Sir Barnes Neville Wallis CBE, FRS, RDI, FRAeS was an English scientist, engineer, and inventor.  Perhaps he was best known for inventing the bouncing bomb that was used by the Royal Air Force in Operation Chastise.  However, among other achievements, Wallis was known for his invention of the geodetic airframe and the earthquake bomb.

Educated in London, Wallis left school at the age of 17 to start work at Thames Engineering Works; he then changed his apprenticeship to J. Samuel White’s, shipbuilders based on the Isle of Wight.  He first trained as a marine engineer and took a degree in engineering through the University of London External Programme (1922).  When an opportunity came for him to work on airship design and then aircraft design, he left J. Samuel White’s.  He worked for Vickers, later part of Vickers-Armstrongs, and then part of the British Aircraft Corporation.



Among his many achievements was the first use of geodetic design in engineering and the gasbag wiring of Vickers’ R100; at this time (1930), it was the largest airship ever designed.  Along with John Edwin Temple, he pioneered the use of light alloy and production engineering in the structural design of the R100.


At the Vickers aircraft factory at the Brooklands motor circuit and aerodrome in Surrey, he worked on pre-war aircraft designs with Rex Pierson; the Wellesley, the Wellington, and the later Warwick and Windsor employed Wallis’ geodetic design in the fuselage and wing structures.  It was considered one of the most robust airframes developed; pictures of the Wellington skeleton mostly shot away, was still sound enough to bring the crew safely home, are very impressive.  The geodetic construction offered a light and strong airframe with clearly defined space within for fuel tanks, payload, etc.  Unfortunately, the technique wasn’t easily transferable to other aircraft manufacturers.

VICKERS WELLINGTON (Imperial War Museum)


Following the start of WWII in Europe, Wallis saw a need for strategic bombing to destroy the enemy’s ability to wage war.  His first super-large bomb design was about ten tonnes; this was far more than any of the current bombers could carry.  He didn’t give up on the idea, though, and he suggested a plane that could carry it ~ the “Victory Bomber”.

In early 1942, Wallis experimented  with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden; this led to a paper he entitled “Spherical Bomb – Surface Torpedo”.  His idea was that a bomb could skip over the water’s surface, avoiding torpedo nets, then sink directly next to a battleship or dam wall as a depth charge; the surrounding water would concentrate the force of the explosion on the target.  A critical innovation was the addition of backspin; this would cause the bomb to trail behind the dropping aircraft, potentially decreasing the chance of the aircraft being damaged by the force of the explosion below.  This would also increase the range of the bomb and would prevent it from moving away from the target wall as it sank.  This was the bouncing bomb, used in the raids on the dams in 1943.



After the success of the bouncing bomb, Wallis returned to his huge bombs, producing the Tallboy and the Grand Slam, deep-penetration earthquake bombs.  These were used on strategic German targets such as V-2 rocket launch sites, the V-3 supergun bunker, submarine pens, viaducts, and bridges; they were the forerunners of modern bunker-busting bombs.

With the end of the war, Wallis returned to Brooklands as Head of Vickers-Armstrong’s Research and Development Department.  He and his staff worked on many futuristic aerospace projects including supersonic flight and “swing-wing” technology.  His later research into supersonic aerodynamics contributed to the design of the Concorde.

In the 50s, Wallis developed an experimental rocket-propelled torpedo powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide; codenamed HEYDAY, it had an unusual streamlined shape.  In 1955, Wallis acted as a consultant to the project to build the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia; some of his ideas are the same or closely related to the final design, including the idea of supporting the dish at its centre, the geodetic structure of the dish, and the master equatorial control system.  In the 60s, he proposed using large cargo submarines to transport oil and other goods, thereby avoiding surface weather conditions.

For all of these achievements, the one I found most interesting, was that following the terrible death toll of the aircrews involved in the Dam Busters raid, he made a conscious effort to never again endanger the lives of his test pilots; his designs were extensively tested in model form; he consequently became a pioneer in the remote control of aircraft.