Admiralty Research Laboratory: History Pre-1921

Origins of the Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL) & background to its formation

This version is based almost entirely on the historical account published by A. B. Wood OBE DSc. It differs significantly from all other latter-day versions I've read, as it details that all naval research activity was concentrated at the Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL) at Teddington, Middx. This was prior to its later devolution to elsewhere e.g. Portland & Portsdown. Above all, A. B. Wood, together with Harold Gerrard, were the first physicists to be posted to AES Hawkcraig, and he remained directly involved and making significant contributions throughout the growth of naval physical research to its ultimate  destination, Teddington. Further, he had free and unfettered access to ARL's library and archives whilst producing his account, in order to ensure its accuracy.

The First World War saw the Board of the Admiralty (Admiralty) with no option but to continuously seek any means that might eliminate or reduce underwater threat from submarines, and sea-mines for that matter. This demand was predominantly due to the ascendancy of the submarine to a major weapon of war in terms of its demoralising, stealthy destructiveness.

The potential for science to facilitate operational capabilities was impressed upon the Admiralty who established the Admiralty Board of Invention and Research (BIR) circa July 1915. The BIR was a joint naval and civilian scientist organisation under control of a Sea Lord with the top level committee steering the work of the sub-committees.

AES Hawkcraig, Aberdour: November 1915 to December 1916

ARL's roots stem from the November 1915 addition of two BIR physicists to apply science and discipline to the ad hoc, empirical experimentation being undertaken at an Admiralty Experimental Station (AES) near Aberdour, Scotland. This was AES Hawkcraig, established by the Admiralty's Anti-Submarine Committee in January 1915, at Hawkcraig Point on the northern shores of the Firth of the Forth.  Its purpose was to ascertain the merits of detecting submarines by listening for the sounds they generated that are transmitted by water and received (at a distance) by an underwater microphone aka hydrophone.

AES Hawkcraig - looking east from the establishment

At AES Hawkcraig under the control of a rather gifted serving naval officer, Commander (later Captain) C.P. Ryan, primitive hydrophones (that were no more than water-proofed microphones) had been used in trials to determine their suitability for detecting submarines by listening for their underwater radiated noise. Despite a universal, complete lack of understanding of the physics involved, fairly startling progress had been made and aural detection of submarines at ranges greater than 1 nm by seabed-sited hydrophones was being achieved. By the time the BIR physicists arrived at Hawkcraig, this submarine detection method was viewed favourably by the Admiralty and approval had been granted to establish the first of the shore Listening Stations that eventually numbered 21, by the end of hostilities. Further, Hawkcraig (later renamed HMS TARLAIR, after the assigned trials vessel) had become the training establishment for Listening (shore stations and afloat) operators. In 1919 HMS TARLAIR was relocated in order to centralise Sonar Operator training at Portland, Dorset.

At this point in time the (British) term ASDIC hadn't been invented; furthermore its initial use was exclusively in connection with the underwater counterpart to radar, known as Active Sonar that used sonic pulses as opposed to radio waves. Prior to its late-1950s replacement by the term Sonar (in the UK), ASDIC was used to describe both Active and Passive Sonars. Of particular note is the fact that the hydrophone-based "listening" station systems were, actually, Passive Sonar applications, which despite ARL's regular input to Active Sonar developments (as an aspect of their continuing expansion of the science of underwater acoustics) was to become their forte much to the benefit of the Royal Navy during the Cold War!

One of the two original physicists, appointed by the BIR, to join AES Hawkcraig was Albert Beaumont Wood OBE DSc (known as "AB") whom had the dubious distinction of being relocated three times as the research work expanded and required better facilities. His final position, at working level, in the Royal Naval research sphere was as Deputy Superintendent of ARL from 1943. Upon official retirement from his 1946 senior staff appointment at the Admiralty, AB returned to research work at ARL in 1950. In his final years, with free and unfettered access to ARL's archives, AB wrote what amounts to a fairly detailed account of the development of naval scientific research from his early days at AES Hawkcraig to ARL at Teddington, via AES Parkeston Quay and AES Shandon - see note 1, below.


AES Parkeston Quay, Harwich: Dec 1916 Opening to Closure in February 1919

By December 1916 the decision had been taken that premises larger than Hawkcraig were required, and the scientific staff relocated to start a new AES at Parkeston Quay on the southern shore of the River Stour, Harwich, on the 26 Dec 1916.

The Great Eastern Railway station and hotel complex adjoining the quayside
- viewed from the south

A number of the hotel rooms were used as offices. Other buildings for laboratories and workshop were provided on the wooden-planked quayside, which the hotel overlooked.

AES Parkeston Quay workshop staff gathered on the quayside

However, ready access to deeper water became a requirement as research into submarine detection by Active Sonar showed promise, and so an annex to Parkeston Quay was created by the Admiralty taking-over the Royal Hotel overlooking the mouth of the River Dart in Kingswear, Devon in June 1918. R.W. Boyle and several other members of staff under Dr A.O. Rankine were transferred to the annex to continue some of the Active Sonar experiments commenced at Parkeston Quay.

