The Steel Fish Story

Before There Were Submarines…

This brief inscription, ‘I K BRUNEL – ENGINEER’ has immense meaning for those who understand. Isambard Kingdom Brunel stood shoulder to shoulder with the famous 19th century engineers, Nikola Tesla, Edison, Bell and Otto. His achievements during his working life were nothing short of spectacular, yet he was happy with this simple epitaph.

It has been a life’s goal to be worthy of the title – Engineer.

First Steps

Looking back, my first steps as an engineer could not have been much better. Before the prospect of a career in personal submarine design had even entered my mind, I was offered a 4-year thin sandwich student apprenticeship at Rolls Royce Aero Engine Division in Derby. Known locally as Royce’s (he was the engineer) the company was deep into a massive development program to bring the first generation of fanjet engines into service with the world’s airlines.

The program started with 6 months in machine training school. The philosophy was that you can’t be expected to design anything unless you know how it will be made. True. It was here that I learned to work a mill, lathe, internal/external/surface grinder, learned to measure things accurately and how to properly use a file. We even took a sand-casting course and beat red hot things on an anvil. To this day I thank the instructor that taught me to sharpen a drill.

Rolls Royce and the RB211

During the industry attachments there was an example of every cutting-edge technology just a few minutes’ walk away. Royce’s had the first production line of CNC milling machines in the UK. We had spark erosion, electrochemical machining, lost wax casting, blade forges, gear hobs and broaching machines. In the composites facility they were busy making the ill-fated carbon fibre fan blades. It is a little-known fact that Royce’s invented carbon fibre at their Hucknall facility. It was these blades that caused their brief bankruptcy, held long enough to re-negotiate the contract with Lockheed. This was where I was on the day bankruptcy was declared. The CF blades could not stand a bird strike or heavy hail. The new titanium blades would be heavier and so would not meet the agreed spec. The development of this new generation of fanjets severely taxed the big three, Rolls Royce, Pratt and Whitney, and GE but they all survived it.

The final step was drawing training school, using a pencil. Seems so archaic now, but the first two submarines were designed on a board with pencil.


The next assignment was at the RRND, in the nuclear department, as a process engineer. The task was to develop welding procedures for the assembly of the reactors and associated steam raising plant. The welders kindly taught me to weld so I had a better understanding of their problems. The plant was a perfect replica of the Westinghouse submarine reactor plant in the US. We had everything there, even electron beam.

British Rail Technical

In 1978, after 6 years at ND, I went to British Rail Technical centre-suspension department. At the time BR were developing the APT (advanced passenger train) which tilted into the corners to maintain a speed greater than the track was designed for. The job was computer-aided random vibration analysis. In those days, it was done with a shoe box full of punch cards. You ran your test, which produced these cards, which you then took to the girls in the computer block. If you were very lucky, the next day you would get a vast print out or, not so lucky, a very thin one with ‘features un-supported, execution suppressed.’

The Marlin Kit Cars

From 1970 to 1978, I built 6 one-off special cars (as well as a 12m steel sailing yacht hull). Eventually, I made a car that people said ‘you could sell those’ and it turned out to be true. An 1/8th-page advert in a custom car magazine and Marlin Engineering was up and running. I chose to move to Plymouth to start the company. The sale of the yacht hull provided me with the cash for more tools and a brief period of unemployment. By 1994, when my wife Gill and I sold the company, we had built over 2,000 kit cars. To this day, I get the Marlin Owners Club magazine through my door 6 times a year and some people are still driving the same car they built over 35 years ago.