top of page

Taming the Serpent


by Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.


Published in July/August 2021 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the author.

How many of you have seen or heard claims that certain inventions were inspired by science fiction? Can such claims even be true?


There are two basic problems with such claims. The first problem is how the person applies the term inspiration. People in engineering or the sciences have said that they were inspired by the works of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells to follow a particular path in life. Examples include Robert H. Goddard and Igor Sikorsky. In his autobiography, submarine developer Simon Lake said “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.” This is not the type of inspiration that I wish to discuss.


Many years ago, I encountered the claim by Robert Heinlein that in one of his early stories he had an imaginary device that served as the inspiration for one of his Naval Academy classmates to develop a system used by the Navy during World War II. This fixed in my mind the concept of direct inspiration – someone reads a science fiction story and encounters a description of a device or system or process that inspires that person to develop an invention.


The second problem is that even if direct inspiration is claimed, sufficient evidence is usually not presented to support the claim. In many cases, it appears that the person has not done adequate research into the history of the invention. The claim may be based solely on the similarity of form or function between the story concept and the real-world device.


During the course of my research into Heinlein’s claim and afterward, I wondered how many cases of direct inspiration by works of science fiction existed. I have located a small number of cases where the claim of direct inspiration has been found to be true. I have also looked at other cases where it can definitely be shown that no such inspiration existed. In researching such cases, I consider the backgrounds of both the inventor and the author and note the point where their paths intersect in a story – or not.


The case that I present here was chosen for its connection with Astounding Science Fiction.



Let us go back to the year 1955. Of the 39.8 million tons of oil that Britain imported from the Middle East, nearly 60% was transported by tankers that made use of the Suez Canal. Pipelines that led to eastern Mediterranean ports provided the balance.


This system was disrupted in 1956 by the Suez Crisis. Egypt nationalized the Canal on July 26. The failure of attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically led to military actions on the part of Israel, Britain and France, beginning on October 26. One response by Egypt was to sink or disable more than 40 ships in the Canal, closing it to all shipping. Although a cease fire was reached on November 6, the Canal was blocked until April 24, 1957.


This created a problem for Britain. A trip from the Arabian Gulf around the Cape of Good Hope to Britain was more than 75% longer than the usual trip through the Canal and the Mediterranean. Any tanker using the longer route would deliver less oil in a given period of time. To prevent a shortage of oil and gasoline, Britain would have to somehow find more tankers to transport the oil.


The man who proposed a solution was William Rede Hawthorne (1913 – 2011). He was born in Benton, Newcastle upon Tyne. At Westminster School in London, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University.


Hawthorne started at Cambridge in 1931, with his initial interest in mathematics.  He then switched to mechanical engineering with a focus on thermodynamics. He graduated in 1934 with a B.A. In the Tripos (undergraduate examinations), Hawthorne received a prize for the greatest distinction in thermodynamics as well as sharing a prize for the best overall performance.


After graduation, Hawthorne worked for a time as a graduate apprentice at Babcock & Wilcox, Ltd. Then in 1935, he was off to America. Hawthorne won a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to study Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research, in conjunction with Professor H. C. Hottel, was on the dynamics of chemical combustion. At the time, it was assumed that a gaseous fuel would burn completely in the presence of sufficient oxygen. Hawthorne showed that eddies of unburned gaseous fuel could remain. He also showed that there was a relationship between the flame length and the amount of turbulence in a mixture of fuel and air. His thesis was titled “The Mixing of Gas and Air in Flames.”


He returned to Babcock and Wilcox, where he continued to work until the beginning of World War II. Shortly before that, in April 1939, he made a short trip back to Cambridge, Massachusetts for two reasons. The first was to receive his Sc.D. degree from MIT. The second was to marry Barbara Runkle, a granddaughter of John H. Runkle, who had been the second president of MIT.


In 1940, Hawthorne became a scientific officer in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. He was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. It was in this position that he became involved in the British efforts to develop a jet engine.


In its simplest form, a turbojet consists of (1) an air intake, (2) a compressor, (3) a combustion chamber, (4) a turbine and (5) an exhaust nozzle. The compressor is connected with the turbine by a shaft. Air entering through the intake is passed to the compressor. The compressed air, now at a higher temperature and pressure, is fed to the combustion chamber (or chambers) where it is mixed with fuel. The burning of the fuel results in hot gases which pass through the turbine. This spins the turbine and the compressor. The gases then exit through the exhaust nozzle to propel the aircraft.


