for us, they have also made it more dangerous" - President Ronald Reagan, 1982.
What follows began as research into the R34 airship’s creation and the Beardmore legacy, from early business establishment right through the Industrial Revolution, First and Second World Wars to the ultimate demise of the Beardmore empire. Through immersing myself in this story, my long held views have been ratified and solidified, but I’ve also been exposed to new thoughts and ideas about what technological advancements cost, not just from a monetary standpoint but from an ethical, environmental and even personal standpoint. The R34 airship was manufactured by a company who developed and grew as a byproduct of one of the worst periods of human conflict. However, that period also resulted in incredible advancements in technology and materials for which we rely heavily upon today to support our way of life. The things I’ve found are not revelatory or profound, but I think it resonates at a time when we, as a collective global community, are at our weakest. We are in a state of reflection and as we look inwardly at what we have done, what we are doing and how we will resurface from this pandemic with different attitudes, it seems right that these questions are, at the very least, contemplated once more.
The Rise of Steel
To know how the R34 airship came to be, and to find out how a group of people soared across the second largest body of water on this fragile earth, we must look back to a time when the planet and its health were not so much scarcely considered, but rather completely ignored. More specifically we must look to the arc of industrial development in one area of new-age materials; a little alloy that we call Steel.
During the First Industrial Revolution the world advanced from making things by hand, to making things with the help of machines. Mechanisation made the process of manufacturing things easier, quicker and of a higher quality, especially when it came to textiles. Britain led the way in innovation, but as these revolutionary advances, such as industrial weaving machines, became more commonplace and accepted, a recession began and the march of progress slowed. Iron was now commonly used but despite the growing use of industrial machines that relied upon iron to function, there was a limit to what it could be utilised for. Iron remained heavy on resources to produce and suffered from various compromises, such as oxidation, rusting and brittleness. For the few decades following this slump, the manufacturing industry and its development stagnated. This remained the case until the turn of the century when, in a rapid series of developments referred to as the Technological Revolution, or Second Industrial Revolution, the technologies required to ignite the fuse that had been set during the first revolution were discovered, developed and put into action. Mass-production and economies of scale were introduced as concepts, and steel wa s developed. Railroads, previously made from softer and weaker wrought-iron, were now made from stronger steel permitting heavier loads and cheaper production of rails, allowing for quick and cheap transportation of large or bulky materials. Coal mining until the late 1800s was done by pick and shovel, but more efficient industrialised extraction methods meant more coal could be mined and underpinned the acceleration of the steel industry, in particular.
Rapid developments in steel manufacturing, specifically the Bessemer process, allowed for quicker and better quality mass-production of steel. This process turned pig-iron into steel with less energy expenditure and removed more excess carbon and impurities from the metal. A further innovation of iron and steel processing by Carl Wilhelm Siemens was developed to recover the heat lost during the processing, and in doing so reduce the energy required to make better steel by 70-80%. This “open-hearth” furnace method introduced a significant saving in both energy and scrap, but was still not widely adopted by industry until a French engineer, Pierre-Émile Martin, partnered with Siemens to create a hybrid open-hearth based technique. Not only was this a far more energy efficient way to process the iron, but more importantly it allowed the recycling of the scrap steel which had been amassing. Mild-steel, a cheap and quickly made metal using iron and a small percentage of carbon, had arrived. It wasn’t the strongest steel and had low tensile strength - you could bend or stretch it relatively easily, but it was very strong and tough under other loads, like compression. By developing this new Siemens-Martin process, steel and its mass-production was thrust to the forefront of manufacturing worldwide. Soon the availability of high quality mild steel welcomed the advent of new bridge engineering, shipbuilding, railroads and taller buildings.
Napier and Beardmore
It was in 1861, the latter part of this surge in steel production and demand, that Robert Napier, the “father” of shipbuilding on the Clyde, found his Parkhead ironworks company running into a spot of financial trouble. An Admiralty ship being built at Parkhead demanded a very high specification of wrought-iron armour plating that Napier wasn’t achieving. This caused a huge financial drain as he tried again and again to meet this standard. At that point in time William Beardmore Senior was operating as a successful steam engine and boiler producer in London. Beardmore Sr had already worked with Napier on a patented ship engine, used in many of Napier’s ships, so was recruited to Parkhead to try and help Napier out of this sticky fix. Sure enough, Beardmore resolved the ironclad woes but Napier was still struggling to hit his financial obligations; the Bank of Scotland wouldn’t loan him any more money to try and win new work.
