Barnes Wallis


wallis_young1On 26th September 1887, Barnes Neville Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire, the second son of Charles Wallis and Edith Ashby. He was one of four children born to them. The eldest, John, is pictured with Barnes and their mother below,. There were two younger children, Annie and Charles. A family photo of everyone but Charles can be seen in the Photo Gallery. When Barnes was two they moved to 241, New Cross Road in London where Charles Wallis was a doctor, but in 1893 he contracted poliomyelitis (polio) which left him crippled. He still continued with his career on a solid-wheeled tricycle but it was deeply affected by it. One memory my great-grandmother (Annie) had of her brother was his enjoyment in making things. Barnes and his brother John had a workshop in a part of the house which they used as children, and Barnes also made structures out of paper for Annie to play with.

Barnes received his education at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham , a public school founded in 1552. He and his brother John were nominated by Colonel Newcombe to take a competitive entrance exam for a scholarship as the Wallis family were too poor to pay themselves. Barnes came seventh out of 110 boys and received a place at the school. However, although Barnes was a natural at Mathematics, English and Science, he was completely incompetent at Latin. By the end of his successful education Barnes had decided that he wanted to be an engineer. Out of school and unable to afford university he started an indentured apprenticeship at the Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath. He worked on many projects but in 1908 transferred to JS Whites shipyard at Cowes working on Naval destroyers. Whilst here Wallis blossomed and was promoted to the design office although he suffered the loss of his Mother from Asthma in 1911 which affected him badly. In 1912 however the young Hartley Blyth Pratt joined the firm from Vickers (the armament firm) and they quickly became great friends. Wallis’s work with boats had given him a sound grasp of fluid dynamics and when airship design again became fashionable Pratt was called back to Vickers. It was only a few months before he called Wallis his friend and arranged for him to join the massive organisation of Vickers as his assistant.


barneswallis2When the Second World War broke out, Barnes Wallis was Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers Armstrong Aviation section at Waybridge. Here, independently of any Air Ministry requirement he spent some time investigating how the energy sources of the axis powers (Germany and Italy) may be reduced or eliminated. Specialist publications provided him with all the necessary background information on the German dams and he formed the opinion that knocking out the water reserves of the Ruhr would curtail steel production severely.

Barnes Wallis was already developing his theories regarding large bombs and these were principally along the lines that a large and heavy bomb dropped from a great height would develop a sufficient velocity to penetrate deep into the ground before exploding, whereupon the shockwave formed and the collapsing camoflet effect formed by the underground explosion would demolish any target either directly over the bomb strike, but more importantly for some considerable radius around it. This was important as it was the use of the shockwave from the explosion travelling through the solid media (earth) which caused the main damage.

Barnes Wallis was well familiar with current aircraft design, having designed the Vickers Wellesly and the Vickers Wellington Bomber, both at that time in use by the RAF. He was aware that no aircraft existed that could lift a bomb of the weight needed to a sufficient height for his plan to be put into effect. He quietly proceeded however with his experiments and turned his mind towards reducing the amount of explosive that would be needed to demolish the dams. Experiments proved that if a relatively small explosive charge could be placed low down on the wet side of a concrete dam face, the shock wave caused by its explosion travelling through the water would be very much greater than the same explosive on the dry side of the dam and this enabled him to start considering ways and means by which an explosive charge could be placed as required.

During this period Wallis also carried out experiments. These experiments were carried out at the Road Research Laboratory at Harmondsworth, an organisation that had been heavily involved with military matters since the outbreak of war. They also had considerable experience in building models for predicting explosive effect and Wallace had discussed these problems with Dr William Glanville, the Director of the laboratory. Essentially scaled down models were made of the main German dams (and one in Sardinia) and explosive charges were placed against them to ascertain the amount of explosive required to breach each wall.

At the same time as these tests were taking place, Barnes Wallis prepared a paper entitled “A Note on the Methods of Attacking the Axis Powers” which he finalised in March 1941. 100 copies were circulated in military and political circles. The outcome being the formation of a committee entitled the Aerial Attacks on Dams Committee to take his suggestions further.

After the War, Barnes did not stop designing and inventing. He carried on until he was forced to retire, at the age of 83, and even this did not stop him. He had ideas for swing-wing planes, such as the Swallow, hypersonic aircraft and other modifications and improvements for the air industry. Barnes also invented the non-misting, glassless mirror which is made out of unbreakable and non-flammable polyester. One of these mirrors was even sold to Buckingham Palace!

Barnes received a knighthood for his work and service to his country in 1968. He was also presented with a £10,000 government award which he gave to his old school and made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Family Life


Barnes married Molly Bloxam on St George’s Day 1925. He was sixteen years older than her and they were step cousins. They had four children, Elizabeth, Christopher, Mary and Barnes and also adopted Molly’s sister’s children when their parents died. His own four children are photographed with Barnes’ sister Annie at the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Barnes Wallis’ work at his childhood home.

They spent most of their life living in Effingham. Barnes’ children soon grew up and had 20 children of their own to create an extensive family. Barnes used to eat three spoonfuls of porridge and eight prunes for breakfast and always ate cold rice pudding when he got home. He was certainly eccentric and definitely a genius.

Barnes died on 30th October 1979, at the age of 92, and his obituary appeared in all of the major newspapers. His funeral was held at St Lawrence, Effingham on the 3rd November. A memorial service was also held a year later at St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the Prince of Wales. His contribution to the engineering world will always be remembered.