One of many technical problems to be solved was the efficiency of combustion. One early design was based on a stove that used the heat of the flame to vaporize the fuel that was then injected into the burner. Combustion was improved when this approach was replaced by one that introduced the fuel as a mist of droplets.


Hawthorne was loaned to the turbojet project from the Royal Aircraft Establishment to see if he could further improve combustion. He later recalled:


I had done my thesis on laminar and turbulent diffusion flames and knew the importance of aerodynamics in the combustion process. It surprised me that others did not see that as much care was required in characterizing the aerodynamic features of a combustion chamber as in the design of a blade for a compressor or turbine.


Hawthorne’s contributions helped to reach the goal of a suitable turbojet engine, which led to the first official flight of a British jet on May 15, 1941.


Following the war, Hawthorne returned to research. In 1946, he was back at MIT as an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He became George Westinghouse Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 1948.                                                                                                                                                                                        

Then it was back to England, where he was appointed the first Hopkinson and ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) Professor of Thermodynamics at Cambridge University. In addition to his research, Hawthorne was involved with the expansion that had occurred in the Engineering Department and with changes in how thermodynamics was to be taught.


While still a Professor at Cambridge, Hawthorne made another trip back to MIT. During the 1955 – 1956 academic year, he was the first Jerome C. Hunsaker Visiting Professor of Aeronautical Engineering.


While I have been presenting the career of William Hawthorne, you might be wondering about a connection with science fiction. His interest in science fiction began with H. G. Wells. One source stated that he was for many years a subscriber of Astounding Science Fiction. It is not known when he first came across Astounding. It may have been during his time at MIT in the 1930s. A key feature of his interest in science fiction is that he would discuss with others the ideas presented in the stories and speculate about their feasibility.



One story that Hawthorne would have encountered in Astounding was Under Pressure by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986). It was Herbert’s first novel to be published. It started in the November 1955 issue and concluded in the January 1956 issue.


Work on Under Pressure began sometime in the early 1950s. Exactly when is not clear, although it was while Herbert was working as a reporter on the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in California. In the fall of 1953, the family moved to the village of Chapala, which is south of Guadalajara, Mexico. It is known that he was working on the novel at that time.


At the end of 1953, the family returned to California. Herbert then obtained a job as a speechwriter on the staff of the Senator from Oregon, Guy Cordon. As a member of Cordon’s staff, he made extensive use of the Library of Congress. He wrote an article, “Undersea Riches for Everybody,” which looked at drilling in the ocean for gas and oil. This article was never published.


After Cordon was defeated in the November 1954 election, Herbert moved to Washington, with the family living in a beach cabin between Seattle and Tacoma. It was there that he completed the novel in April 1955. It was accepted by John W. Campbell, and brought Herbert $3000, less 10 percent to his agent Lurton Blassingame. It was also sold to Doubleday, who had it ready for hardback publication as The Dragon in The Sea in February 1956, which was the month after the serialization had concluded. The novel also appeared as an Avon paperback, 21st Century Sub, in November 1956.


Under Pressure is a story of a future conflict between the Western Powers and the Eastern Powers. The West has an oil shortage and tries to obtain oil by stealing it from the Eastern Powers. A nuclear-powered sub tug drills into the oil reserves on the continental shelf of an enemy nation. It brings the oil back in a large flexible plastic barge towed behind the sub tug. We can see a possible link with “Undersea Riches for Everybody” in the way that the oil is accessed.


As the novel begins, we learn that the last 20 missions have failed to return and no one knows why. An electronics specialist from the Bureau of Psychology is inserted into the crew of the sub tug Fenian Ram. His mission is to evaluate the psychological pressures and determine why the missions are failing. He succeeds in determining how the previous missions were destroyed and also makes recommendations to improve crew morale.


What is of importance to us is the means of transporting the oil. The plastic barge used to transport the oil is called a slug. We are told that “A slug will carry almost one hundred million barrels of oil.”


It is difficult to visualize how much oil that is. The size of a tanker is usually expressed in as Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). This is a measure of how much a ship can carry. It is the sum of the weights of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers and crew. A T2 tanker of World War II had a capacity of 16,500 DWT. By 1953, the Tina Onassis had a capacity of about 50,000 DWT. The largest supertankers are the ULCC (Ultra Large Crude Carrier) class, with a capacity of 320,000 to 500,000 DWT. The four largest ships in the world are the TI Africa, TI Asia, TI Europe and TI Oceania, each with a capacity of about 500,000 DWT. The capacity of each is approximately 3,100,000 barrels.


