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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Derby: The Power of Rolls Royce & The Magic of the Merlin.

Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2007

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Derby: The Power of Rolls Royce & the Magic of the Merlin:

`The Merlin engine was used to power both the Spitfire & Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War'

Derby was (and still is) the `home’ of the famous Rolls Royce Engineering Company who designed, built and developed the Merlin engine that was used to power both the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War.

The Magic of the Merlin:

The Merlin, best remembered for it’s role in the Battle of Britain and probably the only aero engine ever to become a household name, was developed in the early 1930’s by Rolls Royce and proved to be a major defining factor in the allied victory. Thus, it could be said in a figurative sense at least, that victory in the Battle of Britain had an authentic `Made in Derby’ stamp on it!

So where and when did it all begin?

The Rolls Royce success story began during the early years of the twentieth century when a rich man and a poor man got together and amalgamated their `modern’ ideas to manufacture and sell automobiles.

The rich man was Charles Stuart Rolls, son of the wealthy Lord Llangattock, who began the business by selling imported French cars to well-heeled friends in London around the turn of the century.

`Rolls of the world's greatest engineering companies, was founded'

The poor man, Frederick Henry Royce had started his career at the age of ten by selling newspapers on the streets of Manchester. He later pieced together the elements of a technical education and built a factory to produce dynamos and heavy electrical equipment. In 1904 he built his first automobile – a ten horsepower machine which came to the attention of Charles Rolls. The two men met and struck up a business deal; Rolls agreeing to sell the cars manufactured by Royce, and thus Rolls-Royce, later to become one of the world’s greatest engineering companies was founded. They produced an elegant high quality automobile in 1906 named the Silver Ghost, and it’s success around the world made Rolls-Royce famous.

When World War One broke out in 1914, Rolls-Royce received requests from both the Admiralty and the War Office to build aircraft engines, and in March 1915 Henry Royce produced a twelve cylinder, 225 horse-power water-cooled engine which he named the Eagle. Later versions of the Eagle produced 360 horse-power units which were used in twin-engined bombers and in the Vickers Vimy, which in 1919, became the first aeroplane to fly across the Atlantic.

Rolls Royce went on to produce more than sixty per cent of all British-built aircraft engines used in the First World War, including the Falcon, the Hawk, and just after the war in 1919, the Condor.

During the inter-war period the Air Ministry contracted Rolls Royce to build water-cooled, in-line engines, which were chosen by the Ministry designers for the clean aerodynamic nose they allowed on high-speed fighters, and by the late 1920’s the Eagle had been replaced by the more powerful Kestrel, with versions ranging from 500 to 745 horse-power.

By the early 1930’s Rolls Royce were developing a whole series of engines based on the design of the Kestrel; the Peregrine, the Vulture, the Griffon, and in 1932 the Merlin, another in a long line bearing the names of birds of prey – an Arthurian concept which held resonances of magic and power, an engineering magic created only by the power of Rolls Royce!

The Merlin first flew in 1935 and later that year it powered the prototype Hawker Hurricane for its first flight, and in March 1936, the first Spitfire, famously designed by R.J.Mitchell.

Throughout the war the Merlin was to undergo extraordinary development, and power was almost doubled over a five year period, mainly through ever-improving supercharger design, eventually reaching well over 2,000 horse-power. It was the introduction of a more powerful two-stage supercharger to the Merlin that produced the massive leap in performance of the later Spitfires, and which proved the deciding factor in the battle for air supremecy in the skies above Europe.

The Merlin was the subject of a major industrial war-effort with over 150,000 engines in 52 different versions being produced by Rolls Royce at Derby, Crewe and Glasgow, by the Ford Motor Company in Manchester, and by Packard in America.

Every night the `Derby Hum’ – the drone of engines on Rolls Royce test beds - could be heard over and around the city, and on clear nights as far north as Duffield!

Like it’s feathered namesake, the Merlin, when attached to a Spitfire, became a bird of prey which specialised in killing whilst in full flight.

Merlins helped the Allies win World War Two, and they not only powered the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters that won the Battle of Britain saving us from a Nazi invasion, but they also powered the four-engined Lancaster bombers which carried an 11 ton bomb-load and powered the American P-51 fighters that won air supremecy above German cities.

The Merlin will always be remembered for it’s role in the Battle of Britain, for this was a contest between engines as much as between aircraft and pilots. No other engine made anywhere in the world at the time could have given the Spitfires and Hurricanes the power and stamina to meet the Daimler-Benz powered Messerschmitts.

It is evident that victory in the Battle of Britain resulted in the United Kingdom surviving to provide the base for the Anglo-American assault on the Second Front, and ultimate victory in the war with Germany.

Thus modern Europe was born over the fields of Kent and the South Coast of England in 1940.

After the war, Lord Tedder, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, who had been in charge of the development of aircraft and engines during the period of battle, attributed the British victory to three predominant factors: the skill and bravery of the pilots, 100-octane fuel, and the Rolls Royce Merlin engine. There can hardly be a more powerful testimony to the social and human impact of first-class British engineering – home made in Derby!

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