HC Deb 19 May 1915 vol 71 cc2382-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn until Tuesday, the 8th June."—[The Chancellor of the Exchequer.]

4.0 P.M.


I desire to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Motion for the Adjournment of this House to call attention to the circumstances that have given rise to the shortage in optical glasses and the raw material employed in the manufacture of optical instruments for our naval and military forces. I hope to be able to make one or two suggestions which may be of service to the Board of Trade with a view to improving this state of things. I do not think that I need to dwell upon the importance of these optical instruments for our two Services, for they are indeed vital to the success of our operations in the field. The optical instruments which are most needed are prismatic binoculars, telescopes, dial sights, range-finders, and periscopes. The subject on which I have to speak is a very technical one, but I hope to be able to put my case before the House without entering into any of the difficult and complicated details which surround the consideration of this question. Let me briefly explain, in the first instance, that optical glass is glass of a special chemical composition. It is the material from which lenses and prisms are made, and its composition varies with the purpose for which it is intended and with the optical effect which is to be produced. There are many varieties of optical glass, and some are used in very small quantities in the making of lenses. Just as the strength of the chain lies in its weakest link, so the value of an optical instrument may depend on the ability to obtain some small lens the value of which is very slight. Indeed, I may say that the commercial value of a lens is often only a small fraction of the value of the instrument of which it forms a part. One-eighth of a cube of glass worth only a few pence may be made into a lens which will form an essential part of a compound lens the value of which may be several pounds sterling. I need scarcely say that all these optical instruments to which I have referred are equally essential for the use of officers in the Army and Navy. We have had very painful experience of the use to which the periscope has been put by German submarines, but periscopes of a different make are equally necessary for our gunners in the Artillery.

Until the outbreak of the War, and indeed for some little time after the outbreak of War, we were dependent for the supply of this optical glass, which is the raw material of lenses, on two or three sources. We were able to obtain some from a Paris firm, Messrs. Para-Mantois, and from one or two other firms in France. A small quantity was also manufactured in this country by Messrs. Chance, of Birmingham, but we were almost exclusively dependent for this important material upon the German firm of Messrs. Schott, of Jena, who supplied us with almost the whole of the quantity of glass which for years we have required. Messrs. Schott, of Jena, were very closely associated with Messrs. Zeiss, of the same town, who were makers of optical instruments, and these firms received from the Prussian Government in the early days large subventions which enabled them to make scientific experiments in the manufacture of lenses and of optical instruments, which gave to their instruments a degree of perfection which it was difficult, if not impossible, to attain at the price by any British manufacturer. Messrs. Schott and Zeiss for many years had an enterprising branch in this country, and they neglected no opportunity whatever to do their best to ruin the British industry, and they partially succeeded. They have succeeded in retaining the whole of this important trade in their own hands by many subtle devices. I have here, for instance, an invoice of Messrs. Schott and Company of optical glass supplied to an English firm, and on that invoice is printed in red letters in German these words:— Optical glass supplied by us must only be used in your own works and must on no account be sold or handed over to any other firm. This branch was established here mainly with a view to working their own patents, but, notwithstanding the conditions attaching to the working of foreign patents in this country, namely, that the work must be carried on exclusively by English hands, and that the whole product must be made in this country, many of the parts of the instruments which they sold were imported from Germany and were made by German workmen. I may be allowed to point out, as showing the vast extent of the operations of the firm of Messrs. Schott, of Jena, that they were able to supply over one hundred different types of optical glass, whilst Messrs. Chance, until the outbreak of the War, were unable to put upon the market more than or even as much as one-third of that number of types. I readily admit that all these types are not wanted for instruments used by our Navy or by our Army. Some are required for microscopes and for photographic purposes, but some of the rarer types are absolutely necessary. Having regard to the limited demand, these can only be supplied at a commercial loss, unless as a part of a very large trade in other varieties of glass.

