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International Combustion: The Rise and Fall of a Great Company

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Note: This is a sub-section of International Combustion

INTERNATIONAL Combustion –The Rise and Fall of a Great Company

by Alan Gifford and Ron Blount

Early Days
Soon after the end of the First World War, in the early 1920’s Sinfin Lane, to the south of Derby, was a sleepy route leading to open countryside, with only Richardsons, a tannery, representing industry, or indeed, housing, beyond the railway bridge and below the Barracks. All was to change in 1923 when a new boiler making company was formed by George Usher, moving from smaller rented works at Barrow in Furness, in Cumbria, and Lincoln, in Lincolnshire. Operations were started on 60 acres of land to the east of the lane. Derby was selected purely on economic grounds, the land being cheap and the rail communications with the rest of the country being very good, thereby minimizing transport costs. The company, later to be named International Combustion Ltd (locally always known as ‘Combustion’ or just plain ‘Combo’) was formed to capitalize on the growing need for electrical power and to specialise in building steam generating plant for power stations, together with their associated equipment.

The works soon were to be under the control of F. G. Penney, who ruled the roost until the 1960’s. He was, incidentally, well known for the way he ‘prowled’ the works, always wearing a dirty old raincoat, looking for anything that was not to his liking. The works were soon alerted that he was on his way, normally moving first through the machine shop, by a new noise appearing in the shop - a regular tap, tap, tap made by the workmen, on the nearest piece of metal, a noise which spread throughout all the shops – passing the message - ‘Penny' was about. He was also well known for his strict discipline – he once found four men sitting inside a furnace in the middle of the afternoon and sacked them on the spot –only to find they did not work for ICL - they were contractors repairing the furnace!

At that time welding was an emerging art and much of the equipment was made from cast iron, hence a foundry was one of the first shops to be opened. All moulding and casting operations, at that time, was done on the floor and metal was melted in two cupolas, rated at 10 tons each per hour.

The foundry grew and in 1934 continuous casting, very suitable for small parts, was introduced, increasing the output to 150 tons a week. Throughout the Second World War the foundry worked day and night. In the post war years new modern techniques were introduced enabling huge items to be cast, some weighing in excess of 25 tons, such as the base for coal milling machines to be made.. All this was under the watchful eye of Harry Turner, the foundry manager. There was one occasion, in the early days, when a number of middle eastern (Muslim?) immigrant workers were employed. These were very good workers, but Harry Turner noticed that periodically throughout the day they would stop work, turn to the East and kneel down to pray, seriously affecting production. Harry called them all together, found out who was the head man, and then decreed that the head man would do the praying for them all whilst the remainder would carry on working. Production levels were immediately restored.

In about 1952 the Derby foundry was one of the first in the country to produce ‘Spheroidal Cast Iron’ (SG iron), a much stronger and more ductile form of cast iron, a material in which Les Barnett, who succeeded Harry as foundry manager , became an expert and which enabled many new products to be cast very economically. However over the years the market requirements for castings diminished and the foundry was demolished during the early 1980’s.

Elsewhere a new machine shop and sheet metal working shop were built, using state of the then art, equipment. Shops soon grew in size and continued to be provided with high quality equipment, since the need for ‘quality’ was always recognised in this industry. As the size of power plant grew larger, so did the facilities. The machine shop, the domain for many years of Albert Chester, added many bigger machines to cope with the larger products being made. The new plate shop catered for the many sheet metal components required, including ducting, hoppers as well as supporting steelwork. The main joining processes at that time were ‘nuts and bolts and rivets’. Welding was introduced into its trades, for the first time, in the late 1930’s, and Combustion soon became a leading exponent of the technique.

Power Station Boilers
Across Britain, and indeed the world, the name ‘Combustion’ became synonymous with power plant.. In the UK the first major order was for a small boiler at Brimsdown, North London, in 1927, and local stations built by the company included Willington and Drakelow near Burton-on Trent.

