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No. 110:
Nevil Shute

Today, we meet Nevil Shute Norway. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Do you remember On The Beach? It was a wrenching, understated story told through the eyes of the last survivors of nuclear war, waiting to die in Australia. Thirty years ago, the best-selling book, and a fine movie based on it, made a disturbingly realistic case against the nuclear stalemate.

The author was Nevil Shute Norway, born in England in 1899. He wrote under the name Nevil Shute. After serving in WW-I, he trained at Oxford to be an aeronautical engineer. From 1922 to 1933 he worked in airplane and dirigible companies. He also published his first four novels, one of which was made into a movie.

He published nothing more until 1938. During that time he formed an airplane manufacturing company called Airspeed, Ltd. When he left the company to join WW-II in 1939, he'd built it up to a thousand employees. He went back to his books in 1938 and wrote roughly one a year until he died in Australia in 1960.

Shute's books are low-key, but his plots are assembled like Swiss watches -- every piece fits perfectly, and you simply can't put one down after you're 50 pages into it. They also contain astounding technical realism -- far more than you'd think could hold his readers' attention, much less keep them spellbound.

His typical hero (or anti-hero) is reserved, capable, and a little mousy. When his book No Highway was made into a movie, Jimmy Stewart played an introverted engineer crossing the Atlantic in an airliner. He discovered that this plane was due to suffer a fatigue failure and then had to convince the disbelieving crew.

Some of his work -- An Old Captivity and In The Wet, for example -- flirted with strange notions of mysticism -- a lot like early Steinbeck. But he always came back to powerful storytelling. The Legacy was Shute in top form. It was also made into a movie, but you're more likely to remember the wonderful television miniseries based on it. It was renamed A Town Like Alice.

By the way, On The Beach wasn't at all typical. Shute was no writer of Greek tragedy. The engineer in him said that we can solve our problems. We don't let them beat us. He once said that he thought of himself as "an engineer who writes books." Despite his extraordinary success -- 23 books, largely best-sellers -- many adapted for movies and television -- despite all this, he was first of all an engineer.

His last book, Trustee from the Toolroom, told of a middle-aged engineer who, as the result of an obligation, had to do an immensly complicated bit of smuggling. The book was a runaway best-seller in 1961, yet it could have doubled as an engineering text. If you've never read any Shute, try him. You'll be surprised.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Shute books mentioned here have been reprinted by different publishers and even under various titles. I recommend you check your library's on-line catalog for his works. You will be in for some fun.

For more on Nevil Shute's work, see Episodes 112 and 1159 and the following website: