Neville Shute Norway, the Engineer Novelist.
Long before I was a doctor, I was an engineer. I worked for Douglas Aircraft Company in their wind tunnel facility in El Segundo. At first we worked in a trailer outside the one-foot wind tunnel facility. Soon, we moved inside when the new four foot wind tunnel was completed. In 1957, still a college student, I was scared almost out of my wits by a novel called “On the Beach.” It was by Neville Shute and was my introduction to his work. I had already seen the movie made from another of his novels, “No Highway.” He is, in my opinion, the best writer about both engineers and businessmen in fiction.
Here is an appreciation of his life as a model engineer. The novel is one of my favorites, “Trustee From the Toolroom.” Sadly, it was published after his death.
The Literary Machinist
Occasional Essays on Literature and the Amateur Machinist
By David M. MacMillan
Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom
I was fortunate as a child to discover Nevil Shute’s novel Trustee from the Toolroom. Though at the time this discovery seemed accidental, it was only partly so. I had the free run of the library of one of our neighbors – that was the accidental part. That this particular neighbor should have a copy of Trustee wasn’t, in retrospect, accidental at all. Our neighbor was an engineer (MIT, class of 1918), well read and well traveled. Trustee, a novel by a bestselling author/engineer about engineering, occupied a natural place in his library.
Shute was a popular writer, and Trustee a popular novel – one of the top ten fiction bestsellers of 1960. By 1972, so the back cover of a 1972 reprint of the novel claims, there were “over 14 million Nevil Shute books sold.” Trustee was featured by the Book of the Month Club, where its review was written by Clifton Fadiman. Today, however, Shute’s literary fortunes have waned. He isn’t a forgotten author; several of his novels are in print and not difficult to find. He is remembered, though, not for Trustee but for novels such as On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.
Unfortunately, those qualities which endeared this novel to me as a mechanically inclined child, and which I think make it attractive to engineers and model engineers of any age, are not necessarily the same ones which make a generally accepted work of literature. In his Book of the Month Club review, Fadiman is quite blunt about this, calling the novel “an exciting story, honestly conceived, even if devoid of much literary grace.” However, while it’s true that there isn’t much in the way of “literary grace” or literary innovation about this novel – Shute was no James Joyce or William Faulkner – the very honesty that Fadiman notes puts Trustee an unusual place in modern literature. It’s a novel about engineering, or at least engineering in minature, and the almost naive honesty with which Shute approaches his subject gives his book, at very least, the integrity of good engineering.
The general outline of Trustee is not complex. The protagonist is a simple person. If he doesn’t represent “Everyman,” at least he represents the best in every model engineer. His name is Keith Stewart, and he is by profession a model engineering writer. He designs and builds engineering and horological models, publishes construction articles on them in the (fictitious) magazine Miniature Mechanic, and most importantly for the novel he maintains a worldwide correspondence with model engineers who are building his designs. He is lower class, his house is unusually ugly, and the scope of his life is fairly confined. Against this – like the best common hero – his heart is big, and he’s smarter than he thinks he is. He’s also got a very nice home machine shop.
He had made little beam engines which would have delighted James Watt and still delighted those who are fascinated by such things; he had made little jet engines which would have delighted Frank Whittle.
Keith Stewart’s peaceful life is interrupted by a problem which, while it is not of his own making, is nonetheless both serious and his to resolve. His sister Joanna has “done well for herself” and married an officer of the Royal Navy, John Dermott, now retired. The time is the late 1950s, and the Dermotts have decided to emigrate to Canada. Their plan is to sail their small boat to western Canada via the South Pacific, leaving their young daughter Janice with the Stewarts during this trip. The catch is that postwar currency restrictions forbid them from taking enough money with them to set up their new home. The Dermotts are bypassing these restrictions, quite illegally, by converting their assets to diamonds and encasing a box of these in the concrete ballast of their boat. As the novel opens, Keith Stewart is brazing the box shut for them, though he’s not aware of the value of its contents.
