Childhood & Early Life
Barnes Wallis was born on September 26, 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire to Charles Wallis and Edith Ashby. He was the second of the four children born to the couple.
When young Wallis turned two, the family moved to New Cross Road in London where his father practiced as a doctor. In 1893, he contracted poliomyelitis, a fatal disease that left him crippled.
Since a young age, Wallis was interested in creating things. Along with his brother, he made paper toys for his little sister at their workshop.
Academically brilliant, he received his education from Christ’s Hospital school. At the school Wallis developed an affinity for mathematics and science, and decided to become an engineer.
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Upon leaving school in 1905, Wallis commenced his career for Thames Engineering Works, a ship engine building firm. He apprenticed there until 1908.
In 1908, he joined John Samuel White’s shipyard in the Isle of Wight as a marine engineer. Ambitious and futuristic, Wallis left his job in 1913 and instead found employment at Vickers, a company that dealt with airship and aircraft development.
Trained as a marine engineer, Wallis knew nothing about airships and air travel. Despite being ignorant, he soon equipped himself with knowledge about airships and air travel. Meanwhile, in 1922, he took a degree in engineering via the University of London External Programme.
When World War I broke out, Wallis was briefly unemployed as Admiralty refused expending money on airship development. He decided to serve the army but was recalled by Vicker’s airship development team
In 1930, Wallis involved himself in the development of R100. His career feat of this time includes the first use of geodetic design in engineering and in gasbag wiring. He helped in the building of the then largest airship ever designed. He also assisted John Edwin in the structural designing of R100.
Wallis moved to the Vickers aircraft factory at Brooklands. Therein, his geodetic design was employed in all the pre-war aircraft designs of Wellesley, Wellington and Warwick in fuselage and wing structure.
When Second World War broke out, Wallis was appointed as the assistant chief designer at Vicker’s aviation section. He soon realized the need for strategic bombing to cripple the enemy’s ability to start war. For the same, he penned a paper, ‘A Note on a Method of Attacking Axis Power’.
Wallis suggested that the quickest way to defeat the enemy was to destroy its industrial base. No factories would mean no war supplies and hence no war. To implement his plan, he researched and found Ruhr to be the most important industrial base for Nazi Germany.
Wallis came up with the idea that bombing dams would quintessentially serve the purpose of disrupting industrial base. Breaching of dams would lead to a powerful supply of restrained water that in turn would destroy all things in its path.
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Working on his idea of bombing dams, he developed a drum-shaped, rotating bomb that would bounce over the water, roll down the dam's wall and explode at its base. This would lessen the risk of aircraft damage and increase the range of the bomb.
Impressed by the idea of bouncing bomb, the Air Force gave the green signal to Wallis. They ordered Wallis to prepare bombs for an attack on Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the industrial area of Ruhr in Germany. The bomb was codenamed ‘Upkeep’.
The Dambuster raid, named Operation Chastise, took place on 16th and 17th of May, 1943 by the specially created 617 Squadron of Royal Air Force. Two dams, Mohne and Eder, were breached and caused serious damage to German industrial base and disrupted hydro-electric power. Though the physical impact of the Dambuster raid wasn’t as Wallis had expected it to be, it however shook the Axis Forces psychologically.
Following the success of the bouncing bomb, Wallis came up with ‘Tallboy’ and ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. While the former weighed at 6 tonnes, the latter was 10 tonnes. They were used on strategic targets such as V-2 rocket launch sites, submarine pens, large civil constructions and the German battleship Tirpitz.
At the end of Second World War, Walllis returned to Brooklands as Head of the Vickers-Armstrongs Research & Development Department. He dedicated his latter half of the career in designing futuristic aerospace projects such as swing-wing technology, supersonic flight and so on.
In the 1950s, Wallis came up with a rocket-propelled torpedo, HEYDAY, which was powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide. He designed non-misting glassless mirror made out of non-flammable and unbreakable polyester. In 1955, he acted as a consultant for the building of the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia.
The better part of the decade of 1960s was dedicated to developing ideas for ‘all-speed’ aircraft. He proposed an aircraft that would be capable of efficient flight at all ranges from subsonic to hypersonic.
Personal Life & Legacy
Wallis first met his future wife, Molly Bloxam during a family tea party. The two hit it off instantly. Though Bloxam’s father forbade her from courting Wallis, the two remained in touch through letters. The couple soon became inseparable. They tied the nuptials on April 23, 1925.
The couple was blessed with four children, Barnes, Mary, Elisabeth and Christopher. Additionally, they adopted Molly’s sister’s children after they became orphans.
He breathed his last on October 30, 1979, in Effingham, Surrey, England. He was buried at the local St Lawrence Church.
For his remarkable contribution as an inventor and engineer, Wallis has been commemorated vastly. He has public houses named after him. Furthermore, a building in Nottingham Trent University bears his name. His statues, busts and plaques adorn numerous sites across the globe.
The Yorkshire Air Museum has a permanent display of the Dambusters raid. It comprises of a replica bouncing bomb and the catapult used to skim stones to test the bouncing bomb theory. To keep the visitors well-informed, a brief history of Wallis’ work is also displayed.
There are roads, drives and squares named after Barnes Wallis. He has been the fictional character of several books. Interestingly, in golf, a shot that bounces over the surface of a water hazard has been named Barnes Wallis