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

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

This guide provides a brief overview of records held by The National Archives that cover research, development and production of ships, arms and other technologies by and on behalf of the Royal Navy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The records themselves are varied and extensive, with detailed written and visual information reflecting a broad range of topics, from correspondence about ships in construction and ships plans themselves to reports of torpedo trials and mine-sweeping designs.

Contact the National Maritime Museum, which also holds significant collections, to find out about the records you may find there.

In the subsequent sections of this guide you will find advice on some specific areas of research, highlighting the respective record series on which a search should focus. However, you may wish to start by trying a much broader search, dipping into our catalogue to see if anything pops up:

2.1 A broad search across our entire catalogue

You can search our catalogue using keywords and dates. Search results will provide short descriptions of the records and document references. The description will indicate how you can order paper or digital copies to be sent to you (very few of these records are available to view online or are available for download). You may prefer to visit us to view the original documents in person.

Keywords can include:

  • the type of record, such as ‘technical handbook’, ‘manual’, ‘blueprint’, ‘report’ or ‘plan’
  • the name of the establishment that conducted the research, such as the ‘Advisory Panel on Scientific Research’ or the ‘Admiralty Research Laboratory’
  • the type of technology or weaponry, such as ‘torpedo’, ‘radar’ or ‘naval aircraft’
  • the name of a ship

2.2 A broad search within Admiralty records

To narrow your search a little you can restrict your results to Admiralty records (most, but not all, of the naval research and development records are Admiralty records). Admiralty records at The National Archives are identified by department code ADM – in other words, all Admiralty document references begin with ADM. You can refine your search results to ADM records either by using the filter options in the left-hand panel of the catalogue results pages following a search, or beforehand by using the advanced search of the catalogue.

2.3 A search within the records of a specific research establishment

Naval research and development records are often found within the reports and papers of the various establishments, committees or laboratories created to do the research. If you know the name of a particular establishment, you can search for it in our catalogue. If you do not have a specific establishment name, consult the list of research establishments on the page for one of the ADM Divisions. The list provides the records series for various research establishments – click on the record series reference to search within the records of the respective series. The list is not exhaustive but it will give you an idea of some of the establishments that were created and of the Admiralty’s naming conventions.

3. Pre-20th century research and development

Before the First World War the Royal 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 among 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.