In addition to those supplied in the U.K., boilers were supplied and installed in Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand and the USA. As power station requirements increased so did the boiler sizes involved. These grew from 100MW to 200MW and soon to more than 500MW. These huge complex units demanded tremendous effort on the part of designers and shop workers alike. New skills were developed by the design teams involving advances in fuel and heat transfer technologies as well as material sciences and stress analysis techniques. Incidentally, it must be remembered, that all calculations at that time were carried out by slide rule and logarithms, in some cases nine figure logarithms were used – this was long before calculators and computers were available. Similarly workshop skills were developing at a pace in order to handle the larger and more complex items requiring manufacture.

Some idea of the scale of these boilers is given by the fact that the Thorpe Marsh boilers, near Doncaster, in generating 550MW of electricity evaporated 1,700 tons of water per hour, whilst consuming more than 2,500,000 tons of coal a year! The output of one of these boilers exceeded the total generation capacity of Battersea power station, in central London, which at that time employed 17 boilers.

These large units, known as water tube boilers, were made to the basic design of an American company, Combustion Engineering, with whom there was a very close association through licensing agreements. The basic design consisted of many miles of small bore tubes, averaging about 2” outside diameter, arranged to form a furnace and a series of gas flues in which were suspended other tubing known as superheaters The chief Engineer in the 1950’s was R.F. (Digger) Davis, who apart from controlling circulation, in boilers, used his skills In fluid mechanics by helping consultants at the DRI to understand the circulation of blood in human beings.

The boilers were fired, almost from the onset by , what at that time was a novel concept, the burning of pulverized coal. Coal was ground down to a fine powder of the consistency of talcum powder. This pulverized coal was mixed with a measured amount of air and blown through to burners mounted in the furnace wall corners. The coal and air mixture was projected to the centre of the furnace chamber forming a fireball in which combustion of the coal was completed. This was a far more efficient way of burning coal than the old way of burning lumps of coal on stoker grates. This led to a new requirement for the works – the design and manufacture of the milling (or grinding) equipment for the production of pulverized coal.

The furnaces became enormous and could be best compared with the size of cathedrals. These boilers were required to produce superheated steam at pressures of 2,400 lbs/sq.in. at a temperatures in the order of 570°c. To sustain these conditions, new high strength and temperature resistant materials had to be developed that could be readily manipulated and welded during manufacture. Combustion was in the forefront of the development of such materials and the revolutionary welding techniques involved. This development involved cooperation with leading experts on an international scale with other companies, boiler users and leading technical institutions.

To translate these complex designs into working drawings and documents, the Company had a large Drawing Office employing some 250 draughtsmen and tracers. The chief draughtsman was Sid Bartlett. His assistants were Steve Elders and Tommy Hood. Sid Bartlett who, incidentally wore spats, was a disciplinarian to the extreme. If anyone turned up without a tie he was immediately sent home and instructed not to return unless he was properly dressed. There was one occasion when the office clock was two minutes fast and awaiting repair. To the annoyance of Sid Bartlett the draughtsmen would stop work according to the clock, even though an appropriate notice covering the problem had been posted on the notice board. In an attempt to stop this problem Bartlett stuck a piece of masking tape down the centre of the clock thus hiding the minute markings between five minutes to and five minutes past the hour. The next day all the draughtsmen placed a similar but narrower piece of tape down the centre of their wrist watches. Sid soon got the message and removed the tape.

The company also became renowned for its ability to bend tubes into very complex configurations and to then weld the tubes together, forming huge assemblies which were transported all over the world. Although boilers contained many difficult tube bending situations, the most demanding undertaken was the construction of huge water cooled fume hoods. These were fitted above the steels converters used in the steel making process. These tubular constructions were massive with many large openings, all of which had to be cooled by water circulated through the tubing at a predetermined rate. They were made in various sections, the size determined by transportation limitations, (In later years we all knew only too well that motor way bridges were 17’6” high - minimum !) then shipped to be finally assembled at site by Construction staff which had been trained to replicate the welding and assembly skills perfected in the factory.

