Calculating beauty by numbers
In the aftermath of the last global war, a young man, in his mid to late 20s, ended up in an alien land, He was alone, barely able to communicate because his language was foreign.
He was also uneasy, surrounded as he was by men wearing the same uniforms as those worn by the men who piloted the planes and dropped the bombs that had killed his entire family. Alone and orphaned, he did his best to look towards a more hopeful future and Winston Churchill’s “…broad sunlit uplands.”
After WW2 the Americans and the Russians exported the priceless human commodities of knowledge – the rocket scientists, aeronautical engineers and nuclear experts – to their respective homelands. They were valuable fruits of victory.
Britain, by war’s end a less important member of the Allied team, got the mathematicians. This lonely young man was one of them.
He started work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough where he was part of a team developing an idea of pure genius and endless imagination.
Everyone – Russians, Americans and the British – was interested in supersonic flight for military purposes. To be the first to break the sound barrier was a very big deal. In the California desert, as the Cold War was gathering pace, Bell Aircraft Corporation and the US Army Air Corps achieved the crucial feat on 17th October 1947. The aircraft was the aeronautical needle called the Bell X-1 and the pilot the extraordinary aviator Chuck Yeager.
Six thousand miles away, in a damp shed, on a windy airfield in Hampshire, as the meeting at which he was present discussed the difficulties of accelerating an aircraft to Mach 2 and keeping it there, our young German started crunching numbers with his slide rule. The team’s goal was a civilian aircraft that would eventually fly further and faster for longer than any fighter.
In the RAE workshop, with a piece of plywood and a small saw he cut out a shape that is instantly familiar to everyone. It was, of course, the extended long-nose delta that we now call Concorde.
We don’t know his name and we don’t know what happened to him.
But his prescient and uncannily accurate cutout lives on. It is in a cabinet, out of sight at the Science Museum’s store in Olympia, west London.
I was privileged to visit Blythe House, the store in question, one afternoon. Amidst the many fascinations I spotted the wooden shape and asked the curator what it was. This is the story that he told me. How the young German felt is something that I have imagined.
I treasure the Science Museum.
It is a tangible reminder of the birth and evolution of our modern world and its endless impact. It is also an act of homage to the people whose bright ideas became the artefacts which changed our lives. And if we’re lucky, sometimes their stories reach out to touch the poetry in our souls.