Magneto Scare

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With reminiscences of war in and on the air, I am reminded of an aspect of what can be termed the “magneto scare” although it relates to the Kaiser conflagration, not to the Second World War.

Although in the run-up to the 1914/18 war no-one knew quite what part the aeroplane would play, it was clearly essential to develop this form of observation, fighting and bombing power and the i/c engine was therefore essential. These engines needed magnetos, that curiously small component without which no normal petrol engine would function. Thus, when war was declared, Germany promptly cut-off all supplies to Britain of these ingenious, self-contained electrical machines. Panic ensured… The bulk of German-made magnetos would have come from Bosch, who made quite the best electrical equipment at that time and afterwards. There were a few other Teutonic makes but it was the Bosch magneto the British fighting forces needed, and badly. It seems a little odd that, as low-tension ignition had gone out of fashion some years earlier, we had not developed our own effective magnetos.

Be that as it may, the cessation of supplies of mags from Germany was seen as a disaster of considerable proportions. In fact, chaos faced the Government, and pressure had to be put on the War Office to help British industry to make its own mags.

The complexities of doing this were greeted with ignorance. Lord Kitchener, the Minister of War, irritated with the arguments put to him, retorted: “Very well, tell Rolls-Royce to make 10,000″…

For a time stocks in this country sufficed, and after that America sent us 147,000 magnetos. After which Britain began to make its own, I believe first through BTH. The position had been to some extent foreseen before war broke out; Germany was short of tyres, so we traded these for magnetos. After the war Germany spent large sums of money in this country in belittling our mags, a blow for firms that had invested finance and built factories to make them. The rate of exchange helped this, a new Bosch ZU4 being priced here at £4 in 1920. Lloyd George promised a total ban on German imports of mags for five years and a tariff on those from other countries. But it did not last long. Presumably America made all the mags it needed during the war. Yet I wonder whether the coil ignition on the Liberty aero-engine was an insurance against a magneto shortage and whether Louis Coatalen’s adoption of battery ignition on his post-war racing cars and on his 8hp Talbot stemmed from war-time expertise he had instituted for the same reason? Any comments?