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I had experienced the soul-destroying routine of a cooped-up existence on board the Baffin and was at that point trying to get away from it and so I turned down the opportunities for quick money which isolated postings up north offered, and decided to settle for less lucrative but more stimulating possibilities. There were some advantages to staying with the government however, a good health plan was important in a country where there was no national health service and a minor consideration (if I ever decided to stay) was a pension which was effectively portable so long as one changed jobs within the Federal Government umbrella.
I followed up from time to time on the application that I had put in to DND but got vague replies. Finally I got a notice of an interview and showed up at the appointed hour at the offices of the Civil Service Commission. These job interviews were conducted with a representative from the department which had the vacancy and one from the commission, the honest broker. The DND man was the Senior Scientific Officer supervising the Range Scientific Officer position for which I had applied. He was a Brit and knew exactly what my qualifications and educational history meant in terms of what he needed.
Among his many questions was: "How's your French? You know you'll be working in Quebec Province where they speak precious little English". I had taken French through eight years of school and four years of university and although I had not actually used it in anger so to speak, I reckoned that I could get by, and because he had been through the same mill, so apparently did he. I got the job. Later I found out that the fact that I could operate in French had done the trick. The only other applicants for the position were anglophone Canadians who spoke not a word of French. That and the fact that there had been no francophone applicants struck me as rather odd at the time, but it was symptomatic of two major national problems in Canada in the 1950's as I subsequently discovered.
Now that I had landed a shore job I felt the pressure was off for a while. My workmates at the Hydrographic Service were not entirely surprised, some of the older ex master-mariners who were almost all at the TO-2 grade after many years of service, expressed their resentment in no uncertain terms that a twenty three year old "Limey" immigrant had managed to leapfrog over them and get a TO-3 job only nine months after landing as a "Noo Canadian". I could well understand their frustrations and was not particularly bothered, although today I suppose any immigrant on the receiving end of comments like that would probably qualify for a hearing under the Charter of Human Rights, so fearful have we become of upsetting immigrant sensibilities or being politically incorrect in any way whatever.
By now it was early May and at long long last the interminable winter suddenly gave way to spring. I could hardly believe how quickly all the apparently dead vegetation suddenly became resurrected. The brown grass suddenly started to green over and bleak trees sprouted chlorophyll green leaves and within a couple of weeks there was - a heat wave, with temperatures in the nineties and tulip and daffodil blossoms in the many parks around the city. During that time I formally left the Canadian Hydrographic Service and joined the department of National Defence Inspection Services. I have since regretted many times turning down the opportunity to go to the arctic on board the Baffin in 1958, it would have been quite an experience to have seen the north and its people at that time before the substantial development which has happened since then.
Adapting to a new milieu
The building which housed the headquarters of Inspection Services was only a mile or two away from the dingy temporary building where I had spent the winter and was on the site where the National Gallery now stands. The architectural contrast with the temporary building was striking because this one was formerly the government printing bureau and every wall and floor was about three feet thick and quite incredibly permanent, (It was demolished in 1967 and it took the contractor about twice as long as he had estimated to do the job). The environment however was a galaxy away from the assembly line atmosphere in which I had spent the last few months.
Inspection Services I discovered was a postwar offshoot of the "Joint Inspection Board of the U.K. and Canada", which had been established to monitor the wartime production of military supplies of everything from boots to bombs being produced in Canada for use by the allies during the second world war. I was introduced to Mr. L.W.C.S. Barnes, the dynamic individual who was in charge of the Proof and Ballistics Directorate of Inspection Services. Leslie Barnes was a dyed-in- the wool Brit who wore his Cambridge scarf with an air of defiance that was his statement to the world in which he found himself. He had been largely responsible for shaping the Proof and Ballistics Directorate in the first place and was a key figure in maintaining contacts with the much larger and better funded British counterpart organisations where new techniques and methods were under active development for testing conventional weaponry.
I spent the first couple of weeks or so soaking up the basics of the business in which I now found myself. The "proving" of guns I discovered was an important activity that went back at least to the time of Samuel Pepys the diarist, who made mention of it in his seventeenth century writings. The original impetus was to ensure that when a cannon was fired it would safely contain the enormous internal pressure and not blow up and do more harm to those deploying it than to the enemy it was aimed at. It turned out that three centuries later with weapons becoming ever more sophisticated and complicated, that the requirement was still very much alive and well and had broadened from the trial and error procedures of the early days into a major science involving many disciplines, including among others the development of electronic instrumentation, which was the reason that I had been hired on.