Although this industry is very small compared with that, say, of the aniline dyes, some idea of the straits to which the Government has been put by the complete cessation of imports from Germany on the outbreak of War may be gathered from the figures furnished by the Board of Trade. The imports of crude and rough pressed glass in the year 1913 from Germany were 14,300 kilos, which is about 14 tons, and worth about £6,000, and, remembering that 1 ton of optical glass may be cut up into a number of small lenses not weighing more than half an ounce, some idea of our position at the outbreak of War will be readily realised. Nothing, I venture to think, could disprove more conclusively the statement of the Germans that this War was forced upon them by us than our own unprepared condition at the outbreak of War and our absolute dependence upon Germany for a supply of materials essential to the carrying on of the War. It is quite true that the War Office in November, 1912, inquired of one or more firms making optical instruments what amount of optical glass would be available on an emergency. This inquiry has some historical significance, for the letter of the Board of Trade was written a few days only before the memorable letter addressed to the French Ambassador by our Foreign Secretary, which was communicated to this House on 3rd August of last year. The answer as regards the available optical glass from these firms was very unsatisfactory. I have a copy of it here, but I have been unable to ascertain that any endeavour was then made by which to increase the supply from any British source.

Great efforts have been made within the last few months to increase the supply, and I think it right to say that we are very much indebted to the patriotic efforts of Messrs. Chance, of Birmingham, who have done all they possibly could to increase the available supply. They have opened new works, they have laid down new plant and equipment, and they have done this, so far as I have been able to gather, without any pecuniary help from the Government and without any guarantee as to what may happen to their works when the War is over. I am told that within a month or two they will be able to supply eight or ten times as much optical glass as they were able to supply at the outbreak of War. This is not enough. Notwithstanding these efforts there is still considerable delay in obtaining optical instruments, such as those to which I have referred, which are urgently required by our military forces. This delay was admitted by the Admiralty and by the War Office in their answers to questions which I put to them some few days since. It is due to several causes. It has resulted partly from the difficulty of obtaining in sufficient purity the Barium salt that enters very largely into the composition of most kinds of optical glasses. This difficulty Messrs. Chance have also endeavoured to overcome by laying down new works for the preparation and manufacture of this important chemical ingredient. But it is also due to a shortage of skilled hands who are required to make the glass and who are engaged in the delicate operations connected with the manufacture of these instruments. It is also due to the difficulty of obtaining glasses of special composition which are required in very small quantities. That this shortage still exists is proved by the answers to some questions which were put to a certain number of manufacturers by the Director of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. These are the questions and answers:— Are all kinds of glass immediately required for military instruments being produced in England?—No. Are the kinds which are being produced available in sufficient quantities?—No. Are they supplied without delay?—No. Are kinds of glass other than those made in England necessary for military purposes?—Yes. I think those facts sufficiently show that a shortage still exists, and I have endeavoured to refer to the circumstances which have given rise to that shortage in this important material.

I desire now to make a few suggestions, first as to the means that might be adopted to increase the supply with a view to our immediate requirements, and secondly—and this is perhaps equally important—as to the steps which might be taken in order to retain this important branch of industry in our own hands when the War is over. Apart from the causes of delay in production to which I have already referred, delay is also due to the absence, so far as I have been able to make out, of any organisation of the industry, which is essential to economy of effort and material. I have gathered from Messrs. Chance that they produce certain quantities of glass in excess of what is required, whereas other glasses, which are equally important, they have produced in smaller quantities than are absolutely needed.

I would therefore suggest that the manufacturers of instruments should be brought into very close association with the makers of the glass, and I think it might be practicable for the Board of Trade to appoint an officer who should visit the works of those engaged in the making of optical instruments, and ascertain from them what glasses they particularly require, and what glasses they may have in excess of their requirements. Some arrangement might be made among the makers of optical instruments, by which an exchange of optical glass might be effected so that the production of instruments might be accelerated. Further than that, this officer should be able to report at once to Messrs. Chance and inform them, after having visited these factories, of the particular kind of glass which is urgently needed. I suggest further that the War Office and the Admiralty should give orders only to those houses which are capable with the least delay of producing the instruments that are immediately required.

