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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reading List: Slide Rule

Shute, Nevil [Nevil Shute Norway]. Slide Rule. Kelly Bray, UK: House of Stratus, [1954] 2000. ISBN 978-1-84232-291-8.
The author is best known for his novels, several of which were made into Hollywood movies, including No Highway and On the Beach. In this book, he chronicles his “day job” as an aeronautical engineer and aviation entrepreneur in what he describes as the golden age of aviation: an epoch where a small team of people could design and manufacture innovative aircraft without the huge budgets, enormous bureaucratic organisations, or intrusive regulation which overcame the spirit of individual invention and enterprise as aviation matured. (The author, fearing that being known as a fictioneer might make him seem disreputable as an engineer, published his books under the name “Nevil Shute”, while using his full name, “Nevil Shute Norway” in his technical and business career. He explains that decision in this book, published after he had become a full-time writer.)

This is a slim volume, but there is as much wisdom here as in a dozen ordinary books this size, and the writing is simultaneously straightforward and breathtakingly beautiful. A substantial part of the book recounts the history of the U.K. airship project, which pitted a private industry team in which Shute played a major rôle building the R.100 in competition with a government-designed and -built ship, the R.101, designed to the same specifications. Seldom in the modern history of technology has there been such a clear-cut illustration of the difference between private enterprise designing toward a specification under a deadline and fixed budget and a government project with unlimited funds, no oversight, and with specifications and schedules at the whim of politicians with no technical knowledge whatsoever. The messy triumph of the R.100 and the tragedy of the R.101, recounted here by an insider, explains the entire sordid history of NASA, the Concorde, and innumerable other politically-driven technological boondoggles.

Had Shute brought the book to a close at the end of the airship saga, it would be regarded as a masterpiece of reportage of a now-forgotten episode in aviation history. But then he goes on to describe his experience in founding, funding, and operating a start-up aircraft manufacturer, Airspeed Ltd., in the middle of the Great Depression. This is simply the best first-person account of entrepreneurship and the difficult decisions one must make in bringing a business into being and keeping it going “whatever it takes”, and of the true motivation of the entrepreneur (hint: money is way down the list) that I have ever read, and I speak as somebody who has written one of my own. Then, if that weren't enough, Shute sprinkles the narrative with gems of insight aspiring writers may struggle years trying to painfully figure out on their own, which are handed to those seeking to master the craft almost in passing.

I could quote dozens of lengthy passages from this book which almost made me shiver when I read them from the sheer life-tested insight distilled into so few words. But I'm not going to, because what you need to do is go and get this book, right now (see below for an electronic edition), and drop whatever you're doing and read it cover to cover. I have had several wise people counsel me to do the same over the years and, for whatever reason, never seemed to find the time. How I wish I had read this book before I embarked upon my career in business, and how much comfort and confidence it would have given me upon reaching the difficult point where a business has outgrown the capabilities and interests of its founders.

An excellent Kindle edition is available.

Posted at July 12, 2011 23:22