Inspection Services operated two proving grounds in the province of Quebec, one was at what had been Camp Valcartier, the embarkation point for Canadian troops going overseas to fight for Britain, the Mother country in the first world war, a highly contentious issue in Quebec province at that time. This place was some thirty miles north of Quebec City and was now the location of the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment, "CARDE", as well as the Inspection Services artillery and small arms proving ground. The other proof establishment had been set up in 1951 under the auspices of Leslie Barnes to cope with the inspection of weapons and ammunition being produced by Canadian defence contractors for the Korean war. It was situated half way between Montreal and Quebec City on a broad reach of the St.Lawrence river known as Lac St.Pierre. The name of the nearest town was Nicolet, its raison d'etre was clerical, it was the seat of the Bishop of the diocese of the region and boasted a rather modern and avant garde cathedral and had a population of less that two thousand.
The river was about three miles across at that point with the main shipping channel being close to the north shore where the town of Trois Rivieres (Three Rivers) is located. The primary industry there was then and still is the processing of vast amounts of wood into pulp and paper, causing heavy pollution of both the atmosphere (the acrid smell of the thiosulphate compounds carried for miles), and the water, which was brown with the discharge from the mills. The proof establishment was located on the south shore with exclusive access to (and control of) a large segment of the southern portion of the huge Lac St.Pierre for use as an artillery firing range. There was a ferry across the river to Trois Rivieres which was used by people who lived there to commute to the "Range" as the Proof establishment was always known, but it was subject to the vagaries of the weather, particularly fog, and most of the people who arrived from elsewhere chose to live in Drummondville, a textile manufacturing town some forty miles to the south, which had a population of about forty thousand. Two buses were provided by DND to enable people to commute to and from Drummondville.
I spent a lot of time studying the manuals of the various instrumentation systems which were being used to measure such things as muzzle velocity and was introduced to a whole new world of electronics such as counting circuits that I knew nothing about. I did a lot of reading from a series of monograph books published by McGraw Hill and picked up a lot in a short time. The Senior Scientific Officer, Arthur Heard, the one who had hired me, had worked in a similar organisation in the U.K. and had acquired much of the instrumentation from there. Most of it had been developed by A.R.D.E. (now R.A.R.D.E, the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment) and licensed for commercial manufacture to U.K. firms.
Some technical background
I discovered that there were all sorts of things that were measured in order to assess the performance of artillery and small arms weapons, but that the most important parameter is the muzzle velocity, the speed of the projectile as it leaves the business end of the gun. In a battle, artillery gunners use range tables which tell them at what angle to elevate the gun in order to hit a target at a given distance away and these tables are prepared assuming a certain muzzle velocity for the gun in question. Schemes to measure it go back to the 1800's. Before the development of electronic counting circuits and devices like photo tubes for detecting the shadows of projectiles passing overhead, it was very difficult to measure the velocity of a fast moving object like an artillery shell, because there was no way to measure with sufficient accuracy the time it took for the shell to travel between two points a reasonably short distance apart. To put that in perspective, the time for a cannon ball fired from an eighteenth century cannon to travel one hundred feet was less than half a second.
The standard method up until the second world war was known as the "Boulanger Chronograph". It consisted of two "screens", each made by winding a single piece of wire in a grid on a wooden frame, at a known distance apart. The one nearest the gun had its wire connecting a battery to a solenoid which held a metal rod suspended vertically, while the wire forming the second screen connected the battery to a second solenoid which held a spring loaded knife level with the bottom of the rod and ready to slam into it. When the gun was fired the shell passed through each screen in turn, breaking the circuits energising the solenoids. The first one released the metal rod which started to fall and the second one released the knife which slammed into the bar as it fell, cutting a mark into it. The time it took the shell to travel the measured distance between the two screens could then be found from the distance of the knife mark from the bottom of the rod. This was because the distance an object falls from rest in a given time can be calculated very accurately from first principles which have been well understood since the seventeenth century (Isaac Newton, Galileo and all that).
