Vintage postbag, November 1995

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The Magneto Scare

Sir,
Re the pre-W WI magneto situation, when I entered the auto-electrical industry in 1940 I was puzzled by the obvious similarity between the different makes of magneto; they all shared similar methods of construction, shaft and contact breaker taper, etc, and were mostly metric threads. In fact no basic change of design was apparent until the advent of the polar inductor magneto (rotating magnet, fixed winding) but this was a post war development, as far as cars were concerned, chiefly by M L and later B T H.
My understanding of the situation has always been that in 1913 somebody in the War Office spotted the fact that if we went to war with Germany we could have problems with supply of magnetos as we did not have a major producer in the U K at that time. In consequence licences were issued for the production of same. This is why they were all similar they had all used Bosch as the basis for their design. A similar situation existed in 1939 when the C A V-Bosch motif was two men pulling on a rope with slogan “Allied Excellence”; this was dropped a bit sharpish come September 3, although production continued with what were largely Bosch designs.
In passing, I have never heard of or seen a Rolls-Royce designed-magneto, at least for road-going vehicles; did they, in fact, produce them for aircraft?
James Griffiths,
M D, Atlas Auto Electric Service Ltd, Manchester.

Sir,
Your interesting commentary on magneto problems earlier this century rightly describes Government inadequacies in understanding technical and commercial issues (it seems nothing ever changes in this field).
As previous publications by St John Nixon and Brian Morgan have pointed out, Government ignorance reaches back further than the Great War period.
Frederick R Simms — one of the founders of British Motor Industry — co-invented the magneto with Robert Bosch around 1895, progressing very quickly from low-tension dynamo with coil to the high-tension magneto. All Simms’ cars were subsequently fitted with “Simms-Bosch Magneto Ignition” at the turn of the century. Even when the relationship between Simms and Bosch deteriorated in 1907, Simms was sure that the magneto was a critical component for the internal combustion engine and that demand would be tremendous. (He had already changed the name of his company in 1905 to the Simms Magneto Company to concentrate on this product.)
Simms’ output was about 300 units per week in 1909, but the business required further investment to make it cost effective. Frederick Simms at that time continually predicted the likelihood of war and the dangers of Britain’s reliance on foreign suppliers of vital components, and in particular the magneto. His request for a subsidy to assist magneto manufacture had been rejected by the Government back in 1909.
The magneto company was forced to be wound up in 1913, although Simms, later in the year, formed another company — Simms Motor Units Ltd — concentrating on a wider range of components but still including magnetos. This continued through the pending War and also the 1939-45 War, when magneto demand still remained for aircraft.
Clearly, the Minister of War (1914-18) and Lloyd George’s ignorance had been preceded even before the first War!
Bill Clifton,
Hemel Hempstead.

Sir,
The article “Magneto Scare” rather belittles the efforts of British industry to meet the demands for magnetos during the 1914-1918 war. In 1914 the Coventry motorcycle industry was entirely reliant on German magnetos. The Triumph Company, the largest manufacturer of motorcycles for despatch riders, therefore approached a firm of electrical engineers, Morris and Lister Ltd of the Carlton Works, Coventry, and asked them if they could produce a copy of the Bosch single-cylinder machine. By September the first magneto, named the “Carlton”, was in production.
In 1915 the Admiralty required magnetos for the Royal Naval Air Service, and after a visit from a Lieutenant Bristow a telegram was received instructing the company to give first priority to the production of magnet°, for BRI and BR2 rotary engines. This result in a great increase in production from 1916 onwards, and a move was made to larger premises and the company name changed to “The M-L Magneto Syndicate Ltd”.
Initially M-L copied Bosch designs, but the late Dr E A Watson carried out considerable testing, resulting in greatly improved machines, both in performance, and weight. Between the end of 1916 and December 1919 some 40,000 aircraft magnetos of the improved design had been made.
J A Watson,
Kettering.