AES Parkeston Quay annex at Kingswear (Dartmouth), Devon
adjacent to the Great Western Railway station

It was at this time that the word ASDIC was coined. It came into existence as a codename for one of their best kept secrets such that verbal and written communciations wouldn't revealed the new research area of detection of submarines by determining the range and bearing of a target from the sound it reflects i.e. echo location. ASDIC meant 'Anti-Submarine Division-ic'. The 'ic' added to the codeword had the same significance as in words such as physic, dynamic, electronic, etc. meaning 'pertaining to', the initial syllable(s) of such words usually being abbreviations.

Erroneously ASDIC as been assumed to be an acronym for 'Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee', however no evidence has been found of such a committee. The term was used to describe a technique, or a particular piece of equipment e.g. ASDIC Type 186, a sonar set based on ARL research and produced by HMUDE in the late 1950s. Further, from its initial use exclusively for Active Sonar, it was (finally) used for both Active and Passive sonar designs and applications.

AES Shandon, Helensburgh: February 1919 to Closure in January 1921

With cessation of hostilities in November 1918, the Director of the newly formed Admiralty Experiments and Research Department (DER) in control of all naval research, Mr Charles H. Merz, submitted a memorandum to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Eric Campbell Geddes GCB GBE PC, on the way ahead for Royal Naval research.

In his memorandum, Charles Merz proposed a new organisation for research and experiment in the Navy that involved the closing-down of a number of wartime Admiralty Experimental Stations including Parkeston Quay and Hawkcraig (still functioning under Capt Ryan principally as the “Hydrophone / Listening Service” training school, HMS TARLAIR). He recommended that AES Shandon (then in use for experimental work by the Lancashire and Clyde Anti-Submarine Committees), which was well-suited as regards buildings and situation, should be made into a permanent station for all naval physical research. He further proposed the formation of a central research institution for the Navy with its own purpose-built establishment directed by a ‘man of high scientific attainment’.

Sir Eric Campbell Geddes had, by this time, an established track record in successfully introducing organisation into the armed services and was perhaps the one person who could fully appreciate the merits of Charles Merz’s proposals. Consequently, by February 1919 AES Parkeston Quay (together with its ‘deep water’ annex at Kingswear aka AES Dartmouth) was closed and all the research together with the remaining staff relocated to AES Shandon. The Active Sonar Operator training on the experimental system trialed at the AES Parkeston Quay annex at Kingswear was relocated to Portland, Dorset, with an adjunct to develop service equipment.

AES Shandon on Gareloch - near Helensburgh

The Shandon Hydro Hotel on the banks of Gareloch at Rhu near Helensburgh was initially taken-over by the Anti-Submarine Committee during the WWI and their sanctioned experimental work was incorporated in the programme for the February 1919 centralisation of all naval research at AES Shandon.

With the consolidation and expansion of the research at Shandon, in 1920 the Director of Scientific Research, Sir Frank E. Smith GCB GBE DSc FRS deemed the circumstances demanded the full implementation of Charles Merz’s proposals i.e. the closure of AES Shandon and the transfer of all research and staff to a new establishment exclusively under the control of a scientist. This was considered desirable to resolve the working level conflicts arising from differing viewpoints of naval staff and scientists, which first materialised at AES Hawkcraig and continued at AES Parkeston Quay. Consequently, a new establishment at Teddington, Middlesex was duly formed, appropriately named and directly under the control of a civilian scientist superintendent, Dr C.V. Drysdale, reporting to the Scientific Research and Experiment Department of the Admiralty (SRE), with serving naval officers acting in a liaison role only. Dr Drysdale was the perfect choice for Superintendent ARL (SARL) as he had joined the scientific staff at AES Parkeston Quay in early 1918.

To set ARL in its correct context and to appreciate its role as THE Admiralty Research Laboratory it is necessary to recognise the distinction between the activities of naval research and that of naval operations, training and equipment development. A crucial factor is the level of direct naval control, which led to the separation of research from equipment development and operations in 1920. This separation became necessary to resolve the issues arising from the Navy demanding equipment utilising a particular technology before the physics was fully understood let alone mastered to the degree that a viable system could ensue! A most vivid example of the Navy's impetuousness is the establishment, by October 1915, of five shore listening stations based on totally empirical findings, and in the complete absence of (fundamental) scientific knowledge. The same was true of the construction programme to equip naval vessels with an Active Sonar system, which was initiated right at the end of WWI; as it transpired the first pragmatic systems weren't possible until 1927 after ARL had carried-out further research.


1. Journal of the Royal Naval Scientific Service (JRNSS) Volume 20 No. 4 issued July 1965, known as the "Memorial Number" containing the account by Dr A. B. Wood OBE DSc  "From Board of Invention and Research to Royal Naval Scientific Service".