As a viable practical method the idea seems about as improbable as the internal combustion engine, but like the internal combustion engine it was amazingly reliable. Of course there were some tricks, for example the end of the metal rod in contact with the solenoid had to be coated with jewellers rouge to ensure a clean release. The time the knife took to reach the rod was accounted for by breaking both circuits simultaneously with a simple push switch in a separate operation before the gun was fired, causing the knife to make a "zero time" mark on the rod as it began to fall. The actual distance the rod fell corresponding to the time it took the shell to travel between the two screens was then the distance between this mark and the one made when the shell broke the wires in the second screen.
The advent of electronic counting circuits during the war revolutionised any application where it was necessary to measure small time intervals (less than a second), with an error of less than a percent or so. Obviously the measurement of gun muzzle velocities was a candidate and by the time I arrived on the scene the technology had advanced to the point where the time it took for a shell to traverse the distance between two "sky screens" was measured by an electronic counter to a resolution of one microsecond. The counters came in boxes about a foot high by eighteen inches wide and a foot deep and the readouts were small meters, one each for the six digits. This was a great improvement on the previous generation of counters which had neon lamp displays for the numbers 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128 and 512. The operator had to add up the numbers for which the lamps were lit to arrive at the time (in units of ten microseconds) which a shell had taken to travel the measured distance. The "sky screens" were the optical equivalent of the wire grids, with lenses focusing the light from a narrow region in the path of the shell onto a phototube which detected the shadow of the shell passing overhead. The one nearest the gun started the counter and the other one stopped it.
All of these instruments used vacuum tubes which were fragile and susceptible to vibration, this was a particular problem for the sky screens if the velocity of the shells was less than the speed of sound, because the shock wave from the shell would arrive ahead of it and trigger the counter prematurely. Much effort was expended in shock mounting the tubes in incredibly expensive and ingenious arrangements. In retrospect the vacuum tube era had almost nothing to commend it by comparison with the low powered compact solid state electronics that we have today. There were however two advantages that tubes had, they were not particularly temperature sensitive and they could withstand moderately high voltage spikes with impunity. Many has been the time since then when I have cursed the compact and sophisticated little solid state circuits for their inability to operate in any sort of hostile environment without being instantly fried by too much heat or too many volts.
Shades of Somerset Maugham
I started at the Nicolet Range following my "shakedown" period at the Ottawa headquarters and had my first taste of living in Quebec Province, which at that time was essentially owned and operated by the long time Union Nationale provincial government, led by Premier Maurice Duplessis, in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church. I lived in Drummondville where I took a room in a boarding house and did the daily forty mile bus ride to and from the Range, most of it over gravel roads. I actually quite enjoyed the rides in the summer and autumn, it took about an hour each way which was a good opportunity to read my weekly "New Statesman and Nation" to which I had a subscription, and catch up on news from home.
The staff at the Range consisted largely of anglophone managers and francophone working level and support staff. The technical specialists who formed the core group were the "Proof Officers", who conducted all the test firings, collated all the data and wrote the inspection reports. To my astonishment most of these people turned out to be retired British army officers from famous artillery regiments, and several had seen prewar service in India after graduating from the Sandhurst or Woolwich military academies. It was very odd indeed to find a remanent of the wartime and prewar British military establishment alive and well, cloistered away in a small and rather remote backwater of french Canada.
I was welcomed into their circle immediately, which included their homes de temps en temp, and it was like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel set in the far flung outposts of the "Empah". One or two were either terrible snobs, or had wives who were terrible snobs and bored stiff with the dead-and-alive environment in which they found themselves. No mess dinners, or friends with big country houses to go to, or even a local gymkhana, let alone Epsom or Ascot. They had all spent many years out of England over the sum total of their careers and it was almost a reflex reaction to club together to make life as bearable as possible, in which ever far flung outpost they found themselves,
Usually there were compensations like a local servant class, geared to the requirements of the residences of those posted from the Mother country, but in democratic Canada there was no such thing and the local pastimes were five or nine pin bowling, stock car racing and in the fall, murdering any four footed animal with horns who was caught roaming around in the bush (excluding domestic cattle-but not always). Each one of these retired officers had looked at his army pension and had done the arithmetic on how that would be supplemented by say ten years with the Canadian Civil Service, and had made the choice.
