The people behind the inventions

The worldwide impact in the power generation industry made by people associated with the Willans Works engineering site at Rugby is shown by its archives, being catalogued at Warwickshire County Record Office.

Peter Willans, the co-founder of the Willans & Robinson company that opened the works in 1897, was crucial in the firm’s initial success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially with his patenting of the central valve engine in 1884. This gave Willans & Robinson an early lead as innovators and by the 1890s Willans’ engines were driving almost 70% of the turbines generating Britain’s overall electricity output. The company took orders from all over the world and expanded into producing steam electric locomotives, steam turbines, and motor car parts. It also built a boiler manufacture site at Queensferry in North Wales but this was a short-lived venture which wasn’t a success.

Portrait of Willans & Robinson co-founder Peter Willans

Portrait of Willans & Robinson co-founder Peter Willans – CR4031/3/71 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The other co-founder was Mark Robinson who helped set up Willans & Robinson in 1880 at Thames Ditton in Surrey to manufacture high-speed steam engines using Willans’ design for river launches. The firm also built the boats as well for a short time and this then led to the production of boat disengaging gear invented by Robinson in 1881 for the Royal Navy and others.

Portrait of Willans & Robinson co-founder Mark Robinson

Portrait of Willans & Robinson co-founder Mark Robinson – CR4031/3/59 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

One vital area where Willans & Robinson led the way was the standardisation and therefore interchangeability of parts, which meant that replacement parts could always be held in stock if needed and could be fitted straightaway.

Other important figures who worked for the company and successors such as English Electric and GEC included Edwin Gilbert Izod, who started as Assistant Test Engineer at Rugby in 1905 before becoming assistant to the Managing Director and helping with the development of steam turbines at Rugby. He also invented a machine to test the strength and resistance of materials and this test is still an industry standard today. One of his Izod impact testing machines was on display at the Willans Works site until the 1950s when it was presented to the Rugby College of Technology & Arts. It is now on loan to the Birmingham Museums & Arts Gallery and is currently housed at its collections centre, which is usually open on the last Friday of every month and has its annual open day on 12 September.

Izod later moved to South Africa and the Willans Works archive includes a letter written by his father The Rt Hon Lord Craigton (Jack Nixon Browne) giving details of his father’s work after leaving Rugby and his involvement in the mining industry.

The Izod impact testing machine

The Izod impact testing machine © Alain Foote (image used by kind permission of Rugby College and Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

Also associated with the Willans Works was aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer Geoffrey de Havilland, who became an apprentice at Willans & Robinson in 1903. His report noted that he had been a satisfactory pupil, was a fair time-keeper and applied himself steadily to his work. He showed considerable ability and that it was probable that he would make his way in the engineering profession.

Another apprentice was Baron William de Ropp who was at the company in 1914. Although from a Prussian family he became a naturalised British subject and left Willans & Robinson to join the Royal Flying Corp to fight in the First World War. He later worked in Germany as the representative of a British aircraft company and became close to leading Nazis, including Adolf Hitler. This contact meant that he was able to pass on valuable information to MI6.

The archive material also includes references to Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. Tests on prototype engines were made by Whittle’s Power Jets company at the British Thomson-Houston (BTH) works at Rugby in 1937 before moving to a safer BTH site at Lutterworth. BTH was a rival company to English Electric (as part of AEI within the GEC group) and had opened a works in Rugby a few years after Willans & Robinson. It became a sister company in 1968 when GEC took over English Electric. Whittle and his design team later moved back to Rugby in 1940 and made use of larger space available at Brownsover Hall. A larger test site was built at Whetstone in 1943 and this location also became a site for English Electric, GEC, and later Alstom.

Frank Whittle memorial sculpture in Rugby

Frank Whittle memorial sculpture in Rugby © Gary Collins