In the same boat — 60 years on…

One of the pleasures of scouring The Engineer’s 150-year-old archive is unearthing the many parallels between past and present.

The material we will soon publish to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary year sometimes seems to come not just from a different era, but from a different world. But often the most striking aspect of  The Engineer of yesteryear is how the big challenges remain the same, we’ve just got better at meeting them.

Here’s an example. The challenge is to build a submarine able to stay under water for long periods, move stealthily among the enemy and strike with deadly effect.

There was understandable excitement in The Engineer of 6 July 1945 about its invitation to inspect the U-3008, a captured German U-Boat of the Type 21 Class. The Type 21 was the very latest U-Boat in the Nazi fleet. Only a few had been built by the time of the German surrender, though 200 had been ordered, and by general agreement the vessel seen by The Engineer was the most advanced submarine in the world at the time.

‘There are many things which make the mouths of British submarine officers water,’ admitted the magazine’s report of its visit. ‘It may be a hard saying, but in the forcing house of war German designers have solved problems which we have long considered insoluble. It is curious, too, to notice that the German solutions are so frequently produced by simplicity and a ruthless reversion to first principles.’

The Engineer went on to list some of the innovations that made the Type 21 so effective. A novel battery arrangement, a unique hull section, a streamlined outer skin and, last but not least, a highly effective air-intake system called ‘the schnorkel’ which, the magazine noted, ‘turned out to be nothing more than the adaptation of a principle used by everybody each time they pull a lavatory plug!’

In 2006 The Engineer is back on-board the world’s most advanced submarine, but this time it’s one of ours. Of course, the new Astute Class makes the Type 21 U-Boat look like an antique in many respects, not least its nuclear power plant.

But the story of clever design and the ingenious integration of state-of-the-art technology is familiar. Both are engineering triumphs of their times.

The loudest echo across the 60 years between the two articles, however, says much about the eternal lot of the submariner. The Engineer of 1945 noted ‘the discomfort and lack of privacy which has always been considered the price of service in submarines of all navies’.

Astute’s director of engineering confirms that, in this respect, little has changed, despite the efforts of its designers to make the vessel as comfortable as is practical (it will be the first UK attack sub with a berth for each crew member). ‘On-board conditions are austere. It’s not built for comfort, it’s a military asset,’ he said.

Further proof that it is the sacrifices of people, not advances in hardware, that run unchanged through the history of warfare.

Andrew Lee, editor