By and large the members of the "Poona Brigade" (as they were collectively known), for all their upper crust pretensions and often almost unwitting condescension toward the local francophones, pulled their weight. They had two redeeming qualities; they had all had the benefits of a prewar English education which included, coincidentally, mandatory french language training, (unlike the Canadian anglophone educational system even in the late fifties) and they were supremely good at what they did, with years of battlefield experience and professional training in the tricky science of gunnery, which was second to none. They truly were a breed which was unique in its time.
Colonel Malcolm Moir was a tall, lean, silver haired man with a weather-beaten countenance who had seen service in India in the late twenties as a young subaltern followed by active service in the war as a relatively senior officer. He was the Range safety officer among other duties and had a fund of stories to tell. One (which I hope was apocryphal) concerned a shell which had landed on the frozen surface of Lac St. Pierre and did not explode. It was later washed up on a shoreline where people fished and swam in the summer. One of the people who discovered it was employed as a cook in the canteen at the Range and he saw someone else unscrew the fuse from the shell and remove it, thereby rendering it harmless. He had been told that if he ever found an unexploded shell he should leave it strictly alone and notify the authorities immediately. In his zeal for following the rules to the letter he took the fuse from the man who had managed to disarm the shell without killing himself and screwed it right back in again.
Then there was Sam Attenborough, a heavy-set man in his late fifties who had had something to do with Coastal Command during the war. On first acquaintance it was easy to form the impression that this portly chap with the rather forbidding countenance and the fruity upper-crust accent was someone to be avoided. In fact he was the most unassuming and likeable member of the Poona brigade, despite the fact that as a former Brigadier he out-ranked them all by quite a margin. He was well liked by just about every one and treated everyone as an equal. His wife unfortunately found life in the dreary little town of Drummondville very tedious and ached to be back in England again.
A Lucky Break
By the greatest good fortune I had arrived just in time for the fifth (and last as it turned out) six week Proof Officers course. It was the brainchild of Leslie Barnes and it had been given on four previous occasions with considerable success, thanks to his organisational flair and many contacts. By this time the course had become internationally recognised and there were almost fifty participants in this one, from Canada the U.S. and Britain. In essence it was a very detailed and comprehensive study of all aspects of the manufacture and testing of conventional weapons and ammunition. There were lectures from most of the Poona brigade (and very professional and instructive they were too) and from some of the participants on particular aspects in which they specialised.
There were visits to the arsenals near Montreal where explosives such as nitroglycerine and Trinitrotoluene (TNT) were produced and poured into shells, and to others where the hardware for artillery and small arms weapons was manufactured. It was quite an experience to walk through the chemical plant where the ingredients were distilled and then combined to form the final lethal products and to see the incredible safety precautions which of course had to be rigorously enforced with no expense spared. It was also quite something to go through a place like the Dominion Arsenal near Quebec City and see the huge machines which stamped out discs of brass about six inches in diameter and three inches thick and then extruded them in a single motion into brass tubes about two feet long, which were then shell cases for a 4" naval gun. The heat generated in the process brought the temperature of the brass almost to its melting point.
One of the visits took the buses past the construction work being done to prepare for the St. Lawrence Seaway It was almost unbelievable that the incessant convoy of trucks which looked so tiny against the scale of the excavation that was being done, each carrying what looked like a teaspoonful of soil, could possibly ever finish such a herculean task. It was an engineering project of staggering proportions and certainly comparable to the building of the pyramids. The difference was of course that because of all those little trucks, it would be completed in a few years rather than decades or centuries.
Another interesting experience was to be cooped up in a bunker at the Proving Range in Valcartier with only a piece of six-inch armour plate between us and an antitank gun, which proceeded to fire an APDS (Armour Piercing, Discarding Sabot) round into the armour plate at almost point blank range. The plate leapt up on its mounting as the heavy tungsten carbide projectile, spinning like a top and travelling at nearly three thousand miles an hour, hurtled into it. The noise was incredible and everyone in the bunker then knew what it must be like to be inside a tank that got hit by one of these things, which was the object of the exercise. We went round to look at the damage and found the projectile, still nearly red hot from the impact, jammed into the very sizeable crater which it had made in the plate.
Another demonstration was the firing of a "bazooka" anti- tank rocket at a piece of four inch armour plate. The explosive it contained vaporised a copper cone in the nose of the rocket when it struck the plate. The resulting hyper-velocity jet of superheated metal vapour pierced a pencil-sized hole right through the four inch thick armour as if it had been a slab of butter. A truly astonishing thing to see, but one shuddered at the thought of what would happen to a tank crew on the receiving end of something like that.
