Burney, Sir [Charles] Dennistoun, second baronet 1888-1968, naval inventor, was born in Bermuda, 28 December 1888, the only son among the three children of (Admiral Sir) Cecil Burney [qv.], later second in command of the Grand Fleet at Jutland, and his wife, Lucinda Marion, second daughter of George Richards Burnett, of London. He received a formal naval education, starting his training at the Britannia in 1903, and joining the battleship Exmouth as midshipman in early 1905.
He joined the destroyer Afridi in 1909, and soon afterwards, the Crusader, used for experimental work by the Anti-Submarine Committee, of which his father was the first president. Burney became very interested in the experiments then in progress for destroying this, then novel, craft by towing explosive charges. He was also quick to see the potential of another recent invention, the aeroplane, as a means of spotting submarines, and this sparked off his interest in aeronautics. In September 1911, he went on half pay so that he could continue his researches at the Bristol aviation works of Sir George White. His work there was interrupted by appointments to the battleship Venerable and the cruiser Black Prince, but in each ship he remained only long enough to apply for half pay and return to Bristol. In August 1912, he commenced a one-year gunnery course, and on its completion the Admiralty allowed him to continue his anti-submarine work and seaplane construction. At this time Burney made the far-reaching suggestion that aircraft fitted with wireless for hunting and attacking submarines should be carried by ships. For this purpose, he and F. S. Barnwell developed at Bristol a seaplane which the Admiralty afforded facilities for trials at Burney's expense, but the outbreak of war in 1914 halted this work. Seaplanes were indeed used during the war for tracking down submarines. They were fitted with hydrophones (a form of underwater microphone), which allowed them to listen for submerged submarines underway. However, these flimsy craft could be used only in calm weather.
When World War I broke out, Burney was given command of the destroyer Velox, but soon afterwards he joined the Vernon, the Portsmouth Torpedo School, where up to that time much of the navy's scientific research and development had taken place. At Vernon, he was primarily responsible for the development of the explosive paravane. He was able to make good use of his knowledge of aircraft design, as this device, towed astern, was essentially a small underwater aeroplane, consisting of a torpedo-shaped body fitted with fins and a rudder to keep it at any depth. He described its basic uses in a secret patent taken out in 1915. These included destroying submarines on impact, and cutting the moorings of underwater mines by means of serrated cutters attached to the nose, allowing the mines to be destroyed on the surface. Trials with this device started in the spring of 1915, and in June Burney was appointed to organize a new paravane department at Vernon. In the following year he took out another ten patents dealing with paravanes and associated gear, such as davits and towing cables. In 1920 the royal commission on awards to inventors gave Burney the main credit for this invention, but recommended that, as he had received some £350,000 for patent rights for its use by merchant vessels and abroad, no further payments should be made to him. He had received no payment for the navy's wartime use of this device, but he had been rewarded in the 1917 birthday honours by his appointment as CMG, an honour rarely given to a lieutenant. In 1920 Burney retired from the navy as a lieutenant-commander, and on reaching the age of forty, he was promoted on the retired list to commander. He succeeded his father in the baronetcy in 1929.
After the war, Burney took out a series of patents relating to precast concrete as a building material, and he joined Vickers Ltd. as a consultant. He realized that the new developments in aviation held both economic and political implications. Communications in the British Empire would be greatly improved by a comprehensive system of air travel: airships to operate the main trunk routes over the oceans, large flying boats for the Eastern routes, serving Egypt, India, and the Far East, feeding the trunk routes, and smaller land planes for shorter routes, feeding the flying boats. These ideas were set out in his The World, the Air and the Future (1929), and to further them he entered Parliament as a Unionist member for Uxbridge in 1922, and held his seat until 1929. Burney was keen to start his airship service with the German Zeppelins surrendered to Britain at the cessation of hostilities, but these were found to be too corroded. After lengthy negotiations with Vickers and the Government, Burney formed the Airship Guarantee Company, appointing (Sir) Barnes Wallis as chief designer in 1923, and soon thereafter Nevil Shute Norway [qv.], who became a novelist, as chief calculator. An order for a new airship, the R.100, was placed with Burney's firm, but the Government decided that competition was healthy and put together its own design team at the Air Ministry (consisting mainly of members already discarded by Burney for his board on the advice of Barnes Wallis), to develop the R.101 at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. This resulted in an unhealthy race between the two projects that eventually ended with the crashing of the R.101 on 5 October 1930 at Beauvais in France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board, including Lord Thomson [qv.], the secretary of state for air who had instituted this project, and the design team. This destroyed the British rigid airship programme for all time. The R.100, which had made a successful acceptance flight to Canada and back in July-August 1930, on which both Burney and Nevil Shute Norway were present, was dismantled in 1931, its valuable remains crushed by a steam-roller.
In the late 1920s Burney designed a streamlined rear-engined saloon car, the prototype of which is in the Montagu motor car museum at Beaulieu. Its novel features were the subject of a number of patents taken out in 1929-33, and included independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. It was supplied with either a six-cylinder Crossley or an eight-cylinder Beverley Barnes engine. The Prince of Wales bought one, but at £1,500 it was not an economic proposition and very few were sold. In 1933, this unconventional design was taken up by Crossley but they, too, could not make it a commercial success.
During the war of 1939-45 Burney was employed by the War Office on secret experimental work, the scope of which can be surmised by a large number of patents that began to appear in the early 1950s relating to, among other matters, aerial gliding bombs and marine torpedoes with gyroscopically controlled aerofoils, gun-fired rocket projectiles, and a non-recoil gun. After the war, he became interested in improving fishing trawlers. He designed a catamaran trawler, apparatus to facilitate trawling and landing the catch, an otter or porpoise (a kind of paravane) incorporating sonar to detect fish shoals, and plants for freezing fish either on board or ashore. In all, Burney took out more than 100 patents during the period 1915 to 1962. Amongst these were six with Barnes Wallis and one with Wallis and Nevil Norway on aspects of airship design. In 1947, acting for British iron and steel interests, he secured a concession in Northern Rhodesia for iron and coal prospecting, and consequently maintained two homes: one in Rhodesia and the other in Bermuda.
Burney could be a difficult taskmaster and his relations with his colleagues were sometimes uneasy. One of them described him as a man of whom one could believe that no situation could be so awful as actually to daunt him. In 1921 he married Gladys, the younger daughter of George Henry High, of Chicago. He died 11 November 1968 in Hamilton, Bermuda. His only son, Cecil Denniston Burney (born 1923), succeeded to the title.
The Times and Guardian, 14 November 1968
Nevil Shute, Slide Rule, 1954
J. E. Morpurgo, Barnes Wallis, A Biography, 1972
Contributor: W. D. Hackmann