New Challenges
There was also a new challenge emerging - nuclear power stations! These demanded the use of massive welded pressure vessels, up to four inches thick and weighing over 300 tons. To meet this requirement a large, totally new, Heavy Shop was built on the Sinfin site, formally opened in April 1959. The Shop had a single crane capacity of up to 100 tons matched by other smaller cranes. Huge presses and rolls were installed that could shape or bend plate up to six inches thick, often with the plate being heated to well above 1000°C. In this shop dozens of extremely large welded cylinders, each about eleven feet long, 18 feet diameter and 2½” thick, were fabricated. These were transported to site where they were joined together to produce multiple heat exchangers, each weighing more than 300 tons.

In parallel with the above, boiler drums up to 5 ft diameter by 6 inches thick and up to 100 feet long weighing up to 250 tons were formed and welded. Because of crane limitations these were usually made in three 30’ long sections, positioned for the completion by welding of the closure seams and then jacked with hydraulic machines, onto special large lorries for transportation to the construction site. Drums such as these were shipped from the works throughout the UK and to the far corners of the world. Additional items fabricated included hundreds of headers, long pipe like units up 20 inches diameter and three inches thick on to which the thousands of boiler tubes were welded. Reg Burleigh, works director at this time, was a tireless bundle of energy, who never seemed to miss out when anything important, or unusual, happened. A proud boast was that although other companies suffered, for various reasons, major pressure vessel explosions, ICL never had a single failure in over 40 years in the industry. A tribute to the care taken by everyone. But on a down side many local residents must have cursed the huge slow moving loads which left the works from time to time.

Work in the nuclear industry grew apace. The company entered into the nuclear business in 1958 with the contract to build the heat exchangers and boilers for the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor at Windscale. This plant performed admirably for more than 15 years and has now been decommissioned The heat exchangers for Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station, built in North Wales in the 1960’s, was a major triumph, now also sadly decommissioned after 25 years unblemished service. A first in the UK was the building of the Steam Cooled Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) at Winfrith, in Dorset. This involved, amongst many other items, the fabrication of two very large diameter, thick pressure vessels. The whole of the inner surface of these vessels required a coating of high quality stainless steel weld metal ¼ inch in thickness which was deposited using mainly automatic welding techniques developed by the ICL Welding Research Department.

A specialized stainless steel shop was established which included “clean conditions” facilities. Much of the stainless steel process plant at Sellafield (Windscale) nuclear reprocessing plant was built in this shop. This work was carried out to exacting quality standards, by high class platers and welders, using state of the art equipment. This process plant is still performing, to specification, today.

All of the site activity indicated earlier led to the formation of a very large ‘Construction Department’, members of which travelled the world to install the equipment built in Derby and to repair and upgrade equipment after extensive periods of operation.

In post war years the construction of boilers and other equipments became increasingly dependent on welding and the company’s reputation in this field was acknowledged worldwide. An early acquisition after the war was a second-hand flash butt welding machine. This had been used to weld together the lengths of pipe used in the construction of Pluto, the PipeLine Under The Ocean, which carried fuel under the channel to support the invasion forces following the D-Day landings. It finished its life in the more mundane occupation of welding tubes for boilers for power stations, such as that at Willington! Many new welding techniques were pioneered by the company and welders were trained to use them to the exacting standards the industry demanded.

When the nuclear industry commenced in the early 1960’s there was a national shortage of welders capable of welding thick materials, to very high standards. A special welding school was established in the works and the sports pavilion was temporarily converted into sleeping accommodation. Aptly named the ‘Ponderosa’, after the bunkhouse in a then popular TV series, the name just stuck - long after the temporary occupants had moved on.! At its peak, in the 1960-70’s, the company had over 250 qualified welders on its register in Derby alone, tube and thin plate welding being under the control of Welding Foremen Eric Garside whilst Ron Mordey dealt with the heavy stuff!