These and other demonstrations were expensive to mount and would only be done for a large group of technical specialists taking a course like this one, which was why I was very fortunate indeed to have been on it. Every aspect of what I was going to be involved with (for the next few years as it turned out) was covered by the material we were given, I could not have had a better introduction to my new job.
One of the things I decided to do was to get a bicycle and although my conversational french was passable it did not extend to the more obscure parts of the bicycle. I gave myself a crash course with the aid of my old school English-French dictionary and made sure that I could reel off phrases like "Les balles de cousineau" (ball bearings) and "Le freinage" (brakes) and that I knew what handlebars were in french ("Le guidon", there is only one it seems). Thus educated I sallied forth to see what I could find (second hand) at a reasonable price. There was really only one bicycle shop of any consequence in Drummondville at that time and it did not take too long to zero-in on a suitable second hand Raleigh with a Sturmey Archer three speed. This was exactly the sort of bike which had been part of my upbringing and I knew every spring and every nut and bolt on it.
After a quick inspection I knew that it needed - guess what - a new ball race in the crank and some new ball bearings in the front forks, not to mention a set of new brakes, back and front. I so informed the proprietor in what I fondly imagined was impeccable french with all the right technical terms introduced with panache and aplomb. I was greeted with total incomprehension: "...les Quois?.." I repeated the carefully rehearsed litany with additional elucidation by way of gestures, pointing to each area as I referred to it. All was then revealed: "...Aaaaaah! les brakes! ....et les bearings!...pourquoi vous n'avez pas dit au commencement!.."
Unfortunately that vignette highlighted a fairly serious problem in Quebec at that time - the gradual erosion of the french language in general and the almost total replacement of perfectly good french technical terms by their english equivalents in particular. The reason was of course not far to seek, About ninety nine percent of manufactured goods sold in the province at that time were of American or British origin, much of them "assembled" in Canada (a paint-by-numbers operation in most cases), with absolutely no attempt being made to provide french translations of any of either the markings on the items (e.g. the controls on electrical appliances) or the manuals that came with them. The inevitable result was that the french language in Quebec was fast degenerating into a pattois of english nouns and french prepositions; "franglais" as it was sometimes called. This was exactly the fate that had befallen the state of Louisiana in the U.S. a century before and for exactly the same reason.
Quebec Province in the 1950's, an isolated and beleaguered
My first impressions of Quebec society in the late 1950's were that it bore a striking resemblance to the one depicted in the English nineteenth century novel "Tom Brown's Schooldays". The three professions were the law, medicine and the church, much as they had been in nineteenth century England except that in those days in England respectable alternatives for the sons of the well-to-do were the army (if the family could afford a commission), or the Indian Civil Service.
In every small hamlet in the area around Drummondville there was always an imposing church usually built of stone with no expense spared for the accoutrements (either inside or out), with an equally solidly built dwelling beside it in brick or stone, which was of course where the clergy lived. The other buildings clustered around it were usually modest clapboard bungalows with two or perhaps three small bedrooms. Drummondville itself boasted three large churches, built in the early 1900's and based on the European mediaeval architecture, complete with stained glass windows, trancepts, elaborate organ and choir lofts, and spires with belfries which rivalled the best to be found in English or European cities ten times the size of Drummondville. It also had several smaller churches built on a much more modest scale to accommodate busy families who lived in subdivisions. The religion needless to say was almost one hundred percent Roman Catholic and at that time all the tenets of that faith were practised with total compliance in virtually every community in the province.
There was nothing particularly wrong with that arrangement, indeed it had much to commend it. The people were family oriented with firmly rooted values and a clear sense of their role in the scheme of things. The weekly attendance at mass was a sort of spiritual catharsis and a contact point for the participants with the rest of the community. In that respect it was no different from the Anglican faith, or indeed many others that one could mention, it was just that the influence of the church in the predominantly agricultural province of Quebec was much more pervasive and controlling than that of say the Anglican church in England.
A rather amazing example of how that influence was sometimes undermined was the case of the great fire in the village of Nicolet which did a great deal of damage. The archbishop, in subsequent sermons given in the cathedral, made it plain that as far as he was concerned this was a case of divine retribution for the sins of the local populace in not being devout enough about such things as attendance at mass and so on. About four years after the fire there was a massive land slide and the first building to slide into the Nicolet river was the palace of the archbishop.
