The life and times of Reginald Foster Dagnall

Oct 15 2020

Reginald Foster Dagnall is a name frequently omitted from the pantheon of great entrepreneurial engineers of the early 20th century.

Yet, given the importance of his innovation on maritime safety, he really should be awarded the same recognition as, say, Tesla, Ford, Lumière or Baird. 


Without Dagnall, the founding father of global safety specialist Survitec, the lives lost to downed aircraft and stricken ships would be insurmountable. His “rapid flotation device”, a technology invented in the 1920s, continues to be manufactured by the company he founded to this day.


Dagnall was born on the 20th of June, 1888 at ‘Brookfield’, an imposing terraced house in Fulham, London, to mat maker Walter Dagnall and Frances (née) Overton Brown.


After schooling at Tiffin Boys and graduating from Westminster University, Dagnall found work as a draughtsman at the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company at Bow Creek, Blackwall, where he progressed to the drawing office.


Yet, despite the company having built some of the world’s most iconic bridges and significant warships, including the first steel-hulled battleship HMS Warrior, Dagnall set his sights on the nascent motor trade and joined the engineering firm D. Napier & Son – a company famous for its luxury cars and which would later go on to produce the world renowned Napier aero engine.


Dagnall became interested in aviation after being awestruck at the technologies on display at the Aero and Marine Exhibitions at Olympia in 1909 and 1910, after which he joined airship builder Wilsons in 1910. But this move was cut short when the company went into administration and was declared bankrupt in 1912.


Dagnall, now 25, joined airship maker Spencer Brothers as an assistant engineer, later negotiating a contract with Bovril, the beef drink company, to use one of the company’s balloons as an advertising blimp. Such was his success with Spencer Brothers, he was persuaded to join Airships Limited as Chief Engineer, frequently traipsing to France and Belgium to advise the Army on how to maintain and repair the observation balloons deployed on the front.


It was during the Great War that Dagnall started his experimental work on lightweight inflatable rings designed to prevent a ditched plane from sinking, allowing the craft to be recovered. (At the time, air crews were not considered of enough value to warrant recovery.)


Trials on Wisely Lake were successful, so much so that the government contracted Spencer to supply the war effort, but contracts were pulled following the Armistice, and like many war-time manufacturers, Airship Limited’s future looked bleak. The company wound down in 1920.


Deflated, Dagnall was contemplating a career change with the Air Ministry when he bumped into a war-time acquaintance who worked for Short Brothers plc (Short), an aerospace company based in Belfast. Short had made a name for itself as the first company in the world to manufacture production aeroplanes.


Short required flotation bags for its range of aeroplanes, and on hearing that Dagnall had trialled something similar for the government, offered him the hefty sum of a £1,000 to complete the development and deliver the goods. Dagnall went home and began producing flotation bags from his garden shed. The eponymous RFD was born.


As luck would have it, Short Brothers wasn’t the only aviation company looking to salvage downed aircraft at sea, and RFD landed orders from Bristol Aeroplane Company, Blackburn Aircraft, Fairey Aviation, H.H Martin & Company and the Hawker Engineering Company.


After these early successes, Dagnall moved his company in 1926 to premises in Guildford, Surrey, to develop a new technology: the world’s first automatically inflatable liferaft specifically for air crew survival was introduced in 1932. These early liferafts used CO2 cylinders for inflation based on a device patented by Dagnall.


After successful trials aboard HMS Ark Royal, the ground-breaking innovation received wide market interest, resulting in RFD moving to a 120,000m2 production plant in nearby Godalming to facilitate demand.


With a 1000-strong workforce RFD’s relationship with the military continued with the company supporting the war effort with the production of gliders, towed targets, barrage balloons, lightweight dinghies, and lifejackets for service personnel. By 1940, RFD had delivered the first-ever single-seat liferaft supplied in a parachute pack for all fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force.  


Sadly, Dagnall was unable to appreciate the lasting legacy his life’s work on maritime and aviation safety or, indeed, the introduction of regulations that would mandate the use of his pioneering technology. He died in 1942, aged just 54.


For Survitec, which to this day continues to manufacture inflatable liferafts under the RFD brand, Dagnall was the company’s founding father. And although Survitec has evolved over the course of the past 100 years, with various acquisitions and mergers, the safety values and innovation principles established by Dagnall a century ago remain at the heart of everything it does.


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