Lawrence of Arabia and a World Record

John Spurr

T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) on his Brough Superior motorcycle. He collaborated with Edward Spurr on a high-speed-boat design.

Telling this story about a world record and Lawrence of Arabia is proof again that fact is stranger than fiction. It started with an e-mail from Canadian John Spurr, who had noticed my name on a magazine masthead (no known relation), inquiring, perchance, if I might be interested in reviewing his father’s “autobiographical narrative,” A Ship, a Dream and Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia?

The British soldier who in the 1920s joined Arab forces and led a successful attack—riding camels no less—on the Turk-held city of Aqaba. Peter O’Toole portrayed T.E. Lawrence in the popular movie Lawrence of Arabia. Now who, with any modicum of curiosity, could not be intrigued by the implied connection of this near-mythical character to ship design?

I replied, “Sure, send me a copy.” To which John Spurr readily agreed, cautioning that it would take him some weeks to schedule the snowmobile trip 20 miles across frozen lakes to the nearest road and post office from his off-grid home in the Yukon Territory.

John’s father, Edward Spurr, was a mechanical engineer born in England in 1907. Among his many accomplishments were developing and patenting the “elliptical wing” employed later on the Spitfire fighter airplane; working on the “bouncing bomb” developed to destroy German dams; a jet engine; and two types of high-performance powerboats on which he teamed with T.E. Lawrence, by then calling himself T.E. Shaw, to shield himself from the notoriety of his desert military campaigns during World War I against the Ottoman Empire. In the 1930s, as war clouds portending World War II gathered over Europe, Shaw envisioned a high-speed navy ship that would tilt the balance of sea power in Britain’s favor. Assigned to the Royal Air Force, Aircraftman Shaw was functioning as a liaison between the RAF and the British Power Boat Company, where Spurr was employed.

Working after-hours on this independent project, inspired and prodded by Shaw, Spurr determined that in order to break the limits of the “square cube law” limiting performance of planing boats, he must explore lifting the hull above the water—utilizing ground or surface effect.

John Spurr

Empire Day, on her epic run September 8, 1938,

“The basic hull would take the form of an aerofoil section with a straight bow,” he wrote, “not a V-shaped one, and so be capable of developing appreciable air lift when under way. The centre of gravity would be engineered to be over the main planing surface. An integrated and streamlined engine-transmission-propeller system would be installed at the centre of gravity location, and a dagger-shaped rudder blade would be mounted as far aft as possible, under the auxiliary planing surface…. The balance of forces about the centre of gravity of the boat would be identical in principle with that of a flying boat just before take-off.”

Eventually, in the mid-1930s, 69 models were made and tested. For the prototype, Spurr designed a “torsion bar suspension system” incorporating “two full-depth, girder-type keelsons which ran along the length of the hull.” Hull construction was a sandwich whereby two sheets of light alloy formed the skins over a 3 (76mm) “ultra-lightweight, expanded-rubber panel.” The rudder design was a high-aspect-ratio elliptical blade to get “rid of eddy-making end-effects of high resistance at the tip, later applied to the Spitfire.”

Drawing on his automotive background, Spurr “invented a low-drag, engine-integrated, fully streamlined, power transmission system” bolted to the flywheel housing and protruding through the hull to mount the propeller. In ways it was a forbear of the saildrive—an outboard motor leg protruding through the hull.

John Spurr

Empire Day with her crew on Lake Windermere (Spurr at center).

On September 8, 1938, Empire Day broke the existing world speed record for this class with a run of 73 mph across Lake Windermere. But Spurr’s elation was short-lived. Breakdowns of many sorts, from the propeller to driveshaft to transmission, stalled the project. Shaw had died three years earlier as a result of an accident with his “beloved” Brough Superior motorcycle. Then the storm clouds materialized in all-out war, and Spurr’s entreaties for government funding fell on deaf ears.

He died in 1998, in California, leaving this remarkable memoir as an intriguing footnote to the long story of evolutionary boat design. His descriptions of Lawrence of Arabia, the archeologist, writer, diplomat, warrior, and engineer fascinated with boat and ship design, are a very engaging bonus.

Edward Spurr, 163 pp.,

—Dan Spurr