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Bristol Boxkite

The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (later known as Bristol Aircraft) built the Farman biplane that became known as the Bristol Boxkite. It remained in production until 1914, and 130 were built.

Bristol Fighter

The Bristol Fighter was one of the outstanding military planes of the World War I period.

Bristol Jupiter engine

Bristol took over production of the Jupiter engine from the Cosmos firm, which went bankrupt in 1920.

Bristol Aircraft and Engines

The year 1909 was important in European aviation. A weeklong air show, held near the French city of Reims, made it clear that airplanes now represented a significant new technology. Within months a wealthy British industrialist, Sir George White, put up funds for a group of four closely linked aviation companies, with offices in his home city of Bristol. A factory took shape in the nearby town of Filton.

Its first airplanes were of French design: the Zodiac biplane, which never flew, and the Bristol Boxkite, which did. The new company gained its initial foothold by taking the view that prospective purchasers of aircraft first had to learn to fly. With support from the War Office, Sir George set up two flying schools. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914, nearly half of all licensed British pilots received their training at those flight centers.

The war brought a vast upsurge in demand for new aircraft. The Bristol works turned out hundreds of Bristol Scout biplanes, along with BE-2 fighters. The demands of the war soon brought urgent requests for better aircraft. Frank Barnwell, the company's chief designer, had been serving as a captain in the British army, but in August 1915 he was sent back to Bristol. He soon crafted one of the outstanding military planes of the day: the Bristol Fighter.

It was a two-seater with a pilot and a machine gunner. The pilot had his own gun, which made the combination particularly deadly. The first War Office purchase dated to August 1916; a year later, 600 of these biplanes were on order. In July 1917, the War Office adopted the Fighter as the standard model for all fighter-reconnaissance squadrons. This brought far more demand than the Bristol works could handle, so production was farmed out to other companies as well. By then the United States had entered the war, as some production took place in America.

When King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, came to visit Bristol in Filton in November 1917, their visit constituted royal recognition of the role of aircraft in warfare. More than 5,000 Fighters were built, with production continuing after the war. These aircraft also continued serving British interests in India and the Middle East.

The end of the war brought a sharp falloff in orders for new aircraft. However, the company expanded into a new field: airplane engines. Wartime aviation motors had been water-cooled, like those of automobiles. Even so, there was much interest in air-cooled engines, which promised simplicity and lighter weight. Research done by the government-run Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough established many of the important design principles. However, the government left the development of operational engines in the hands of private companies.

Drawing on work from the Factory, the firm of Armstrong Siddeley built an important early air-cooled motor: the Jaguar. A competing company, Cosmos Engineering, came in with another one: the Jupiter. Amid the postwar falloff in orders, Cosmos went bankrupt in 1920, but Bristol took it over and turned this company into its engine division. Government orders spurred competition all through the 1920s, as Bristol and Armstrong introduced improvements. However, Bristol put more effort into devising new versions of the Jupiter than Armstrong did with the Jaguar, and by 1929, the Jupiter was clearly superior. Orders for the Jaguar dried up. During the 1930s, Bristol was Great Britain's only producer of high-power air-cooled engines.

Meanwhile, the chief designer Frank Barnwell crafted a succession of new fighters and bombers: the Brownie, Boarhound, Beaver, Bagshot, Bulldog, Bullpup, Berkeley, and Badminton. Most were biplanes and were built under government order, in very limited numbers, to help the company stay current with advances in the field. The Bulldog fighter was an exception; nearly 450 were built from 1927 to 1934, for the Royal Air Force and for eight other nations. In addition, the work of this period initiated the practice of using Bristol engines with Bristol aircraft even when motors from firms such as Rolls-Royce were available.

The year 1935 brought an upsurge in Bristol's fortunes, as the British Navy and the Royal Air Force began rearming in expectation of a new war with Germany. This date coincided with important recent advances in aircraft design. As recently as 1930, even the best new types of aircraft amounted to warmed-over versions of World War I biplanes. This was true in the United States as well. The biplane fighters that attacked the gorilla King Kong atop the Empire State Building in the movie of 1933 were among the Army's best.

But by mid-decade, new designs clearly foreshadowed the advanced fighters and bombers of World War II. Streamlined monoplanes, built of aluminum, now had retractable landing gear to reduce their drag for high speed. Powerful new engines could cruise at high altitude, burning high-octane fuel for large increases in horsepower. The historian C.H. Barnes writes that "had rearmament begun two years earlier, the RAF might well have been equipped with large numbers of biplanes and braced monoplanes, which indeed proved a handicap to the French and Italian Air Forces when war eventually broke out."

Bristol's designer Barnwell was ready for the buildup. He had designed a twin-engine monoplane that was 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) faster than the RAF's latest biplane fighters. Bristol built it as a private aircraft for a wealthy landowner, Lord Rothermere. Modified for military use, it became the Blenheim bomber. The Bristol firm received a large production contract later in 1935, and went on to build nearly 5,500 of them.

The new buildup also led to a government request for a torpedo bomber. Bristol responded with the twin-engine Beaufort. Late in 1938, with the threat of war becoming imminent, Bristol officials proposed to build a fighter version of the Beaufort. This became the highly successful Beaufighter, which had a long range. Nearly 6,000 were built.

Following the war, Bristol again found new business by entering a new field—airliners. The company built an enormous eight-engine prototype, the Bristol Brabazon, then drew on this experience by producing the more practical four-engine Britannia. The Britannia used turboprop engines, which combined a jet engine with a propeller. It was faster than its propeller-driven competitors and had longer range. During the 1950s, airlines often tried to fly nonstop westward across the Atlantic from London or Paris to New York but found that their planes had to stop en route to refuel in Newfoundland. This happened when there were strong headwinds that blew from the west. But the Britannia became the first airliner to offer such nonstop service reliably. It remained popular until it was eclipsed by jet airliners, which were even faster.

Production of an air freighter, the Type 170, and of helicopters gave further work to the postwar firm. However, aircraft projects became more costly after 1950, and Britain no longer could support a large number of independent aircraft companies. The solution lay in mergers, which consolidated the industry into fewer but stronger firms. In 1959, the Bristol engine division merged with Armstrong Siddeley, its old competitor, to form Bristol Siddeley. In 1960, the Bristol aircraft group became part of a new company, British Aircraft. A supersonic fighter, the Bristol 221, became the last aircraft to use that old familiar name, as "Bristol" faded into history.

—T.A. Heppenheimer


Barnes, C. H. Bristol Aircraft Since 1910. London: Putnam, 1970.

Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings: Air Power in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Davies, R. E. G. A History of the World's Airlines. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Gunston, Bill. World Encyclopaedia of Aircraft Manufacturers. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Jane's All the World's Aircraft. Alexandria, Va.: Jane's Information Group. Annual editions, beginning in 1909.

Schlaifer, Robert, and Heron, S. D. Development of Aircraft Engines and Fuels. Boston: Harvard University, 1950.

Educational Organization

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation and research and development in problem solving.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.