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Concorde: A Designer's Life: The Journey to Mach 2

Concorde: A Designer's Life: The Journey to Mach 2

by Ted Talbot

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Concorde flew for 34 years and is still unmatched. Much has been written about the aeroplane itself, but relatively little about the people who designed it. This book is partly an autobiography and encompasses some of the team, several technicalities and a good measure of the lighter side of the job, especially during the period of actual design. Ted Talbot, who


Concorde flew for 34 years and is still unmatched. Much has been written about the aeroplane itself, but relatively little about the people who designed it. This book is partly an autobiography and encompasses some of the team, several technicalities and a good measure of the lighter side of the job, especially during the period of actual design. Ted Talbot, who began his career at BAC as an aerodynamicist and became chief design engineer, has combined the technical narrative with personal and family reminiscences to remind the reader that engineers have a life too. The path to Mach 2 was bumpy, with threats of cancellation and opposition from the Americans and the Russians, but this generally indicated to the Concorde team that they were on the right path!

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The History Press
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A Designer's Life: The Journey to Mach 2

By Ted Talbot

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Ted Talbot
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9632-0



In my bachelor days, college, work and women had sometimes been difficult to combine and good chances had been missed. Whilst comparing tales of misery with fellow lodger Trevor Buxton, a hydraulics engineer, we had been gloomily discussing the situation. Our landlady, a rather delicate old dear, joined us. After her admonition 'never to get married too quickly' she abruptly changed course and advised us how to go about it – but suggested that possibly we should not 'go all the way'.

'The local vicar's wife has just started a club for people like you,' she said. 'Why don't you go down there on Tuesday and see what it is like?'

Go down there we did, but it did not look too promising.

Trevor was immediately commandeered by the vicar's wife and taken to one side of the hall. I was directed to the other. My group looked and sounded less promising than those opposite, so after a short session I excused myself and wandered across to the other side.

The vicar's good lady had by now latched onto Trevor and had been explaining that 'This was a Church of England organisation', and then enquired about his religion.

'I'm a Methodist,' said Trevor.

'And what are you?' she asked me as I arrived on the scene.

Not being party to the previous conversation I gave the obvious answer:

'I'm an aerodynamicist.'

It was not received with the awe and wonder normally expressed by the female sex.

But since that time things had changed beyond my wildest dreams when, at a blind date, a slim, golden-haired vision in a black dress had appeared at the top of a set of stairs in a midwives' digs. Things progressed well – very well! Soon it was time to venture forth to meet the new relatives-to-be.

The Morris Minor Tourer had been steered carefully along the route outlined by the Welsh railway porter at Fishguard Station. The first section past the ticket office and down the length of platform 2 to the level crossing between the two platforms was fairly easy. Platform 3 was a different kettle of fish as there was a difficult right-hand turn behind the waiting room, made worse by a carefully sited trolley at the apex of the turn. By swinging out towards the track, thereby frightening Ann and – I had to admit – myself, we completed the turn without losing face or paint. The car now rested in slings high up above the dockside, whilst the foreman in charge of loading the ferryboat sorted out his loading problems in a game akin to chess, but played with cars and cranes on the boards of a ship's hold. Roll-on-roll-off ferries had not yet arrived in the Principality.

The sight of 100 per cent of our capital swinging by on a single rope 40ft above the oily surface of the Irish Sea made me concentrate upon Ann's legs as they climbed the gangway steps onto the deck. They were a lovely shape, firm, soft and sensational – the legs, not the steps.

Stepping up the slope aggravated the sore feeling around the area where my appendix used to be. A recent operation to remove some stitches left by the first surgical procedure, done five years previously, had been only partially successful. At odd intervals the nether regions were still giving birth to hard black nylon stitches, put there contrary to hospital laid-down procedures one late night by 'one of the world's experts' practising the new keyhole surgery.

The Morris Minor, swinging gently to and fro high above the open hatch giving access to the second lower deck, was then lowered through the hole and turned to face the required direction before coming to a standstill on the baulks of timber now covering the lower hatch. It was then driven out of sight.

Having breathed a short prayer of thanks to the God of Crane Drivers we both retired to our respective cabins (although this was the late fifties we had been born well before the war, when things were done differently in some areas of life) to get ready for dinner.

Rising refreshed, we breakfasted in the early hours of a beautiful Irish morning in the safety of Rosslare Harbour. The ship had docked against the mole whilst the passengers were asleep and the car was already standing amongst the others on the quayside. The plan was that owners were to sit in their own cars and drive them onto a row of rail flatcars. These were then pushed by a small steam-driven shunting engine for their journey along the length of the mole to the landing stage.

