GREAT DEVONIANS: Keeping the world shipshape

Image of the tank at Torquay (operational between 1872 and 1886)

Image of the tank at Torquay (operational between 1872 and 1886) - Credit: Archant

In the first of a series of biographies for Devon Life about famous Devon figures, IAN L. HANDFORD, Chairman of Torbay Civic Society, looks at the extraordinary life of William Froude, a most unlikely man to be connected with the development of the world’s railways and ships

Portrait of William Froude (1810-1879)

Portrait of William Froude (1810-1879) - Credit: Archant

William Froude left the scientific world mathematical calculations that still ensure all ships at sea are safe. Countries of the world have duplicated the methodology he created in Torquay.

The eighth child of Archdeacon Robert Hurrell Froude, William was born at Dartington Parsonage in 1810 and having developed a passion for sailing would soon question why currents and waves affected his boat on the Dart, an early sign of an amazing career to follow.

Schooled at Buckfastleigh, he went to Oriel College in 1824 as an unlikely scientist, having been expected to enter the Church. He excelled at maths and had a passion for engineering, but was also a practical joker. An agnostic, he left us his favourite phrase “Our Sacred Duty to Doubt” - proving here was a man never destined to walk the cloisters.

He graduated in 1832 and worked with the respected railway engineer Henry Palmer, the two creating scaled model boats to test why water resistance affected barges, or in scientific jargon, ‘calculated the fluid friction per foot’. A first step in William’s extraordinary career.

On leaving Palmer in 1836 and joining Isambard K. Brunel, our enthusiastic, inventive engineer and visionary assisted Brunel to construct the Great Western Railway Exeter to Plymouth line. His marriage produced three boys and two girls and it was his second son Robert Edmund who was destined for a 30-year career as Superintendent of the Admiralty Works at Haslar, Gosport.

William, meanwhile, was working on the West Somerset, Dorset and North Devon surveys and was residing at Cullompton, where his first major thesis emerged, concerning the importance of railway radius curves. But, with his father’s health failing, in 1846 Froude moved the family to Dartington.

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A lifelong friend of Brunel, Froude undertook many experiments using scaled down model hulls. He tested the effects of water resistance on ships and propellers and later even why Brunel’s latest ship - the Great Eastern - “rolled”.

This genius inventor created many instruments and gadgets - a dynamometer, a metal scraper able to clear rust from the inside of Devon’s cast iron pipes, the rubber seal used on the doomed South Devon Atmospheric Railway and a farm post able to resist the weight of animals –though his major interest was always ships. Now using square root charts he would prove the efficiency of movement at sea and why ships rolled.

After losing his father and also Brunel in 1859 the family moved to Elmsleigh Road, Paignton, where Froude’s first model ship testing tank was constructed. Models were pulled along the attic tank using a rope which passed through a hole in the brick wall with a weight attached. These early experiments were repeated when a larger tank was constructed at his new home at Chelston Cross.

Following “Froude’s Law of Comparison” – published in 1861 - a presentation was given to the Institute of Naval Architects although it still took seven years before his ideas were accepted by the scientific community. In 1868 he was invited to join the British Association Committee when “Stability, Propulsion and Seagoing Qualities of Ships” was on the agenda.

Now the Admiralty decided to finance a huge testing tank at Old Mill Road, Chelston, adjacent to his home. This tank became the world’s first official Admiralty testing tank and today is replicated in 300 countries. The works - The AEW (Admiralty Experimental Works) at Torquay opened in May 1872 and remained in Torquay for seven years while William and son Robert undertook tests on every Naval ship launched using models 12 feet in length.

After the Admiralty moved the facility to Haslar on 3 February, 1886 the Torquay connection ended. Today a private company - QINETIQ – carry out identical tests on every Royal Naval vessel or RNLI boat launched. Their largest hydrodynamic tank is 270 metres long and 5.5 metres wide, and the company now employ 13,000 people worldwide offering many new services.

The Froude father and son methodology today assists rocket propulsion, the nuclear industry and even space flight calculations.

Next month - the tireless volunteer worker behind numerous institutions being founded that still exist today.