A family feud with his sons on the direction of the business, coupled with the drought in funding, exacerbated the problem and, in 1871, forced Napier to sell his interest in the Parkhead business and retire. His wife died in 1875 and he followed soon after, in 1876. William Rigby, manager of the Parkhead Ironworks and married to Napier’s daughter Jane, was an expert shipbuilder himself. He bought the Parkhead facility from his father-in-law and Beardmore Sr entered into partnership with Rigby. Together they operated a very successful and burgeoning business until a few years later when William Rigby died. The business continued to operate with Beardmore Sr and Rigby’s widow Jane at the helm. Soon Jane dissolved the partnership due to legacy financial issues tied to the Napier’s business, and Beardmore, together with his brother Isaac, created William Beardmore and Company. To add one last denouement of complexity to an already confusing exchange, William Beardmore Sr died prematurely, Isaac retired and handed the entire operation, in 1886, to William Beardmore Junior.
Despite his uncle Isaac’s trustees’ reservations about whether Beardmore Jr could run this company successfully, he went on a campaign of expansion and diversification. The ironworks company at Parkhead bought over Robert Napier and Sons’ shipyard in Govan and from there, over the course of the following decades, William Bearmore cultivated his manufacturing portfolio to include ships, diesel engines, locomotives, aircraft, airships, cars, motorcycles and trucks. It is the airship arm of his vast manufacturing empire that interests us, for it includes the Inchinnan Air Station where he began the construction of the R34 airship.
The Outbreak of War
As the 19th Century became the 20th Century, William Beardmore had a large and diverse manufacturing business focussed on forged steel, armour plating and gun manufacture. The takeover of Napier’s shipbuilding business in 1900 prompted a new shipbuilding facility at Dalmuir, Clydebank and soon the Beardmores were advancing in their aviation projects. As the world found itself at war, the global manufacturing industry went into overdrive, offering every capacity to the war effort, in a bid to keep on top of the rapid developments in armaments, vehicles and logistics. The red-hot glow of the world’s smelters, refineries, production lines and delivery mechanisms were part and parcel of winning the war. The Beardmore company was contracted by the government in 1915 to manufacture various items to support the war effort too. One such request was to manufacture airships for the Admiralty and, required to quickly find a place upon which to erect the gargantuan hangers required for airship building, Beardmore chose a 600 acre plot at Inchinnan, just outside of Glasgow. It would suit his vast steel empire situated within the City. This new facility had, by 1918, successfully produced two airships, the R24 and R27 and William Beardmore and Company employed around 15,000 people.
In late 1917 as the war continued, the government awarded the contract to develop and manufacture two new, substantially larger, airships called the “R33 Class”, to Armstrong-Whitworth in North Yorkshire, and a second variant of this class, the R34, to William Beardmore and Company. This new class of airship was launched in response to the new German airships seen in the skies over Britain. It’s an indication of the comparatively rudimentary understanding of airship design by British heads compared to Germany, that during the early design stage for the R33 class airships, a lucky break afforded the Admiralty a chance to examine something they never expected to see: enemy technology. With this incredible insight the design of the R33 was modified and Britain’s overall understanding of airship design took a giant leap forward.
Such was Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin’s contributions to the airship industry, that his surname became known worldwide as the synonym for airships. Despite his background of nobility, he was an army officer during the Austro-Sardinian war, later serving through the Austro-Prussion War, American Civil War, Franco-Prussion War and, after many misfires and botched demonstrations, led the way in Airship design during the First World War. He spent a vast amount of his later life devoted to the development of this new and exciting mode of airborne transportation, first witnessed during his time in Minnesota fighting in the American Civil War.
Zeppelin took leave from the Prussian Engineering Corps to act as an observer for the Union’s Army of the Potomac. He joined an expedition to travel to the source of the Mississippi river and, upon a chance meeting with a German aeronaut called John Steiner, enjoyed his first flight in a lighter-than-air balloon. It was this flight that set Zeppelin on course to become one of the most renowned dirigible designers in history. He returned to Germany with one goal: to develop guided balloons.
Despite bankruptcy visiting him multiple times, Zeppelin persisted in his pursuit of sending man into the air. If it wasn’t for the outbreak of World War I, his innovations may not have seen the light of day. His airship developments and knowledge, amassed from his persistence and dedication to his craft, were far beyond the comprehension of Britain’s finest engineers. Such was his advanced know-how, that if it wasn’t for a rare grounding of one of his finest designs, Britain may never have managed to compete, and the R34 certainly would not have crossed the Atlantic.