The church in all its endeavours had the unquestioning and willing cooperation of the state, the state in this case being represented by the Provincial Government of the day. It was led at that time by the ageing autocrat Maurice Duplessis, who had effectively run the province since the late 1930's. During that era he had been an admirer of the apparent success of the German model of National Socialism in solving Germany's economic problems and had flirted with it as a possible solution for the seemingly endless ravages of the great depression which had hit Quebec as hard if not harder than any other Canadian province.
The cosy alliance between church and state was no different from say that between the Anglican church and the Tory party in Britain, The difference here was that the same players had been running the show on both sides for more than twenty years, so that by the 1950's the natural alliance had become almost an oligarchy. By then Duplessis had led his right wing Union Nationale party to more election victories than anyone under fifty could remember and his word was virtually law in the province, which meant in turn that the Roman Catholic Church had an unusually powerful role in what was (on paper at least) a province of a modern secular state. The ruthless campaign against the Jehovah Witnesses by the Union Nationale government in the late forties and early fifties was a chilling reminder of just how powerful that influence had become.
A direct consequence of this state of affairs was that the provincial education system was essentially controlled by the church with no input or guidance from any secular group or faction. This in turn meant that every child in the province was educated according to a curriculum which reflected the priorities of the church and by the very nature of that institution such disciplines as science and technology were not only not high on the list, they were not even on it at all. As a result there was a vast over abundance of Avocats (Lawyers), Notaries, medical doctors and prelates, and an almost total dearth of scientists, engineers and other technical people.
This heavy emphasis on a classical curriculum at the expense of a modern science/business orientation was in my judgement one of the main reasons that living standards for the vast majority of Quebecois (with the notable exception of the Roman Catholic clergy and assorted politicians and their cronies) were substantially behind those of Ontario and most other provinces at that time.
Television and its impact on the language and culture issue
Quite apart from that problem however, there was the much more complicated and intractable problem of attempting to preserve the french language and culture practiced by five million people surrounded by a sea of more than two hundred million anglophones in the rest of N.America. The advent of television in the early fifties was both a blessing and a curse. Unrestricted access to English programming (much of it of American origin) relayed by the anglophone branch of the publicly funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, (CBC) was seen by many as a trojan horse, undermining the efforts to preserve the french language and culture in the province.
On the other hand Radio Canada, the francophone branch of the CBC, had no ready made programming material to use. One might ask why it would not simply buy ready made french programming from France. The answer was (as George Bernard Shaw said about England and America), that Quebec and France were "divided by a common language"; The equivalent soap operas and cops-and-robbers series from France were alien to the special brand of French culture which had developed in Quebec. As a result Radio Canada was forced to create its own material literally from scratch, using Quebec talent for both the creation and production of the various soap operas and documentaries and the artists who portrayed them.
This turned out to be an unprecedented unifying force for the province; for example everyone in every little village and farm could (and did) identify with the "Famille Plouffe", a weekly series reflecting the trials and tribulations of a typical Quebecois family. Not only was this a boost for the image the Quebecois had of themselves as a culturally different society, it was also a baptism of fire for Radio Canada, it forced them to develop the expertise, experience and pool of artistic talent necessary to generate independent made-in-Quebec television programming of all kinds, from soap operas to documentaries. Meanwhile the anglophone arm of the CBC continued to rely far too heavily on imported American programming (e.g. "Have gun - will travel", "Dragnet", "Life with Father", "Ponderosa" and so on) and failed to develop a comparable independent production capability reflecting the life and times of English Canada until many years later.
In my judgement the success with which Quebec exploited the new medium of television to consolidate and further its own cultural independence, coupled with the passive acceptance of American television programming in English Canada (thereby accelerating the never ending osmosis of American culture into it), was a significant factor in the renewed divergence between the French and English speaking peoples in Canada which was to escalate to a more serious level than it had ever been a decade or so later.
Keeping tabs on the quality of Canadian armaments
One of the major preoccupations of the Nicolet Proof Establishment at the time I arrived was the monitoring of the production of the solid propellant "grains" for the 2.75" air-to- air rocket. This weapon was a small rocket about three feet long and as its designation suggests two and three quarter inches in diameter. It was carried by Canadian fighter aircraft for use against other fighters.