The other question upon which I wish to speak is how may this important industry be wrested from the German firms and retained in this country after the War is over. This problem, which is similar in some respects to that which we discussed not long ago in regard to the supply of aniline dyes, must be considered from two sides—the economic and the educational. I do not hesitate for one moment to say that this country must never again find itself in the position of depending upon any foreign country for the supply of a material essential, in time of peace as well as in time of war, for the operations of our Navy and our Army. It is possible that that proposition may conflict with certain well known economic theories. What measures are we to take to effect this? In the first instance, care must be taken to increase and develop the supply of optical glass from British sources. Moreover, we must assume that British manufacturers of optical instruments will be unable after the War to compete with Messrs. Schott and Zeiss. The works of these firms are far more completely organised and, what is more important, the area of their trade is very much wider, for they make not only glass which is required for optical instruments, but also glass required for medical purposes, for microscopes, for photographic uses, and indeed a large amount of glass used in chemical laboratories. If they therefore could supply instruments of better quality than could be supplied in this country, and at a less price, what would happen would be that the demand for glass made in this country would fall off, and after a time any British firm would be unable to supply the glass that might be required; more than that, they would have to shut down their plant, and gradually dismiss their operatives. The value of the glass in an optical instrument is very small indeed; consequently it would be quite easy for German firms successfully to compete wth instrument-makers in this country although making a small loss upon the value of the optical glass. How can this be prevented? I have come to the conclusion that what we desire can only be effected by some sort of guarantee on the part of the Government that, for the purposes certainly of our Navy and of our Army, British made glass, and no other, shall be used. I repeat that in considering this problem, the teachings of all economic theories must be set aside. They apply to ordinary commercial conditions, and not to such abnormal conditions as obtain during a war. I think we may lay it down as an axiom, which should be added to the science of political economy, that what is essential to the safety of the realm must be produced within the Empire.

Let me refer briefly to some of the suggestions which have been made for enabling us to retain the manufacture of optical glass and optical instruments in this country. It has been suggested that the State might impose a high tariff on imports of glass and instruments. Of course, strong objection would naturally be taken to that from the Free Trade point of view. Moreover, it would be very difficult indeed to differentiate between types of glass required for the manufacture of optical instruments for our Army and for our Navy and other types of glass required for scientific and other purposes. It is also suggested that the State might give a bonus on the production of optical glass. Either of these proposals would scarcely affect the price of optical instruments, seeing that the value of the glass bears such a small proportion to the whole. Unless, therefore, the tariff or bonus could be extended to the manufacture of optical instruments, either of these proposals would seem to me to be ineffective. I may say, however, from my interviews with the manufacturers of optical instruments that they would certainly be glad to have a tariff imposed on such imports. A less drastic proposal, and one which might more easily meet the views of Members on both sides of the House, and obviate the difficulty of differentiating between the types of glass required for various purposes, is that it might be made an essential condition of the acceptance of any Government contract for the supply of optical instruments for the Admiralty or for the War Office that every part of the instruments should have been made in this country, and steps should be taken to enforce that condition. That seems to me to be a reasonable proposal, and one which might enable us after the War to retain the industry in our own hands. It has been further suggested that the State should take over the works of Messrs. Chance, who are the only manufacturers of optical glass in this country. I know quite well that Messrs. Chance would object to such a proposal, and I think that the suggestion which I have put forward would meet the case. It is possible that other proposals may be made. I have put forward these suggestions simply in the hope that they may be of some service to the Board of Trade.

With regard to the educational side of the question, there are few, if any, industries more dependent for their successful working on the application of science than the optical glass industry. For the manufacture of aniline dyes a very advanced knowledge of chemistry is required, but for the manufacture of optical instruments and the glass from which the lenses are formed an advanced knowledge is required not only of mathematics, but also of chemistry, metallurgy and physics. In the application of this knowledge to this particular industry we have been very far behind Germany. The Germans have attached the utmost importance to this branch of technical knowledge, and I am sorry to say that it is a branch of technology which we in this country have too long neglected. It is possible that we found this industry too securely entrenched by German manufacturers to make it worth our while to endeavour to wrest it from them. But circumstances have changed, and I do not hesitate to say that we must do all we can to secure the carrying out of the work in our own country. Many of the advances made by German scientists have been due to direct experiments, the mathematical calculations necessary for the designing of lenses being almost too complicated to enable lenses to be prepared from theoretical designs. I may also point out that almost the entire literature on applied optics is in the German language. Anyone who wishes to make himself cognisant of the scientific theory of applied optics must be able to read text-books and papers published in the German language. That state of things must no longer exist. We must do something in this country to offer facilities for technical instruction in the sciences bearing on applied optics, so that all classes of workers may be able to obtain here the necessary preparation. I am glad to say that something has already been accomplished. It has been suggested that we should establish in this country an Institute of Applied Optics. Personally, I do not think that that is necessary; I have always objected to spending on bricks and mortar money which might be more usefully spent on the salaries of teachers.