Needless to say, the Dermotts don’t make it to Canada. Their boat is wrecked on a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific, killing them both. The Stewarts are left to raise the daughter, Janice; Keith Stewart is named the trustee of her inheritance. At this point he discovers that, far from the substantial inheritance of 27,000 pounds, all that remains in the Dermott’s accounts is 55 pounds, six shillings, and ninepence. Only Keith knows of the fortune encased in concrete ballast on a Pacific reef. Beyond the duties of formal trusteeship, he must fulfill the trust placed in him by his sister and recover this lost fortune. He must also, he thinks, do it alone.
Yet in a way the whole point of the novel is that Keith Stewart is never alone. He’s helped at every turn by friends he didn’t know he had; engineers and technical people worldwide who know him through his construction articles in Miniature Mechanics and through correspondence about their projects. When he leaves on his quest he slips a small engine in his pocket – a 7cc gasoline (petrol) engine driving a tiny six volt generator which in turn powers a tiny light. With little more than a newspaper clipping describing the wreck, his reputation as a model engineering writer, and this pocket engine/generator set, he hitches a ride on a cargo aircraft to Honolulu. He has no idea how he’ll get from Honolulu to Tahiti, and from there to a tiny, uninhabited atoll.
In the meantime, the model engineering correspondence that he previously attended to has started to pile up on the desk of his editor at Miniature Mechanic. As a result, the editor begins to realize the worth of such an engineer and writer as Keith Stewart, and his importance to the magazine. The editor begins to contact model engineers worldwide to try to help our hero on his impossible quest. Michigan readers might be interested to note that the first call goes out to Ann Arbor, to a professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Michigan.
I don’t think that it gives away much of the plot to note that our protagonist succeeds, and that there is a happy ending. How he succeeds is another matter. In this novel, as with any work of good engineering, the interesting thing isn’t so much that it works but how it works.
Nevil Shute Norway
How the novel works is a question bound up in Nevil Shute Norway’s career as an engineer. He was born in 1899 in Ealing, the same suburb of London in which he places Keith Stewart. His first engineering position was with the newly formed de Havilland company in 1923.
In 1924 he made a change of critical importance in both his life and his writing. He moved to Vickers, Ltd. and began working on the R-100 airship they were developing under government contract. He was the Chief Calculator for this project, and very much later the Chief Engineer. The R-100 project was central to Norway’s life, and perhaps even to his career as a novelist. Briefly, the R-100 was one half of a two-airship effort. It was the privately constructed airship, built in competition with the government-constructed R-101. The R-100 was a very successful design which proved itself on a round-trip flight to Canada. The R-101, plagued by poor design decisions and an overly high public profile, crashed in a terrible accident over France during its inaugural flight to India. The differences between these two airship projects shaped much of Norway’s thinking about society.
After “the airship venture,” Norway went on to form his own company, Airspeed Ltd. Though Norway left Airspeed in 1938, he had shaped it into a viable company which went on to produce thousands of Airspeed Oxford aircraft for use as the primary training aircraft of the RAF Bomber Command during WWII. During the war, Norway was involved with the development in unusual circumstances of unusual weapons, as described in Pawle’s book The Secret War.
Disenchanted with England, Norway emigrated to Australia in 1950. Here he lived until his death in 1960. His autobiography, Slide Rule, appeared in 1954. Trustee was his last book, published in 1960.
Shute was also what the English call a “model engineer.” (This term is not as prevelant in the US. We might term him a “home shop machinist.”) A 1949 article in the English magazine Model Engineer describes a workshop that has several similarities to the fictional workshop of Keith Stewart, although it is larger. This article illustrates a 1/8 hp gasoline (petrol) engine constructed by Norway from Stuart Turner No. 800 castings, with considerable modifications. Another article, or more accurately a letter to the editor signed “Nevil Shute” (not Norway) in a 1959 Model Engineer describes Shute’s conversion of a hand-powered bench shaper to a power hacksaw. It includes several illustrations of Shute’s Australian shop. Finally, a 1963 article in Model Engineer, written by Norway’s friend L. R. East after Norway’s death illustrates the Stuart Double-10 (D-Ten) engine constructed by Norway in 1957, and components of a 30cc Seal Major four cylinder gasoline (petrol) engine “as adapted by D.Braid” from the Edgar Westbury Seal design. This engine was left uncompleted at Norway’s death.