One of my first assignments was to check the accuracy of one of the "temperature conditioning chambers" that we had to see if it could maintain a temperature of +165 degrees Fahrenheit plus- or minus 3 degrees. This was necessary because the firing tests that we did on the propellant grains for the 2.75" rocket had to be done on samples which had been stored at extremes of temperature to cover all possible combat conditions. The tests which I did involved being in there at that temperature for quite some time and I was amazed to find that I could in fact survive provided that I did not touch anything metal. If I did it would burn my flesh instantly.
The propellant grain was the fuel which drove the little rocket and it looked like a two foot long candle, two and three quarters of an inch in diameter, with a star-shaped hole down the middle. When the interior surface of the hole was ignited it burned with incredible speed (something short of an actual explosion), producing huge quantities of gas which propelled the rocket toward its target. The amount of gas being produced at any instant depended on how large the interior surface (alight and burning) was at that time. In order to keep this more or less constant as the "candle" was consumed, ingenious designs of the hole down the middle (where the burning took place) were invented. The star shape was pretty good; as the burning progressed from the inside, the interior points of the "star" were consumed, decreasing the burning surface area, but as the burn continued the hole got larger and larger and the burning surface area increased, offsetting this reduction, so on balance the burning produced a more or less steady flow of gas to propel the rocket at a more or less constant speed for the two seconds or so that the propellant lasted.
Our job was to fire a small number of these propellant grains from each production lot in a test fixture which recorded the gas pressure during the entire two second "burn". If more than a predetermined number wandered outside preset limits at any time during the test, then the whole production run would be rejected. This was a serious matter for the contractor, who stood to lose a lot of money if a production run were rejected. It became a ritual game between us; the government inspection authority whose responsibility it was to ensure that the armed forces had supplies that were up to snuff, and the contractor, whose responsibility it was to operate at a profit. Whenever we rejected a lot we had to prove that our instrumentation was faultless and demonstrate to the satisfaction of all concerned that comparable equipment used by the contractor (who naturally carried out parallel tests at his own plant) was wrong.
This led to much soul searching by the scientific staff on both sides, who were actually less interested in the politics and were genuinely concerned to nail down any discrepancies between their respective results. Basically the question boiled down to looking at every step in the measurement process to see where errors could creep in. The measurement process was essentially a two step affair; the gas pressure was sensed by pressure gauges which generated tiny electrical signals proportional to the gas pressure being generated by the propellant grain under test, two identical gauges were used for each test.
These signals were recorded by means of a dual oscilloscope instrument which sounds complicated but simply meant that the pressure signals caused bright spots on two miniature cathode ray tubes (CRT's, like TV screens) to deflect vertically with increasing pressure. A third even smaller CRT displayed the rapid vertical oscillation from a tuning fork oscillator which provided a time scale. A single camera with a motor driven transport moving film horizontally, recorded the vertical deflections of the three bright spots and produced a graphical photographic record of the pressure variation with time as recorded from the two pressure gauges. The piece of film was about a foot long and the pressure plateau as the propellant grain burnt, resulted in average deflections of about two inches for each of the two pressure gauge signals on the film record.
Some of the potential sources of error were (a) the calibration of the pressure gauges, how much pressure corresponded to how much vertical deflection on the film? Was the apparatus used to apply a standard pressure to the gauges to calibrate them suspect? (b) how accurate was the tuning fork which generated the timing signal? (c) Nitty gritty considerations such as: did the film expand or shrink in a non- linear way when it was being processed in the wet chemical developing and fixing baths? Did the temperature at which the tests were conducted (as low as -20 C in winter to +30 C in summer) have some bearing on the results?
The recording system to do all this was state of the art for 1958 and was manufactured by Southern Instruments Ltd,. of Camberley, Surrey, in the U.K. The top of the camera had a frame to which was attached heavy black material with sleeves so that hands could be slipped in to cut and remove each piece of film for development in an adjacent dark room. The whole assembly, the three CRT's and associated vacuum tube amplifiers and the camera, was beautifully engineered as a single mobile unit on castor wheels. The camera was particularly versatile in that the horizontal film transport could be removed and replaced by a drum with a length of film wrapped around it which could rotate at high speed for recording very rapid single event transient waveforms lasting a few thousandths of a second. I was able to use that "single shot" capability with some modification to solve a tricky problem two or three years later.