Quality and Testing
The work was carried out very high standards and all forms of non destructive testing (NDT) were employed. Ultrasonics, radiography, crack detection and leak detection techniques were just some of those employed. The NDT staff, initially under Brian Litting, but later controlled by Frank Brown, provided cover 24 hours a day for seven days a week since much of their work could only be done when the shops were empty, due of course, to the high use of radiographic sources in examining welds. Part of the heavy shop was walled off with radiograph screening material such that testing here could be carried out when the shops were in full production. Any unacceptable flaws found in welding had to cut out, re-welded and then retested, to the same demanding standards

The importance of scientific work in this industry was well recognised – to such a degree that during the war, despite tight restriction on building, a new laboratory was built, fronting onto Sinfin Lane, with Perry Wilson the Chief Chemist for many years. Here work included chemical analysis, metallurgical examinations, mechanical testing and a strange process called ‘particle sizing’, where the fineness achieved (known as comminution) by the company’s grinding equipment on various materials, such as china clay, could be measured. In the immediate post war years university graduates were few and far between and places at universities even fewer! Most of the laboratory and engineering staff therefore studied at the Derby Technical College, which was situated in Green Lane and Normington Road. With much evening study, and some day release, the relevant professional qualifications were however obtained.

The ‘Lab’ was for years a place where few outsiders knew, or understood, what happened inside but on which much of the Company’s success depended. The final acceptance of a boiler by a client for example, depended on meeting fuel efficiency tests, which laboratory and test department staff performed. These were designed to show that the actual boiler output matched the design parameters. Every boiler drum or pressure vessel had its own welded test plate or plates. These had to be cut into small (although sometimes not so small) mechanical test pieces which were subjected to tensile, extension and/or bending tests to exacting standards before the drum or vessel was permitted to leave Derby.

Quality was of the essence and close attention was paid to ensuring a high standard of compliance. ICL was one of the earliest companies to be approved by the CEGB and soon gained all the national qualifications, including the then (1970’s) top accolade, BS 5750 Part 1. Probably the greatest accolade recognising the company’s quality capability was when it was approved in the late 1970’s by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) for the manufacture of Boilers for use in the USA - something very few manufacturers outside the USA have achieved!.

A major spin off from the need to produce finely ground coal – pulverised fuel, was that skills developed here were carried over to other industries and a wide variety of minerals were crushed, ground, pumped and screened and separated in equipments designed and made in Derby Other branches of the company included the manufacture of very small coal stokers, burners for oil, coal and gas, mechanical handling equipments and a wide variety of complex machines.

Wartime Combustion
During the 1939-45 war the ICL played its part in the war effort. ‘Operation ICL’ represented a major contribution such that some work shops retained their wartime names 40 years on – the Corvette Shop made ships boilers and the Torpedo Shop obviously, torpedoes. These shops later became the tube shop and the Millwright’s shop respectively, and retained their names when the reason why had disappeared to all but a few with long memories. Three thousand 4000llb bombs were made in the works, amongst the many other sizes produced. Caterpillar tracks for tanks figured largely in the efforts of the foundry. In the immediate post war years the company made many portable power units, each capable of producing up to 2.5 MW, which were sent to devastated Europe. Many letters from government departments were sent to the company congratulating both it and the employees on the tremendous contribution made to the war effort.

Export Achievements recognised
The company prospered in the post war power boom and whilst most of the home market was the province of the virtual monopoly buyer, the Central Electricity Generating Board, (CEGB) much equipment was exported overseas. This latter contribution to the national economy was recognised by the award of the ‘The Queens Award to Industry’ in 1973, presented on her majesty’s behalf by Sir Ian Walker-Okeover, Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire. The award marked the value of the tremendous expansion of export work carried out, from £3.8M in 1970 to almost £8M by the end of 1972.