There is always a first time for everything and this was the first time we had driven along a row of railway flatcars to the end of the train, to be followed in single file by a mainly rundown selection of Coventry's output. Once all cars had been loaded, the train set off on the short journey along the mole. Being first, there was nothing in front except a pair of buffers, the engine being at the other end. Sitting in a car on top of rolling stock, whilst being pushed by a steam locomotive was a new experience enjoyed by most of the drivers, judging by the way they hooted when starting and joyfully indicated right using hand signals at the junction of the tracks. When the train came to a gentle stop against the buffers of the unloading ramp, I for one realised that my right foot was pressed hard on the brake pedal. So, most likely, were the right feet of those behind us. The short ramp in front of the car was lowered and after starting the engine we drove slowly onto solid ground.

'I'll just give the car a rest,' I said. 'It's not used to this kind of thing.'

This was Ireland and time meant little. We parked and took stock of the activity surrounding us. Cars were manoeuvring, being loaded and departing. Some, like ours, were just sitting there.

Also just sitting, but this time on a bollard on the quayside and dressed in a long fur coat, was one of those travellers who had come on the first shuttle for foot passengers. She, too, was viewing the scene, but with an air of impatience. A young man who turned out to be her son came out of the nearby telephone box shrugging his shoulders whilst holding his hands, palms outwards.

'My son,' said her ladyship aggressively, turning towards the open window of the Morris Minor, 'has been trying to ascertain the whereabouts of a hire car reserved by us a month ago.'

'Oh – what is the problem?' I asked, feigning interest.

'There appears to be some sporting activity in Dublin and the car has been taken there! How do they expect to do business?'

It appeared that our new acquaintances had expected to be met by a hire car, but had chosen the wrong firm and the wrong week. Today, as they had discovered, was the day of the All Ireland Hurling Final in Dublin, and everything on two or four wheels had been mobilised to take the sporting populace to the stadium. Hurling, as played by the Gaelic male, is probably the fastest game played on grass. It is similar to hockey, but played with greater passion, to very few rules, the players being armed with semi-fragile war-clubs. Waterloo is reputed to have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the whole campaign would have been over much more quickly if it had started at a hurling match in Ireland and carried on, using the same weapons, in Belgium.

The telephone conversation had indicated that anyone with any sense would have hired the car for the day before, and then kept it until the morrow – or better still, would have started their journey from somewhere else.

So we, of the Morris Minor, did the only decent thing. Once the car had got over its experiences on railway platforms, in slings, ships and on railway trucks, we loaded lady bountiful and the heir apparent into the back seats. As the boot was full of our own luggage, the new passengers' luggage was placed on top of the passengers themselves – no mean feat considering that the tourer was the two-door version. With the rear tyres flattened by the load, they were then driven to the hotel in the main square and off-loaded with all haste, before anyone could find out if there were any rooms free. Our car made all haste out of the town and into the welcoming countryside.

Compared to England the roads were a delight, practically empty except for the occasional wandering animal. It must be a helluva match, this All Ireland, we thought! It was the summer of '59, one of the driest on record, and the sun had turned the Emerald Isle into delicate shades of dusky browns, pale greens and yellows, but had not detracted from its appeal to the traveller. However, there was one drawback which had the effect of slowing down progress until one got used to the scheme of things: the road signs.

Each sign was in two languages, Gaelic and English, with the former uppermost. It was necessary, therefore, to concentrate on the signposts as soon as they came within reading distance and to skim through the names, rejecting the top one and every other one to save time. There was only one consolation – the first part of the journey through Wales to Fishguard had been infinitely more difficult. There were places where it had been necessary to stop in order to compare every letter on the signpost with every letter of the name on the map, in order to pick the correct vowel-less glottal-stopper.

Nevertheless, the 40-mile journey to Kilkenny passed quickly with only a few brushes with the local fauna. Few of these animals appeared to have any regard for self-preservation, and certainly had no knowledge of the rules of the road. Only later did we discover that the human inhabitants shared the same scant respect for the Highway Code.

Beyond Kilkenny, the Marble City, the road narrowed and twisted through hedgerows and farm entrances. A creeping suspicion began to form in my mind that the locals either had prior warning of the probable line of our approach, or that they had always, as part of history, stood gossiping by the roadside gates. Perhaps, giving them the benefit of the doubt, they were whiling away the time between morning Mass and the midday meal, whilst awaiting the start of the hurling match. Nevertheless there was a good proportion of smiling faces breaking off from intense conversations to bend forwards, peering towards the car windows, the owners smiling and waving their hands in greeting.

At last, about 4 miles beyond the town, we came to a gate leading to a whitewashed, stone-built farm. After passing through the open gate and entering the field, we crossed on the farm path to the white pillars marking the entrance to the yard. On the right stood the farmhouse shouldering a large stone barn. On the opposite side was a gated entrance to the orchard and between the two, on the remaining sides of the square, stood the low-roofed storerooms and pens.

We had arrived.