The second step in the process was to measure the area under each pressure versus time curve as they appeared on the piece of film. Today this whole operation would have been done automatically by a computer connected to the pressure gauges, without the necessity for recording anything on film, but at that time the only way was to make a measurement on the film itself. This involved the use of a precision instrument called a planimeter, the most accurate ones were made in Switzerland (where else in those days). Data analysts were hired to use these instruments to make the measurements, an operation similar to using a mechanical distance measurement device on a map.
The data analysts had to have some minimal technical knowledge to be able to make these measurements and perform other related calculations and the need arose at one point to hire some extra ones. A Civil Service competition was arranged and advertised locally in the hope that some local people would apply. Several did, but not one of them had the necessary technical background to qualify for the jobs on offer. This was a real-life example to me of the mismatch of the educational curriculum in Quebec at that time with the needs of the market. All the applicants had graduated from the Quebec high school system and were well educated in all the classical disciplines - but not in the basics of science and technology, which was what was needed there and in so many other places in the late 1950's.
In order to resolve the discrepancies between the results obtained by us and the contractor, a joint task force was convened from the scientific staff of both sides (of which I was one). We all knew what had to be done; a step by step process of elimination which involved an exhaustive comparison of every aspect of the measurements being conducted by the two sides. As a result of that exercise the discrepancies were reconciled; there was no one simple explanation as is so often the case in complex problems, it turned out to be a number of small errors on both sides that together added up to the discrepancies that were being observed.
After that, adjustments to the chemical production parameters were made by the contractor and the tests by us and them indicated that the production runs were within specifications. It was an example of rational scientific enquiry prevailing in an atmosphere of mistrust and a not so subtle pressure from all sides to keep things moving without having expensive production runs rejected. The ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts were the Canadian pilots of the RCAF (as it then was) whose lives may have been dependent on the accuracy and reliability of these rockets in a dog fight with an enemy similarly equipped.
There were other potential problems with the propellant grains, the chief among them being voids caused by gas pockets forming during the manufacturing process, much like air pockets in a loaf of bread. These had to be found because if a large void were encountered as the normal burning of a grain progressed, the sudden increase in surface area would accelerate the burn and produce a sudden and catastrophic increase in gas pressure, possibly causing an explosion which could put the pilot and aircraft at risk. For this reason every single one of the propellant grains produced was X-Rayed. Not only was this incredibly expensive, but the results were difficult to interpret.
Meanwhile the U.K. Explosives Research and Development Establishment (E.R.D.E), had come up with a method using ultrasonic sound to detect the voids which looked a lot more promising. Essentially it was the technique which today is the latest thing for prenatal foetus examinations in hospitals, allowing a real time image of the embryo moving in the womb to be seen by the medical staff and the Mother-to-be. In 1959 or thereabouts it was at a much more primitive stage. Two piezoelectric transducers were mounted one outside and one inside the propellant grain which was immersed in a water bath, (a "transducer" is any device that converts a physical or chemical activity into a corresponding electrical signal or vice versa, e.g. microphones, loud speakers, lightmeters, thermocouples for temperature measurement, etc., etc.).
One transducer transmitted a burst of sound energy at a frequency too high for the human ear to hear (hence the term "ultrasonic"), and the other one received it through the wall of the propellant grain. The received signal was attenuated by the intervening wall and as long as it was of a uniform composition the received signal remained constant. If however a void was encountered, then there would be a sudden reduction of the signal, depending on how large the void was, with a corresponding "blip" of the signal trace being drawn by a pen showing the signal level on a strip chart recorder.
Leslie Barnes had managed to acquire a prototype system during one of his frequent visits to the U.K. to see what advances they were making and I was assigned the job of evaluating it. It was a fascinating project and I learned a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of ultrasonics as a result. After a lot of experimentation I came to the conclusion that it would require a fairly elaborate mechanism to "scan" each propellant grain, with the two transducers moving in unison back and forth along the grain, one inside and one outside, as it was rotated a few degrees at a time to ensure complete coverage, and that the time required to scan an entire production run in this way would not be economically acceptable. The concept was at least twenty years ahead of its time and as was indicated above, only comparatively recently has ultrasonic imaging become a practical reality.
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