Tuesday, 2 April 2013

R. J. Mitchell's Work Ethic

Mitchell’s output was not only considerable but, from the start, it was also varied.  During his first few years as the newly appointed Chief Designer and with only three previous years’ experience in the aircraft industry, he was responsible for the design of a passenger-carrying prototype (the Commercial Amphibian) which required an innovative retracting undercarriage design, a fleet spotter (the Seal) with the added complexity of folding wings, beginning the design for a replacement for the large World War I Felixstowe coastal reconnaissance flying-boat (the Scylla), and the modification of an earlier company machine for the 1922 Schneider Trophy contest (the Sea Lion II).
This varied output, which was extended to landplanes in 1924 was described by Arthur Black, Mitchell’s Chief Metallurgist, as follows:  
             In the sixteen years after he became Chief Designer at the age of twenty four, he designed the incredible numbe [of twenty-one machines] ranging from large flying boats and amphibians to light aircraft and from racing planes and fighters to a four engined bomber.  This diversity of effort and its amount marks R. J. Mitchell for the genius he was.
It must be obvious that such an output implies that a capacity for hard work was one of Mitchell's character traits – versatility and lateral thinking had to be allied to a determination to see a concept to its successful conclusion – and on time. The most evident proof of Mitchell’s drive was the series of Schneider Trophy racers from 1927 to 1931 which, although at the forefront of technical knowledge, were delivered in time and out-performed rivals in terms of both speed and reliability.
   Arthur Black has recorded how Mitchell would appear in the workshop each day [he was also Chief Engineer] and approve or require alterations before moving on to the next item; and Harry Griffiths,  who joined Supermarine as a laboratory assistant in 1929, has left the following observation in connection with his position as Chief Designer:
When a problem was being discussed in the drawing office he would stand by the drawing board listening to all the arguments as to what should be done – on these occasions he had the habit of rolling a pencil back and forth on his hand (it was always a very black pencil!) –  and when he had heard enough he would push everyone aside, draw a few lines on top of the existing drawing saying, 'This is what you will do,' throw the pencil down and march back to his office.
Also, Alan Clifton has recorded how Mitchell, as Chief Designer, would visit the drawing office and study the drawing of some detail, his head on his hands, thinking rather than speaking.  Questions would produce discussion amongst a small group which would gradually gather round until some conclusion was reached; Mitchell would then move on to another board to repeat the process.
   Ernest Mansbridge, who joined Clifton in 1924 to work on stressing, remembered Mitchell for a similar method of dealing with a design problem by calling in the leaders of various areas and getting them arguing among themselves.  He would listen carefully, making sure that everyone had said what he wanted to, and then either make a decision or go home and sleep on it.  Joe Smith, who became Chief Designer after Mitchell, put the matter in this way: ‘his work was never far from his mind and I can remember many occasions when he arrived at the office with the complete solution of a particularly knotty problem which had baffled us all the night before’ – in fact, Mansbridge expressed the suspicion that, with many problems, Mitchell's discussions were, basically, to check that he had not overlooked anything and that, otherwise, he had already reached a decision.

