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Bruntons and the Origins of Raf Wires

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NickForder View Drop Down
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    Posted: 22 Jun 2009 at 10:42

Bruntons and the Origins of Raf Wires


Bruntons made wires for aeroplanes as soon as flying began. At first these were the ordinary round tie-rods, produced like bicycle spokes by swaging.


About 1909 John Brunton introduced the first streamline or lenticular wire and offered it to the War Office, but it was not accepted, and he did not take out a patent as he had no faith in them and believed that they were merely a means by which competitors would be able to copy his invention after incorporating a slight modification. Instead he believed in giving products registered trade names. Thus when drawn galvanised wire was introduced it was registered as Bruntonised Wire. Unfortunately not even this was done with the Streamline Wire, thus allowing the Royal Aircraft Factory to re-invent it in 1912 as Raf Wire.


However, the RAF approached Bruntons at Musselburgh to produce the wires. The original  Streamline Wire had been made by drawing through a split die, but in 1912 Raf Wires were produced by rolling. These wires were lenticular in section. The true Streamline or Fishback Section Wires were not made by Bruntons until 1917-1918, and later on for Schneider Trophy aircraft.


Bruntons supplied tie rods, wires and cables for the Vickers built HMA1 Mayfly. At the behest of Vickers duralumin wires were drawn by Bruntons, Vickers having secured the formula for this aluminium alloy. However such wires were little used as it was discovered that steel offered a better weight for strength ratio.


Bruntons went on to manufacture all the cables and wires for the British built airships, including the R34, R100 and R101. Indeed virtually all the aircraft and airship wires produced in Britain during the Great War were made by Bruntons. The only others were made by Arthur Lee & Sons of Sheffield, who undertook manufacture for a short period only.


John Brunton was taken for a flight by Geoffrey de Havilland while visiting Farnborough, the idea being the suggestion of Mervyn O’Gorman.


Bruntons, as the only firm in Britain manufacturing Aeroplane Wires, was approached by the Air Ministry (sic) to make the fittings for the wires also. This involved light engineering, and the investment in capstan lathes and machinery for cutting screw threads on the end of the wires. The old Seamill, previously purchased by the company for the manufacture of piano wire, was re-opened to house the machinery for making fork joints etc. Screwing the wires was undertaken in the Wire mill itself.


The pin of the fork joint had a head at one end and a hole for a split pin at the other. In order to reduce the machining work needed, a headless pin was developed which was simply cut from wire and fixed with two split pins. This design was approved as a temporary measure, as it speeded production, but was abandoned later. A new stamped from steel sheet fork joint was designed and patented as the ‘B-R’ joint, after Bruntons and Jack Rathband who made the first examples.


Women were employed to work in the Seamill. This was not a new phenomenon for Bruntons, as women had long since been employed in wire drawing and rope work. However, the increased female workforce, including many women with middle and upper class backgrounds, necessitated the employment of a female Welfare Supervisor. The first holder of this post was Miss Paxton Brown, a forceful lady with a reputation of bossing everyone, including the Managing Director. The Welfare section called for a canteen to be built at Seamill, part of which was for the workers and part for staff and visitors.


The Aeronautical Inspection Directorate was responsible for ensuring quality control, and one of the inspectors, a Mr Kego, joined the company after the war to become the Manager of the Seamill. Other inspectors included Mr Macey from the Admiralty, and a Mr Baker from the India Office. Brunton’s established their own quality control department after the war.


A new 100 ton testing machine was purchased and installed in a building which also housed the Shape Wire Department (ground floor) and Fine Wiredrawing Machines (upper floor). In 1916, however, this entire building was destroyed by fire. The cause was traced to a spark from an arc lamp falling on an oily wooden floor, but there were rumours of sabotage. The police were called and one of the employees was arrested at the end of the shift as a suspected spy. The test facilities were replaced, in 1917, by a newly constructed Research Laboratory. Newly employed staff included Miss Scobie BSc, who was in charge of the chemical work, and a Mr Kirkwood who was responsible for the mechanical testing. For this Kirkwood was given a female assistant. A number of medically unfit men were employed also. Professor Goodman, from Leeds University, was attached to the Research lab for a year or two undertaking research work for the Admiralty. Dr McWilliam, of Sheffield University, worked at the Lab for some six months after retiring from the Tata Steelworks in India.


A volunteer unit known as the Civic Guard was formed in Musselbrugh, and this organised offered its services to help with night shift work.


Gordon Elvidge joined Bruntons from the Royal Aircraft Factory (in 1917 ?), and succeeded Kego as manager of the Aero Department.


Other wartime work included a sub-contract from the Government Factory at Enfield Lock for 100 000 rifle cleaning roads and the manufacture of wire for field telephones, insulated with a coating developed by Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh. Ropes were made for the boom across the Firth of Forth, anti-submarine nets for the Forth Bridge and other sites, and bombproof nets were made and fitted by Bruntons for Buckingham Palace. Paravane cables were developed in conjunction with Professor Haigh of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, which was the beginning of a mutually beneficial working relationship which produced the Haigh-Robertson Wire Fatigue Testing Machine. Roberston, Haigh’s assistant working at Bruntons, later became head of the Admiralty Research Station at Rosyth.


Large streamline wires of up to 7/8th inch diameter were in production for Vickers Vimy and Handley Page bombers at the end of the war, and provision was  made to manufacture wire up to  1 ¼ inches should these be required for larger aircraft.


The postwar depression in the aircraft industry resulted in the Seamill manufacturing cinema projectors and sparking plugs for car engines.


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