I believe that we can obtain all that we desire by organising and co-ordinating the facilities which already exist, and by supplementing them where they are found to be deficient. For some little time we have had at Clerkenwell a polytechnic institute which has established a school of applied optics under a most efficient teacher, who was himself trained in the works of Messrs. Chance, and we are very much indebted to that school for the supply of a large number of skilled hands, who have made the shortage of instruments much less than it would otherwise have been. The governors of that institution have purchased a site on which more extended buildings might be erected, and nothing is needed but further funds, which it is hoped will be provided. Besides that, we have the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, where researches in optical science are being carried out, and where all kinds of tests necessary to this industry can be made. That laboratory will be able to extend its work so as to carry out many more tests than it has hitherto been able to do if so small a sum as £1,000 can be given for its extension.


Is that the Northampton Institute?


No; I have already spoken of the Clerkenwell Institute. If I had referred to it as the Northampton Institute, the House might have understood it to mean an institute in Northampton. It is called the Northampton Institute because the ground was given by the Marquis of Northampton. We also have the Imperial College of Science and Technology, where advanced instruction is given in all the sciences to which I have referred, but where, at present, no professor has been appointed who is able to apply those sciences to the practical manufacture of optical instruments. I would make this suggestion to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education: That a small committee should be appointed to co-ordinate the work of these three institutions, so as to prevent the teaching in one overlapping the other, and so that all classes of persons employed in the manufacture of these important instruments might be trained in one or other of these institutions, and that opportunities might be afforded for research work to be carried out as required, either in the Imperial College or in the laboratory at Teddington. In my opinion no advances in science as applied to this industry will avail to secure the retention of the industry in this country after the termination of the War unless we take into account the economic questions to which I have referred. Encouragement must be given to existing firms to continue their efforts so that they may be able, after the War is over, to maintain their equipment in the face of German competition, and to supply the materials required for the manufacture of those optical instruments which are urgently needed for our naval and military forces. I feel that some apology is due to the House for having dwelt at such length on a subject bristling with technical difficulties. Although the industry is small, its importance to us in the War we are now waging, and in any future war, is so considerable, that I have thought it worth while to bring this matter under the consideration of the House.


After the very able and interesting speech of my hon. Friend, and the exhaustive manner in which he has dealt with the question, I will cut my remarks in support of him very short. I would remind the House that this industry flourished a great many years ago and, as in the case of the aniline dye industry, for the last fifty years we have been going backward instead of forward in competition with rival countries. A great deal might be said on the subject, but inasmuch as the House is prepared for a vital and interesting statement, I will merely finish my remarks by stating that I am in full accord with everything my hon. Friend has said.


There is a very practical matter in connection with this subject to which I wish to refer. We all deplore the large number of lives that have been lost in the trenches, especially those of officers, through the German sharp-shooters. They employ telescopic sights on their rifles, and by means of those sights the accuracy of their aim is largely increased. Our soldiers at the present time are clamouring for those telescopic sights, and they cannot be obtained. I am told that the Government have a monopoly of the supply that exists. Attempts have been made by benevolent persons to try and purchase telescopic sights for our soldiers, in order to put them on more equal terms with the Germans, who are using them every day. I would ask for some explanation from the President of the Board of Trade as to how matters stand in this respect. A great deal of public interest centres round it amongst those who know. It would be a good thing if the Board of Trade were able to make such arrangements so that our soldiers in the field might be supplied with the telescopic sights, by means of which they could protect themselves against the sharpshooters of the enemy more than they have been able to do in the past. Parhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us how many are in existence, how they can be procured, whether or not the Government will supply them to the troops, and, if not, whether private money can be used for purchasing them and sending them out to the various regiments which require them?