The R-class Zeppelin airship was a trailblazer and a highly secretive project. Designed to be an extremely capable and devastating bomber, reconnaissance and naval patrol craft, the R-class used pioneering design in the structure of the airship, eschewing the parallel lines of the previous “P” and “Q” generation of tubular airship, for a more streamlined, aerodynamic form. On the 24th September 1916 the LZ 76 R-class airship, on another of its nightly bombing sorties, was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over British soil.
Upon sinking slowly to the ground with hydrogen gasbags deflating, the crew disembarked and attempted to set alight the LZ 76 and destroy it. However the amount of hydrogen remaining in the bags proved too little and the vast LZ 76 remained, on the whole, intact for the Brits to descend excitedly upon. The crew, unharmed, went on foot to try and escape only to be apprehended by one solitary Policeman. He arrested them all and took them to the nearby Police Station in Little Wigborough. From close inspection over 5 months, the engineers were able to salvage significant innovations in design within the LZ 76 and adapt it to the development of the R33 and R34 airships. The German military also learned valuable lessons from it, making all subsequent R-class Zeppelins lighter and in doing so, allow them to fly higher and avoid the anti-aircraft attack problem.
At this point it would have been wonderful to dive into the beautiful details of the R34’s construction at Inchinnan, and see just how Beardmore and Co. created this magnificent craft, but sadly this is no longer possible. In a post-war slump and, with his vast empire of businesses overstretched, William Beardmore and Company went bankrupt, was dissolved and his empire dismantled. The Parkhead facility and his Dalmuir Shipyard were bought by Sir James Lithgow. The Inchinnan facility remained active throughout the Second World War and as such it was a primary target for the Germans and their nightly bombing campaigns. During a particularly heavy night of bombing in 1941, the Inchinnan facility was destroyed and with it the records and processes used for the construction of the R34 airship. A tragedy, robbing us of any in-depth reference to call upon.
With Germany on the verge of defeat in the war and the people of Germany standing up against the flagging military in the Revolution of 1918-1919, the First World War ended on November 11th 1918 with the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne, and 7 months later, the Treaty of Versailles.
The R34 was completed in late 1918, resplendent in its greeny blue shell, decked with machine guns and offensive purpose. However, the war had ended before the R34 was completed and thus the military reason for the R34 to exist was gone. The discussion of what to do with the airships turned to testing the limits of their performance, and in particular the long-distance capability of these vast vessels. Establishing whether or not a post-war commercial service was viable, carrying passengers and mail around the world, needed proof. The R33 class was just the type of craft to be able to prove it. The Imperial Airship Scheme was a vision of the future, connecting Britain and the British Empire with various air routes operated solely by airships, offering a select few the chance to enjoy the luxury of new places, people and cultures.
William Beardmore would watch on as the R34 broke records, amassed a worldwide fame and launched the bid to join the world together by air. He too would enjoy the spoils, being given a peerage as Baron Invernairn of Strathnairn in the County of Inverness. He died in 1936, his heart giving in, watching as his dynasty was dismantled. Married, but with no children, the Beardmore Baronetcy (title) and Barony (peerage) died with him and the long trajectory of the Beardmore family came to an abrupt end. It’s unfair to state, however, that Beardmore’s legacy died with him, for it remains to this day a model of entrepreneurship and industrial capitalism. Beardmore, along with building his vast manufacturing empire, also lent his fortune to other endeavours; paths that we have already crossed in our previous projects. One such path is Antarctica and the 1907 Nimrod Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton to capture the South Pole. This campaign was sponsored by Beardmore and, despite not succeeding in being the first to the South Pole, the stretch of glacier that the adventurers crossed as they trekked further South and closer to the Pole than ever before, was named after their patron, Sir William Beardmore, and to this day remains known as the Beardmore Glacier.
There’s a lot to be said of the inexorable rise of mankind’s desire to command the Earth; to wrestle with the elements that make up this world and reconstitute them into something else; something useful or with purpose. There is, more often than not, an underlying drive to amass inordinate wealth at the same time, as a way to rise above the underclasses and stamp one’s name in the annals of history, perhaps passing it off as a by-product rather than a motivation. Improvement is a perilous track, especially when it comes to developments that changed the world as we know it. William Beardmore Junior in particular was adept at diversification, answering any and all calls to manufacture whatever he was asked, which led his company to be one of the most successful of the industrial age.
