Nelson King Johnson was born in Canterbury in 1892 and was educated at the Simon Langton Grammar School. In 1913, he graduated with a BSc from the Royal College of Science in South Kensington. He initially attempted to become an astronomer at Sidmouth but war intervened and in 1915 he joined the Royal Flying Corps. The same year he was shot down while flying a Bristol Fighter, part of the propeller of which is preserved in Canterbury Cathedral Archives.
In 1919, apparently influenced by his experiences as a pilot, he joined the Meteorological Office, where he worked for the Chemical Warfare Experimental Section in Porton, Wiltshire. There he pioneered what would come to be called micrometeorology, which is the study of the atmosphere very close to the ground, with special attention on the diffusion of gases by wind.
In 1938, he was appointed Director of the Meteorological Office and ran the institution during the Second World War, earning a knighthood in 1943. After the war, he became President of the International Meteorological Association. Much of his work in the 1920s and ‘30s, which had been classified, is now public. He also enjoyed mountaineering but his health deteriorated as he contracted Parkinson’s disease. In 1953 he retired from the Meteorological Office, dying the following year.
Aircraft were used in warfare for the first time during World War I. The propeller fragment in our collection is of laminated wood, and is a fine example of skilled craftsmanship. The propeller was made by Lang Propellers of Weybridge, and bears the company’s crest. We also hold Johnson’s RFC cap badge, that of an airman, rather than an officer. It shows the letters RFC surrounded by laurel leaves, and topped with the King’s crown, which also appeared on uniform buttons. There is also a bomb pin, still carrying the original label with instructions. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed from the merger of the RFC with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918.
Written by James Lloyd and John Mays
Published 23rd May 2014