The arrival interrupted a work process being carried out by three players. The principal, in an advisory role, having a large sturdy figure supported by braces and a wide leather belt, and being protected from the elements by a flattish trilby hat, appeared to be directing work by jabbing in the direction of various items with the stem of a short briar pipe, the contents of which were held intact by a steel ventilated cover. The other two were obviously taking the part of the workers by the token of the tools they leaned on and the advice to which they paid lip service. One was Ann's brother, Donal; the other was their 'man', Willie.

As the car entered the portals and drove to the centre of the yard, the three pairs of eyes followed it until it stopped. The pipe was then returned to its proper place so as to enable him to see more clearly, and the users of the shovels leant upon these more firmly.

They took stock of one another, the owner of the pipe, John Wall, and the owner of the car. They both knew that they were to be faced with severe problems. The owner of the pipe's problem was that in the next few days he was going to be asked whether his daughter should be allowed to marry not only a Protestant, but an Englishman to boot. The problem for the owner of the Morris Minor was that he was going to be the one to do the asking.

Any likely tension was circumvented by a wisp of feminine perfection stepping across the yard from the direction of the house. Eileen, the eldest of four, had been despatched to Bristol on a fact-finding mission as soon as the news of the impending nuptials had broken. On her return her verdict had apparently settled any doubts.

'I'll marry him myself if she doesn't!' was her conclusion.

She now came towards us with a welcoming smile. There were four sisters in the family, all in the classical mould. Mary was a theatre nurse in America, and Ann became a midwife in England, as did Margaret initially. Mother, sadly, was not now with them.

With a shy kiss on the cheek the women were ushered into the stone flagged kitchen for tea and gossip. The men followed, the talk being turned to the forthcoming match wherein the local team, Kilkenny, were up against their near neighbours Waterford. Arguments were passionate and somewhat one sided, as they all supported the local side.

After the midday meal silence fell as the radio was switched on and the match commentator lit up the airways with the pungent brilliance of descriptive verbiage that few outside Eirin can match. At the farm a simultaneous translation and unsolicited comment service was at hand for the visitor who had not the slightest idea of the game, or the rules.

This lamentable omission was to be rectified the next weekend with an introduction to the incredibly fast game of hurling. From this visit it was possible to gain two lasting impressions – the first being the picture of two men walking up and down opposite touchlines with a bundle of clubs under their arms, handing them out to any team member who had broken theirs on the clubs, shins or heads of the opposing team. The second was of the volunteer ambulance men who walked around the outside of the spectators, not, as it may have been assumed, for their own protection, but in fact to attend to the higher casualty rate in the outer ring of spectators, who were disadvantaged by having the sight of the oncoming missile obscured until too late, when the row of heads belonging to those standing in front of them ducked aside. Or so I was told.

However, in the more structured arrangements at the arena in Dublin, events were coming to an end and Kilkenny had won. It was time to go into the city to meet the crowds and celebrate. In the main street we found a fair crowd lining the main Dublin-to-Waterford road waiting to celebrate victory with the returning supporters of the victorious team and to exchange good natured catcalls and banter with the supporters of the vanquished as they passed through on their way to celebrate defeat.

'Are the pubs open at this time?' I asked, as Sundays in those days had different licensing laws.

'Do you think that they would miss an opportunity to celebrate?' said someone. 'You can tell the pubs that are open by the men standing at the front doors telling people to go round the back! We'll go in this one.'

Inside there was an air of celebration, and the smell of cigarettes and stout. After an interminable round of introductions the serious business continued. As in any such company the volume of talk rose in proportion to the volume of stout consumed, until it was brought to a sudden end by an insistent shushing. Looking around, expecting to see someone being propped up to make a speech or give a song, no cause for the call for silence was visible to the untrained eye.

'What's up?' I asked.

'Shhhh!' came the reply.

A whispered explanation said that the barman had given the signal that the Gardai (Police) had just gone into the kitchen to check that the law was being upheld in terms of no signs of unlawful assembly and, presumably, no lowering of the specific gravity of the beer.

'Why the silence?' I enquired again.

The informant's face showed that only an Englishman would ask such a daft question.

'When they get back to the station they will be asked if they checked the pubs and heard any sounds of drinking on their rounds – and they can say no without having to go to confessions in the morning!'

Throughout the holiday it was possible to gradually get used to the subtleties of the Irish sense of humour, but yet almost impossible to sort out fact from fiction. I started to believe in fairies.

The week following our arrival passed very quickly. The cowsheds were wired for light, the family Ford Popular was inspected and tuned, and a new lintel was cast in place over the main door of the drystone barn. The wooden lintel over the door of the drystone barn had nearly given up in its fight with the elements and was allowing gravity to triumph. There was an urgent need to renew it before the rest of the facade followed.


Excerpted from Concorde by Ted Talbot. Copyright © 2013 Ted Talbot. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ted Talbot began working at Bristol Aeroplane Company as an aerodynamicist, working up to chief design engineer. He worked on major projects from Concorde to Airbus, and is now retired.

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