At look at the engineering genius’ life by Bill Gunston

Bill Gunston’s book reveals Fedden to be one of those unusual heroes who grow in stature as you learn more about them. He may not have had much of a sense of humour, but how hard he worked and drove those around him and, by the 1930s, how deeply he cared that Britain be able to take on the growing German menace that his travels abroad had alerted him to. (To an extent, Fedden was used by Nazi propagandists, who made a point of showing off their technical and manufacturing advances to him. However, unlike the similarly treated and impressed Lindbergh, Fedden most emphatically did not rush home to say we should lay down our arms in the face of such a powerful potential adversary.)

It was as an automotive designer that Fedden first made his mark. He was made the chief engineer of Brazil Straker at the age of 22, so respected were his early efforts at light car design. The firm built aero engines in WW1, which led Fedden and his great partner, and detail designer, Butler into that arena. They took their epoch making Jupiter air cooled radial engine design with them to what became Cosmos Engineering. When Cosmos collapsed in 1919 as a consequence of failed dealings with White Russia, the engine concern was bought at a bargain price by the reluctant Bristol Aircraft Company, pressed into doing so by the government of the day.

As Gunston paints the picture, the White family directors of Bristol Aircraft were not technically minded and they mistrusted Fedden, whose quest for perfection and seemingly inexhaustible energy led to involvement in all aspects of manufacture, from apprentice training to sales. As regards engineering matters, they were in no position to fault him, but his wider activities were seen to threaten their authority and, perhaps, challenge their management expertise.

The trouble was that Fedden was right so much of the time. The radial engine family sired by the Jupiter was such a huge success that he became, reputedly, the highest paid engineer in Britain. When his great royalty income based on a 1920 agreement was challenged on the eve of WW2, he voluntarily handed back more than £200,000.

The Jupiter series were all four valve per cylinder poppet valve engines, like so many of today’s car engines. From the late 1920s Fedden became preoccupied, or even obsessed, with the sleeve valve. A deceptively simple idea intake and exhaust flow being controlled crank driven, ported sleeve between piston and cylinder wall (instead of all those valves, springs, pushrods and cams) the sleeve valve was so very nearly impossible to manufacture correctly that Roy Fedden was probably the only man on Earth who could have driven a team to make it work. When he did, Bristol rewarded him with the sack. Even as his engines helped win the war, this great man was cast adrift.

Having served as a technical adviser, notably to Stafford Cripps, Fedden again set up shop as an engine designer, postwar. However, Roy Fedden Ltd expanded too quickly and took on too many diverse projects, including an air cooled, radial engined car, to survive long. Rather, Fedden’s great legacy created, it might be noted, in the teeth of opposition from the aircraft manufacturers was the Cranfield College of Aeronautics, now a university.

Originally published in 1976 by the Royal Aeronautical Society as By Jupiter, the revised and expanded Fedden is a super read. It has been described to me as Bill Gunston’s best book, an opinion I’d not differ with. The icing on the cake with the new RRHT edition is an absolutely outstanding selection of illustrations especially the big, sharp black and white photographs selected from Rolls Royce’s archive at Bristol by Peter Pavey. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in the personalities or the technicalities of aviation’s piston era. Philip Whiteman.