The capacity of the slug, given as one hundred million barrels, is equivalent to about 32 supertankers of the TI class. Is this unreasonably large? Consider that the Western Powers expected to lose some sub tugs, so the objective would be to get as much oil back as possible in each mission. I have wondered how much power the sub tug would need to pull such a load.


In the story, after the slug has been filled, we have the description:


Full slug. It stretched out on the bottom behind the Ram, turgid with its cargo, almost a mile long, held in delicate balance so that it would tow beneath the surface.


Since Herbert said “almost a mile long,” I will assume a nice round figure of 5000 feet. With 42 gallons to the barrel, the load is 4.2 billion gallons. Consider the slug to be a simple cylinder. A simple calculation gives the diameter as 378 feet. If the ends were tapered, the diameter would have to be slightly larger.


In the story, the slug had to follow the movements of the sub tug in adjusting its depth. Herbert referred to bow and stern ballast tanks in the slug. I would think that ballast tanks would actually have to be distributed along the length of the slug rather than just at the bow and stern.


Then there is the question of ballast. If you filled a plastic slug with oil, it would float on the surface of the sea. If the ballast tanks were filled with sea water, the slug would still float at or very near the surface. To make it submerge, you would need to use a ballast material denser than sea water. And that is what Herbert did – he used mud.



We now return to Hawthorne shortly after the closure of the Suez Canal. Gasoline rationing had already begun due to the shortfall in crude oil imports. This led Hawthorne to two conversations on November 23, 1956. He discussed with J. C. S. Shaw, another member of the Engineering Department, the possibility of using a flexible plastic tube as an oil tanker. The second conversation was with Sir Geoffrey Taylor, known for his work in fluid mechanics and wave theory. In his article “Sausages From High Table,” Hawthorne related that:


I do not remember whether it was the luncheon or the fleeting memory of a Science Fiction story I had read. I do remember asking my distinguished neighbour at High Table what he thought of the idea of filling plastic sausages with oil and towing them behind ships. His lively response fanned the spark, and we warmed ourselves at the flame for the rest of the meal.


After some initial calculations were performed, Hawthorne and his team became involved in experiments and test. One reason for providing details of this work is to show what was required to take the idea as presented in a story and develop it into a practical system.


The first estimate of the capacity of such a suitable flexible barge was 10,000 tons of oil. A length of 600 feet was assumed. With a specific gravity of the oil assumed to be 0.85, Hawthorne was able to calculate a diameter of about 30 feet, for a ratio of diameter to length of about 1 to 20.


Naturally, work began with models much smaller than 10,000 tons capacity. Model No. 1 was to be 9 inches in diameter and 16 feet in length, for a ratio of 1 to 21.3. Another proposed model was to be three feet in diameter and 60 feet long, for a ratio of 1 to 20 and a capacity of 10 tons. The models were to be made of nylon or canvas with an inner lining of rubber or plastic.


Model No. 1 was quickly constructed and tested in a towing tank. It was filled with a mixture of water and industrial alcohol to give the same specific gravity as oil. During the testing, a buckling motion called snaking was observed, as shown in Figure 1. The appearance and degree of snaking depended on internal pressure and the towing speed.










Figure 1. Model No. 1 showing snaking during tests in towing tank.

At about this time, a name was suggested for the flexible barge. Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow, a classical scholar and a Fellow of Trinity College, suggested Dracone. This was based on the Greek Δράκων, which means serpent and not dragon.


The next model to be constructed was 3 feet in diameter and 67 feet long. It consisted of a tube 45 feet long with 11-foot sections at each end with an ellipsoidal taper. This model was called Draconella. A shorter and slimmer model called Draconeel was also constructed. It was placed inside Draconella as a means of varying its internal pressure during tests. Draconeel was also used in towing tests.


Now we come to an important point in the development of the Dracone. The Suez Canal was reopened in April 1957. Instead of a shortage of tankers, it was then predicted that there would be a surplus. The rationale for the development of a large Dracone with a capacity of 10,000 tons no longer existed.


It was suggested that a smaller Dracone with a capacity on the order of 10,000 gallons could find applications in many areas of the world as a cheaper alternative to a conventional steel barge. One advantage of the decision to focus on smaller sizes was a reduction in the stresses and forces to be encountered. This made it easier to find suitable materials.


A number of models were developed in the first few years of the Dracone project. The basic dimensions and capacities of these models are shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Dimensions of various Dracone models.