While in England, at least, Norway was a member of the organized model engineering community. In the first of the articles mentioned above, he notes that the US did not seem to have a similar interest in model engineering, and that there did not seem to be any publication in the US analogous to the Model Engineer.
The Model Engineer, founded in 1898, was clearly a model for the fictitious magazine Miniature Mechanic for which Keith Stewart writes. Stewart himself seems to have been a composite of several model engineering writers of the day. A discussion on the “modeleng-list” model engineering e-mail list recently seemed to generate the consensus that Edgar Westbury was the central source. However, later discussions have called this into doubt. Perhaps all that can be said for now is that Stewart’s character is both a composite of a number of model engineering writers and a product of Shute’s own imagination.
Engineering in Shute’s Novels
While model engineering plays an obvious role in Trustee, Norway’s experiences as an engineer, and particularly his experiences during the R-100 “airship venture” shaped much of Shute’s writing.
At times this link from engineering to literature is very direct. In an unpublished paper presented at the 1992 Convention, in Atlanta, of the Society for Literature and Science, Dr. David K. Vaughan suggests that a particular joint on the R-100 airship mirrors in function some of the plot structures of Shute’s mature novels. Norway was involved in the stress calculations on this type of joint. In his autobiography, he makes special mention of this and of his “satisfaction almost amounting to a religious experience” (83-84) in completing these calculations.
In a more general sense, Norway’s observations of the social structures which resulted in the terrible crash of the competing R-101 project shape much of his view as a novelist. The R-101 crashed as a result of poor engineering and operational decisions, but these decisions were themselves the result of external pressures on otherwise competent engineers. The R-101’s designers built an airship that was overweight and not sufficiently strong in part because of the high profile and public scrutiny to which they were subjected.
In Slide Rule, Norway concludes that “The disaster was the product of the system rather than of the men themselves.” (135) He cites, among other things, the way in which the public and press relations of the government project constrained its designers, denying them the ability to make engineering changes:
In the end, and largely through the press department, I think, the Cardington [government project] designers found themselves hemmed in behind a palisade of their own published statements which could not be broken through without some personal and public discredit, till one course only was left open to them, a course they never would have taken had they been free men, a course which was to lead to tragedy and death. (64-65)
This emphasis on the antagonism of large, impersonal systems rather than evil individuals is characteristic of Shute. In mature Shute novels, as Dr. Vaughan observes, there are no personal antagonists. No human villain appears as an opponent to Keith Stewart, for example. His problems are caused by people responding to larger social forces and to structures, often bureaucratic, beyond their control. The Dermott’s inability to take their money with them legally, for example, is due to postwar currency restrictions caused not by any individual but rather by difficult times. The Dermotts are not killed by a person, but by a storm. Indeed, nearly every character in Trustee helps Stewart, and none go out of their way to oppose him.
The structure of Trustee to some extent reflects the successful structure of the Vickers engineering group in building the R-100. This group was for the most part an assembly of talented people, gathered from a number of places for the project, with limited previous experience, who produced a successful design. To the extent that they were free of external structure and were bound only by the realities of engineering and the sensible limitations of economy, they did well. Even the nature of the engineering problems, as Norway perceived them, were a part of this type of structure. For example, in Slide Rule, Norway describes the structure of the transverse frames of the airship:
each transverse frame consisted of a girder in the form of a stiff, sixteen-sided polygon with the flats at top and bottom; this girder was twenty-seven inches deep and up to a hundred and thirty feet in diameter… [he goes on to discuss the radial bracing wires for this girder, considered in two sets of eight] … Normally four or five wires would remain in tension … the forces and bending moments in the members could then be calculated by the solution of lengthy simultaneous equations containing up to seven unknown quantities; this work usually occupied two calculators about a week, using a Fuller slide rule (82-83)
Every element of this structure is interlinked with every other; the girder no more important than the wires bracing it.
