UK Gas and cuckoo clocks

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2014

Fred Starr recollects…

Recently watching that 1949 film classic The Third Man, I was struck how mistaken Orson Wells was when he gave his speech about Switzerland, where he alleged that after 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace, the only Swiss contribution to humanity was the cuckoo clock. Italy under the Borgias, on the other hand, had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but gave us Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Renaissance.

How did this scene come to resonate with me? I had in mind a letter from Peter Forsyth in the June 2014 issue of Materials World, saying I was wrong to think that Arnold Griffith had stopped Frank Whittle getting support for the jet engine. I adhere to this view, as in some quarters Griffith is hailed as a sort of co-inventor, just because he formulated a better way to design compressors for gas turbines. What is not generally recognised is that in Switzerland, at the time Griffith was doing his theoretical work, electrical engineering company Brown Boveri was beginning to design, build and sell modern gas turbines. So in 1938, Griffith and his colleagues had to make a long-haul journey to Switzerland to find out what was going on. By that time, Brown Boveri had linked up with the Germans, as we found out to our cost in World War II. The best we could do was to buy one of its machines. To some degree, every gas turbine in the world can be traced back to a country that, as Wells genuinely considered, had never produced anything other than the cuckoo clock.

As I watched the film, I realised that the cuckoo clock and the Borgias could be metaphors for how we perceive the electrical industry and – where I once worked – the gas industry. The post-war history of the Central Electric Generating Board (CEGB) and its privatised successors is a tale of unrealised expectations. As consumers, taxpayers, engineers and scientists, we will all recollect power cuts in the depths of winter, strikes and the switching from one energy solution to another – with nuclear as a semi-permanent fixture and Government not quite sure what to do with the coal industry.

The Chinese say to their enemies, ‘May you live in interesting times’ – and we certainly have! But the CEGB also built those now silent but magnificent temples of power, bordering the rivers of the Midlands and the North. In contrast, British Gas did not seem to do much of anything, although the hiccups associated with the conversion of 20 million households to North Sea Gas brought unwanted publicity. My industry, it seemed, was an organisation producing cuckoo clocks rather than masterpieces.

My daydreaming returned to Arnold Griffith and the belated recognition of his seminal work on fracture mechanics, especially where we in the gas industry were concerned. If British Gas had a masterpiece, it was to get North Sea Gas safely and without fuss across the country to our towns and cities. It eventually required the construction of thousands of kilometres of pipelines operating at 70 bar. If it ever went badly wrong, it would be worldwide news.

A few years before we began to build our system, a pipe burst during the commissioning of the TransCanada pipeline, with the split running for more than five kilometres. I once saw a slow-motion video of a high-pressure burst. The ground heaved as the pipe erupted and gas escaped. Earth, stones and pebbles blossomed skywards. The gas exploded in the best Hollywood tradition. Finally, car-sized chunks of pipeline steel were thrown hundreds of metres. If there was ever an argument for building pipes with good fracture toughness, this was it.

I had nothing to do with the pipeline programme. But I do know that my colleagues up in Newcastle were zealous in getting steelmakers to produce pipes combining the highest possible yield strength with good fracture toughness. They also convinced North Thames Gas to derate the North Orbital pipeline around London, as it contained sections of faulty steel. So let Peter Forsyth and myself end on a harmonious note. As Brian Cotterell explains in his wonderful book Fracture and Life, Griffith, with his glass rods and his equation, was the first in a long line of applied scientists who began to tell some of us not just how to make cuckoo clocks, but to make the world a safer place.