Barnes Wallis became a household name after the hit 1955 film The Dam Busters, in which Michael Redgrave portrayed him as a shy genius at odds with bureaucracy. This simplified a complicated man. Wallis is remembered for contributions to aviation that spanned most of the 20th century, from airships at its start to reusable spacecraft near the end. In the years between he pioneered new kinds of aircraft structure, bombs to alter the way in which wars are fought, and aeroplanes that could change shape in flight. Later work extended to radio telescopy, prosthetic limbs, and plans for a fleet of high-speed cargo submarines to travel the world’s oceans in silence.
For all his fame, little is known about the man himself – the confirmed bachelor who in his mid-30s fell hopelessly in love with his teenage cousin-in-law, the enthusiast for outdoor life who in his eighties still liked to walk up a mountain, or the rationalist who dallied with Catholic spiritualty. Dam Buster draws on family records to reveal someone thick with contradictions: a Victorian who in his imagination ranged far into the 21st century; a romantic for whom nostalgic pastoral and advanced technology went together; an unassuming man who kept a close eye on his legacy. Wallis was last in a line of engineers who combined hands-on experience with searching vision. Richard Morris sets out to locate him in Britain’s grand narrative.