It perhaps ought to be mentioned that his very pragmatic willingness to listen to all points of view, however, was not matched by a readiness to bear fools gladly.  Most accounts mention his shortness with those who did not get his message quickly enough. For example Joe Smith said that  ‘R.J. was an essentially friendly person, and normally even-tempered, and although he occasionally let rip with us when he was dissatisfied with our work, the storms were of short duration and forgotten by him almost immediately – provided you put the job right’. 
   Nevertheless, Joe Smith also remembered that he could also be charming with ‘an engaging smile which was often in evidence and which transformed his habitual expression of concentration' [my italics]. Mitchell's son has left an anecdote which relates to this "concentration": having been shown round his father's workplace he was asked how he had got on; to the reply that he had enjoyed it, the father rejoined, 'I don't care a damn whether you enjoyed it, I want to know what you learned'.
   Harry Griffiths has also supplied a reminiscence of Mitchell which encapsulates some of his apparently contradictory character traits and foibles:
 ‘R J’ was human like the rest of us – he could be moody but in general he had a pleasant personality and I always had the impression that he was somewhat retiring yet he was decisive and when necessary could be very firm.
He had a small personal staff consisting of a clerk, two typists and an office boy – they were all loyal to him and understood his moods. When any unwanted visitor asked to see him he would tell his staff, ‘I’ll see him in ten minutes’ and they knew that this meant ‘Get rid of him!’ It worked well until a new typist arrived and the visitor was ushered in after precisely ten minutes! It only happened once.
I’ve already said that his office was immediately over the laboratory and occasionally he would come downstairs to see Arthur  [Black, Chief Metallurgist] and would always stop and ask how I was getting on. Sometimes these visits would be to ask the boss if he fancied a game of golf and off they would go for the afternoon. On another occasion he came and played merry hell because the office was untidy, although in fact it was no worse than usual.
   Mitchell’s condition after the operation for bowel cancer in 1933 exacerbated his testiness but, unfortunately for those working with him, he had kept his condition private. But even before then, it was not unknown for him to contemptuously flick aside a drawing that did not satisfy him and even to tear it into shreds if it particularly displeased him; and his secretary, Miss Vera Cross, reported that he had no time for those who did not measure up to his standards.
   On the other hand, Shenstone reported that he found Mitchell ‘very gregarious – when out of the office’ and, indeed, in his younger days, he was part of a high-spirited management group not unknown for "serenading" a rather pompous business manager in the early hour of the morning; and there are various later accounts of practical jokes, including Mitchell’s dismantling of a colleague’s bed when staying at a hotel and his setting fire to another’s notes whilst the latter was giving a speech. It is also recorded that, when his brother visited Southampton, he took him out for a drink at a pub frequented by Supermarine workers, who were not at all disconcerted by the arrival of their boss. His lack of ‘side’ and, outside work hours, his readiness to be ‘one of the boys’ was complemented by his taking an active part in the firm’s sporting activities – particularly tennis and cricket. 
   But, as Smith said, work was never far from his mind and his wife had to become accustomed to his talking at one moment and the next being miles away; she soon learned to contact his personal secretary when preoccupation with some design problem led to the evening meal at home going cold. Practical matters such as money were left to her and she would hand out cash for his personal use and replace it as required. And as Vera Cross,  grew into her job as his secretary, she soon organized his very imperfect filing system, learned how to prevent interruptions, and also relieved him of the main burden of correspondence, which he hated – although she had often to wait beyond office hours before letters were signed.
Apart from seeking a mental break from the inevitable minutiae of aircraft design or the later demands of his becoming a director of the firm by taking time off for golf, on a nice afternoon he would also slip away for a few hours’ sailing. This absenting himself is not necessarily at variance with previous accounts of his fierce work ethic but must surely have been a necessary part of the other-worldliness that Sir Robert McLean, the managing director of Vickers (Aviation) spoke of: bearing in mind his well-known  concentrated stance at his drawing board and the intuitions that pre-figured his many ground-breaking designs, Sir Robert summed up Mitchell’s complex character thus: ‘He was a curious mixture of dreams and common sense’.

More information on R.J.Mitchell, including photographs, and an extended bibliography is included in my R.J.Mitchell at Supermarine; Schneider Trophy to Spitfire (details below) which also provides material for wider reading, grouped according to specific areas of interest:

Advance Notice – 
R.J.Mitchell at Supermarine; Schneider Trophy to Spitfire.
This is a much expanded, completely up-to-date, second edition of my earlier work with 50% more photos, and 25% more text – 380 pp. instead of 250. There are general arrangement drawings of Mitchell’s 21 main aircraft types which flew, as well as 40 other drawings. There are 24 photographs, featuring or including Mitchell, as befits the first fully detailed and, I hope,  definitive account of the man and his work at Supermarine.
To obtain a copy at pre-publication prices, please enquire via the contact form in the sidebar.

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