It was necessary to solve certain problems encountered in the operation of the Dracones. The first was the snaking that was observed with Model No. 1. The second problem occurred when the Dracones were placed in service in rough seas. An internal pressure wave would travel toward the tail and cause it to become rigid. The vertical motion resulting from the periodic change of the tail from relaxed to rigid was called “tail flick.” If this persisted, the internal lining of the Dracone would separate from the outer fabric and begin to tear. A Dracone filled with approximately 400 tons of kerosene lost most of its cargo in rough weather due to tail flick.


Extensive testing and analysis revealed three potential solutions to the snaking problem. The first solution involved hanging triangular weighted fins made of wood or fabric below the Dracone. The second solution involved attaching a drogue – an underwater parachute. The third solution was based on a detailed analysis of the flow at the tail. If the tail was hemispherical instead of tapered, there was a change in the flow that eliminated snaking. In another approach, a ring stabilizer was developed to fit around the tapered tail section. This also caused the desired change in the flow pattern. The ring stabilizer was preferred since the fins or drogue were subject to damage by underwater obstacles.


The tail flick problem was a bit harder to solve. The solutions focused on the fairing, where the fabric and lining were joined to the nose and tail pieces. The first approach was to change the shape of the fairing and the tail to reduce the violent whipping action. The second approach was to change the manufacturing process to make the skin less susceptible to damage.


More than 60 years after William Hawthorne had his original discussions, Dracones are still being used. They are used to transport oil and other cargos, as originally intended. They have been used in the cleanup of oil spills where a small vessel can pump large volumes of liquid into a Dracone for transport to a location for proper disposal. Large cruise ships must dispose of their bilge, waste water, and sewage water. Instead of dumping such polluting material into the ocean, it can be loaded into Dracones for disposal. One manufacturer lists several models that range from 28 feet in length with a capacity of only 1,030 gallons to 300 feet in length with a capacity of 247,000 gallons.


The development of the Dracone was clearly not the end of the accomplishments of William Hawthorne. At MIT, he was made a Visiting Institute Professor in 1962 and a member of the MIT Corporation from 1969 to 1974. He was the head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge from 1968 to 1973. In 1968 he also became Master of the newly created Churchill College, a position he retained until 1983.


William Hawthorne was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1959. He was then knighted for “services to thermodynamics” in 1970. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1955 and served as its vice president from 1969 to 1970 and again from 1979 to 1981.


In case anyone should still doubt that the Dracone was directly inspired by the slug in Under Pressure, consider a quote from a marketing talk given by Hawthorne in 1960:


In the next slide I reproduce an illustration of a science fiction story published in 1955 which I think you will agree is a very imaginative, an almost Jules Verne prediction, or forerunner of the Dracone vessel I have been describing. In fact, the science fiction story, of which this in an illustration, described the towing of oil by submarines in plastic barges.


Although the slide could not be located, this is a definite reference to Under Pressure. Taken in conjunction with the quote about his luncheon conversation, it should be very clear where Hawthorne received his inspiration.


It is necessary to consider patent law. You cannot obtain a patent on something that is previously known: something that is not Novel. If a description of a device has appeared in a publication, it might not be possible to obtain a patent at some later date. This would usually be in a technical publication, but may also be in a work of fiction. How was it then possible for Hawthorne to obtain patents for the Dracone, both in the United States and Britain, given the publication of Under Pressure?


To prevent a patent from being issued, the description in the publication must correspond exactly with whatever the attempt is made to patent. There is one basic difference between the slug and the Dracone: the slug had the ability to operate submerged and the Dracone does not.


In addition, the nature and extent of the description of the device in the publication is also important. A patent would not be granted if the description allowed a person having ordinary skill in the art to create the device without the need for undue subsequent research and experimentation. The information I have presented shows that it was not a case of simply constructing a long flexible tube as described in the story. Much time and effort were required to tame the problems associated with Hawthorne’s serpent.


With regard to the Dracone, a very clear connection exists between the device in the story and the invention. In many other cases, the connection may not be as obvious. This makes it very difficult to locate additional cases of direct inspiration by science fiction. How many such cases remain to be found?





The material in this article is taken from a chapter of the same name in my book Out of This World Ideas: And the Inventions They Inspired. Much of the material on Sir William Hawthorne and the Dracone is from the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge University, and is used by permission of the estate of Sir William Hawthorne. For those with an interest in more technical details of the Dracone, I recommend Hawthorne’s paper, “The Early Development of the Dracone Flexible Barge,” in the June 1961 issue of the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Figure 2 is based on a figure in that paper. The quote regarding combustion is from another paper by Hawthorne, “The Early History of the Gas Turbine in Britain,” in the January 1991 issue of the Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London.

bottom of page