In Trustee, Keith Stewart becomes the focal point of a network of talented individuals who, either working outside of established organizations or firmly in control of closely held family organizations, bear his load for him.
In the end, though, the emphasis of the novel is on Stewart himself. Forced by this disaster and his responsibilities into a position where he must demonstrate considerable ingenuity (for of course he must get diamonds back to England which weren’t supposed to be outside of England in the first place), he returns home to become, once again, just a humble model engineering writer. Like the Vickers engineering team for the R-100, he works in relative obscurity and under difficult (but not impossible) economic restrictions. Yet just as the Vickers engineers could live in the confidence that their work was done rightly, so also could Keith Stewart. It is in this ability to do good engineering work quietly, without the interference of large organizations, that Stewart’s happiness resides. As Norway notes in Slide Rule:
When all forces were found to be in balance, and when all deflections proved to be in correspondence with the forces elongating the members, then we knew that we had reached the truth. (83)
East, L. R. “Storyteller from the toolroom.” Model Engineer. Vol. 129, Whole No. 3238 (1 December, 1963): 539-540.
Photos of Norway’s Stuart Double-10 engine, made in 1957, and of components of a 30cc Seal Major four cylinder gasoline (petrol) engine “as adapted by D. Braid” from the Edgar Westbury Seal design. He was engaged in making this Seal Major at the time of his death.
Pawle, Gerald. The Secret War: 1939-45 With a foreword by Nevil Shute. NY: William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1957.
This book outlines the efforts of the British “Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development” during WWII. The DMWD was a highly irregular group of scientists and engineers gathered together by Commander Sir Charles Goodeve rapidly to develop innovative weapons outside of normal channels. Shute was one of their members, and is illustrated in this book piloting “The Great Panjandrum.”
Shute [Norway], Nevil. Trustee from the Toolroom. NY: William Morrow and Company, 1960.
Shute [Norway], Nevil. Slide Rule. 1954. NY: Ballantine Books, 1964. Also London: Mandarin Paperbacks – Reed Consumer Books, Ltd., 1994, ISBN: 0-7493-0410-3.
Note that some libraries, particularly public libraries, file under Shute, while other libraries, particularly university libraries, file under Norway.
Shute, N. [sic]. “Converting Shaper.” Model Engineer. Vol. 121, Whole No. 3038. (1 October 1959): 229-230.
Letter to the editor, “Postbag” column, on the conversion of a bench shaper to a power hacksaw; photos of his Langwarrin, Australia workshop.
Smith, Julian. Nevil Shute. Boston: Twayne Publishers – G. K. Hall & Co., 1976.
PR 6027.054 Z9 823′.9’12 [B] 76-8018.
Stevenson, Donald. “Models and Fiction.” The Model Engineer. Vol. 100, Whole No. 2488 (27 January, 1949): 93-94, 97.
Photo of Nevil Shute Norway and two photos of the 1/8 hp horizontal gasoline (petrol) engine made, with “considerable modifications” from Stuart Turner No. 800 castings; completed 1948.
Vaughan, Dr. David K. “The Airship Venture and the Novels of Nevil Shute.” Unpublished paper presented at the 1992 Convention, Atlanta, of the Society for Literature and Science.
On the Internet, the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation maintains a set of World Wide Web pages devoted to Nevil Shute at: http://www.nevilshute.org/
I would like to thank Dr. David K. Vaughan for sharing his paper on Shute, and the late Rolfe Ames Folsom for sharing his library many years ago.
With the exception of any material noted as being in the public domain, the text, images, and encoding of this document are copyright © 1998 by David M. MacMillan.