1. What can I find at the National Archives?
There are many records relating to naval research and development at The National Archives, primarily within the Admiralty records.
These are often within the reports and papers of the various establishments, committees or laboratories created to look at specific research areas.
Research areas covered a wide range of topics from hydro-ballistic research to diving.
The National Maritime Museum also holds relevant collections. Contact them directly to find out more about their collection.
2. How do I find relevant records?
This guide highlights some key series. However, you may wish to start with a keyword search of Discovery, our catalogue.
If you are researching a particular establishment, do a keyword search for it in our catalogue. Refine your search by the Admiralty department code, ADM, and also by date.
If you do not have a specific establishment name, read the catalogue description of ADM Division 13. This points you to the document series for various research establishments. It is not an exhaustive list but it will give you an idea of what records exist and also of the Admiralty's naming conventions.
You can also search for types of material using keywords such as 'technical handbooks' or 'reports'.
Further search tips include:
- try to use the organisation's full name (if known), for example the Advisory Panel on Scientific Research
- try looking in the records of the organisation they were attached to were or were amalgamated with: for example, Admiralty Hydro-Ballistic Research Establishment records are also within Admiralty Research Laboratory
3. Early naval research and development
Before the First World War the Navy did not have a central research establishment and often worked in partnership with the private sector.
For the period before 1850 also browse:
The National Maritime Museum also has major collections, such as warship design records.
From 1852, major subject files, known as case papers, are within ADM 116. They are grouped by subject codes. The relevant codes are:
- 11 (armaments)
- 59 (inventions and suggestions)
- 80.1 (experiments)
- 81 (machinery)
Case files cover a wide variety of technological developments, ship design, mines and even the 'landship' (the tank).
4. First World War -The Board of Invention and Research (1915-1918)
The First World War provided a powerful stimulus for R&D (research and development) as it became clear technological superiority was essential to success.
In July 1915, the Board of Invention and Research was established to assess invention proposals made by the public. Numerous sub-committees were also established, on topics such as Airships and Oil Fuel.
Try searching for your research interest within ADM in our catalogue.
You can find:
- board minutes, and reports of experiments submitted in ADM 293
- the Holland Report (ADM 116/1601B) outlining how the Board drew on the resources of private industry, the National Physical Laboratory and other Admiralty establishments
- National Physical Laboratory reports on work done on behalf of the Admiralty in DSIR 10 and in DSIR 36
Explore, by subject, ADM 137, a collection of material brought together for the official history of the First World War. This contains information on submarine development and detection.
5. Directorate of Scientific Research and Experiment (1918-1946)
The technical departments retained responsibility for research, development and production within their own fields. The division of responsibilities are outlined in ADM 213/523.
You can explore records of various stations and departments through keyword searches in our catalogue.
Also browse ADM 186 for printed confidential reports, monographs and training manuals covering new developments in armaments, engineering, navigation and signals.
6. Royal Naval Scientific Service
In 1946, the Department of Scientific Research was re-organised to form the Royal Naval Scientific Service which had four Directorates.
ADM Division 12 is a good starting-point for this period. Read the catalogue description to find other useful series.
7. Ministry of Defence (1946 onwards)
The Ministry of Defence was established to co-ordinate the policies of the three armed services. The Defence Research Policy Committee provided advice on scientific matters and reviewed R&D costs and needs.
You can find:
- committee minutes and memoranda, closed to public access for 50 years, in DEFE 10
- papers of its first chairman in DEFE 9
- files of the Central Scientific Defence Staff, which co-ordinated the work of the Chief Scientists of the armed forces, in DEFE 19
After 1971, R&D establishments were placed under one Controller in the Executive and greater reliance was placed again on private industry.
8. Naval Ordnance
Records on weapon development until 1855 are amongst the Board of Ordnance records.
From 1891 onwards look within the Naval Ordnance Department records. You can find records on subjects such as inventions and explosive testing (SUPP 6). Technical reports are within various committee and laboratory records so try searching for topics or organisations within ADM.
Browse DEFE 15 for records relating to the development of conventional weapons for all the armed services.
9. Inventions and inventors
You can find recommendations for awards to inventors (1894-1925) in ADM 245.
In 1919, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate claims by inventors who believed their work had been exploited by the government during the First World War.
You can search for claims within T 173, by name of inventor or company. There is also a subject index which includes ships, torpedoes, submarines and sea-planes.
For records on patents and specifications of inventions:
10. Other non-Admiralty records
- search within T 1, using the T2 and T108 indexes, for the financial implications of naval R&D before 1920
- for 1920-1948 browse Supply Files in T 161
- for 1948 onwards browse T 225
- TS 21 and TS 32 also contain some information about Admiralty inventions
Cabinet papers for policy related material:
12. Further reading
Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
DK Brown, A century of naval construction 1883-1983 (Conway Maritime Press, 1983)
MM Postan, D Hay and JP Scott, Design and development of weapons (HMSO, 1964)
B Ranft (ed), Technical change and British naval policy 1860-1939 (Hodder and Stoughton, 1977)