How to look for records of... Research and development in the Royal Navy

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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.

ADM 1 holds information on 19th century technological developments. Use the name and subject indexes (digests) in ADM 12 to identify relevant ADM 1 records.

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. Technological developments in the 20th century

4.1 The bodies responsible for research and development

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. Look at ADM 116/1601B for the the Holland Report, outlining how the Board drew on the resources of private industry, the National Physical Laboratory and other Admiralty establishments

In 1918 the Directorate of Scientfic Research and Experiment replaced the Board of Invention and Research and co-ordinated the various experimental stations run by the many technical departments. Key records are in ADM 283 and ADM 1.

The technical departments retained responsibility for research, development and production within their own fields. The division of responsibilities are outlined in ADM 213/523.

In 1946 the Department of Scientific Research was re-organised to form the Royal Naval Scientific Service which had four directorates and in the same year 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.

After 1971, R&D establishments were placed under one Controller in the Executive and greater reliance was placed again on private industry.

4.2 Records of development and design of ships and submarines

For the design of warships, see the Director of Naval Construction’s papers in ADM 229.

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.

4.3 Records of other technological research and developments

Search or browse for:

  • reports of experiments as covered in the minutes of the Board in Invention and Research in ADM 293 (1914-1919)
  • National Physical Laboratory reports on work done on behalf of the Admiralty in DSIR 10 (1906-1990) and in DSIR 36 (1884-1957)
  • printed confidential reports, monographs and training manuals covering new developments in armaments, engineering, navigation and signals in ADM 186 (1827-1970)
  • the Admiralty Research Laboratory’s papers, including papers on camouflage, in ADM 212 (1915-1977)
  • committee minutes and memoranda, closed to public access for 50 years, in DEFE 10 (1942 onwards)
  • papers of its first chairman in DEFE 9 (1945-1952)
  • files of the Central Scientific Defence Staff, which co-ordinated the work of the Chief Scientists of the armed forces, in DEFE 19 (1948 onwards)

Read the catalogue description of ADM Division 12 for an overview of other useful series containing records of research and development for this period.

5. Weapons and munitions

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.

Browse the annual reports of the Torpedo and Mine School in ADM 189 for monographs on the development and operation of mines, minesweepers, net defences, anti-submarine weapons, demolitions and torpedo aircraft.

6. 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.

A similar Commission was appointed in 1946. Its records are searchable by name in T 166, with related material in T 225.

For records on patents and specifications of inventions:

  • see our patents research guide
  • consult the Design Registers for ‘Useful designs’, BT 45, which includes a number of naval-related inventions – use the subject index in BT 46/9 (1843-1883) to help identify relevant records

7. Other non-Admiralty records

Treasury papers:

Cabinet papers for policy related material:

  • search for ‘Committee of Imperial defence’ within Discovery, our catalogue
  • browse CAB 90 for the Scientific Advisory Committee (1939-1945)

8. Further reading

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Guide reference: Military Records Information 38