To denounce any historical approach to manufacturing, automation and mass-production, is to betray the benefits that we enjoy, such as global manufacturing capabilities, incredibly advanced production techniques and more recently the rise in ecologically friendly manufacturing techniques and earth-friendly materials. It’s a chicken and egg situation; without the early developments in the Industrial Revolution, laboured by pioneers before us and heavily destructive to the environment, we wouldn’t be in such a privileged position today, both on a process front and on a knowledge front. Yet with this understanding we still have to hold a reluctant acceptance that one day, in the near or distant future, when innovation has improved our generation’s way of doing things, we too will likely stand criticised for the methods we adopted during our generation of manufacturing innovation.
Joe Simpson - the mountaineer and subject of our previous edition’s “Touching the Void” segment- writes something in his memoir “This Game of Ghosts”, that resonates perfectly with the subject at hand, and it’s so beautifully written that it seems silly to try and say it any other way. In talking about his work with Greenpeace and how it is the most worthwhile thing he’s ever done, he also describes how it has opened his eyes to the devastation that humankind is wreaking on the world. He writes:
“Planet Earth is 4,600 million years old. If we condense this inconceivable time-span in to an understandable concept, we can liken earth to a person of 46 years of age. Nothing is known about the first 7 years of this person’s life...only at the age of 42 did the earth begin to flower. Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear until one year ago when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived 8 months ago and in the middle of last week man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend, the last ice age enveloped the Earth.
Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man took to agriculture. The Industrial Revolution began a minute ago. During those sixty seconds of biological time, Modern Man has made a rubbish tip of paradise. He has multiplied his numbers to plague proportions, caused the extinction of thousands of species, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant, gloating over his meteoric ascendancy, on the brink of a war to end all wars and without regard for this oasis of life in the solar system.”
It’s a frighteningly poignant thought, especially at this present time where Coronavirus has shut everyone inside their own homes, leaving Mother Nature to spread her suppressed wings and show us all how quickly she can heal, if only we will let her.
But there’s an element of hypocrisy to that too, for without all this evolution and innovation within the modern world, we wouldn’t be living as we do, using highly developed tools that are constantly at hand. I wouldn’t be typing this article on a laptop computer thinner than a slice of bread and millions of times more powerful than the computers that guided mankind to the moon. We wouldn’t be able to video call our loved ones at a time when human contact is strictly forbidden. We wouldn’t have cars or even bicycles as we know them. We wouldn’t have pens. We wouldn’t have big, expansive bridges or even tall buildings. Without industrial advancement and, as a consequence, technological advancement, we would still be quite rudimentary people. Yet, despite the clear evidence that we are destroying the very fabric of our own existence, we can’t, or won’t, revert to farming with sticks. We enjoy this age of heightened existence too much and as such are locked in to it. The balance between advancement of the human race and the reduction of destruction of the planet we so perilously perch upon, is yet to be struck.
It’s fair to state also that Beardmore had a vast impact on developments in the myriad industries within which he had a stake. His aforementioned abilities in ships, diesel engines, locomotives, aircraft, airships, cars, motorcycles and trucks all will have made progress under his tutelage and as such, his impact on the arc of technological advancement should surely not be questioned. But with that vast impact on the trajectory of the coming century, where man would fly further, longer and higher, reaching the Moon and beyond, comes with it the underlying destruction that his industry contributed. Manufacturing industries in the late 1800s and early 1900s were not governed by an ecological wariness or sensitivity to the potential devastation that such processes might create. It was pure, unabashed development and manufacturing, regardless of what amount these energy expensive processes were costing to the health of the planet. An attitude of ignorance perhaps, that would continue for decades to come, until a few knowing heads took a step back and realised what was going on.
It’s a tough one. We are where we are because of it, and we can be thankful that such pioneering spirits brought us to the time where worldwide travel is enjoyed by all. Where the latest razor thin backlit OLED screens can be scrutinised by boffin YouTubers for their nit level output, or the controversial new age of the social media Influencer. We can do all these things because all the big brush strokes have already been taken care of. It came from one place, and that place was the sea change from agricultural proddings to mechanised, industrialised mass-manufacturing; the definitive poisoned chalice.