Social Life
A friendly place at which to work, ICL never suffered from industrial action, although the number of employees at times exceeded 2000. Until well after the second world war most employees lived locally and travelled to work on foot, on bicycle or by buses. Hundreds of cycles were parked in racks around the works. Many legends grew within the company which became embellished with time. For instance a foreman when visiting a clients site during the war, lost his bowler hat when it fell off, straight into a coal mill - to be lost forever. He duly put the price of a new bowler hat on his expense claim for the trip. His claim was rejected by his boss with laughter - ‘No Bowler Hats please’. He resubmitted the claim and his boss said ‘Good to see no bowler hat this time’. The response was ‘It is in there but you try to find it!’ This event gave rise to the term ‘bowler hatted’ expenses, still used by some employees in later years!.

A wide variety of social and sporting activity was associated with the company and ‘Park Hill’, the social club on Browning Street, saw many varied sporting activities and dances, so common in the 60’s and 70’s. There was a whole raft of inter-departmental sporting competitions which were keenly contested. Cricket, football, bowls, tennis and golf all had their followers and Combo teams played in many local leagues. The Company possessed its own sports field on which cricket and football matches were played. There were also tennis courts and bowling facilities, with a badminton court doubling up in the canteen. Golf tuition was provided in the sports pavilion by a local professional, Arthur Beck, with two sets of golf clubs available for hire to encourage newcomers to the game.

More work- but Changes in Ownership
In the late 1960`s the rapid expansion for electrical power was beginning to reduce. This was accompanied by a gradual shift away from a total dependency on coal as the main fuel source. ICL supplied 500 MW boilers for a new power station named Kingsnorth situated on the Medway in Kent. These boilers were designed to operate at 100% capacity on either coal or oil or any mixture of the two fuels. At the same time work was being carried out to convert a number of existing power stations to operate on a multi fuel basis. During the 1970`s orders for new power stations within the UK reduced dramatically leading to a consolidation within the boiler making industry.

In the 1980`s ICL along with John Thompson and Clarke-Chapman were merged, together with Parsons the steam turbine manufacturer, to form Northern Engineering Industries (NEI). During the 1990`s Rolls-Royce purchased NEI seeking to increase its position in the power generating industry and to reduce its total dependency on the vagaries of the aero-engine market. Throughout this time ICL was gradually reduced in size being now mainly dependant on the overseas market. Its swan song, in large boiler market place, was the supply of two 500 MW boilers as part of the Rihand power station in Utter Predish, in India. This was a triumph in organization, built as it was in a remote area of India, with many logistical problems being encountered in getting men and materials to the site, not to mention the problems of dealing with an exceedingly difficult client.

During the late 1990`s, ICL became mainly involved in the fabrication of co-generation power plant, to other companies designs, by the provision of the waste heat boilers fuelled by the pass-out gases from gas turbines. Although lucrative, this plant was not to be compared with the glory days of the large coal fired boilers.

A change of policy by Rolls Royce led to a reduction in exposure to the power industry thereby reducing ICL to little more than a set of fabrication shops. Much of the site has now been cleared and, with the company name along with the design expertise having been sold off, what remains today is just a shadow of its former self!

Probably however the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), together with the emergence of gas as a cheap fuel in the early 1980’s resulted in major and very dramatic changes in the electrical power industry. These changes .taken together significantly contributed to the to the eventual demise of a fine old company.

The end of International Combustion as an independent company represented a sad period for many devoted employees – they never thought that the strong balance of engineering which existed in Derby in the 1970’s - Rolls Royce, Railways, Celanese, Aitons, Qualcast, Combustion etc would ever change – but change it has! This is called progress.

Alan Gifford and Ron Blount - December 2003

(Both Alan and Ron were employed at International Combustion Limited from the late 40`s until the 1990`s. Alan Gifford as variously a Metallurgist, Welding Engineer and Quality Manager and Ron Blount latterly in managerial positions in Engineering Design and Production Engineering.)


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