Wallis was born in Derbyshire, England, and educated at Christ's Hospital school. He began his career building ships, but soon left to join the Vickers Company, which designed many British airplanes during the First World War.
At Vickers Wallis first worked on rigid airships, whose form later inspired his lattice-like geodetic structures for aircraft. When the airship program was temporarily halted by World War I in 1915, Wallis joined the Artists' Rifles, an army regiment consisting of artists and designers. After the war, he returned to head Vickers newly reinstated airship program. He also returned toschool in 1920, earning his engineering degree only four months later. Wallisdesigned several superior airships during this period, including the R80 andthe R100. However, the crash of a separately designed sister ship effectively ended airship manufacture at Vickers and ultimately in England.
Wallis was eventually transferred to the company's airplane works in 1930. One of his first achievements was a lighter wing structure for the Viastra 2, an Australian commercial airplane. Research for this project and othersled finally to Wallis's geodesic construction in which the members ofa frame are formed into a curved latticework system so that the load each member bears is offset by tension loads in crossing members. In 1932 Wallis designed an aircraft with a geodesic fuselage that could handle incredible stress without collapsing. The British army, however, believing that such construction was too difficult for mass production, refused to order the planes fromVickers. Yet the company, confident in Wallis, decided to manufacture the plane without the army's financial backing. Wallis and his team then designed tools and techniques so that a complete Wellingtonbomber airframe couldbe assembled in 24 hours using semiskilled labor. The army quickly revised its opinion and the bomber became a successful part of the Allied arsenal during World War II with over 11,000 being built.
Wallis also applied aerodynamic streamlining to bombs. He invented the 1,200-pound Tallboy bomb and the 22,000 pound Grand Slambomb, but isbest known for the famous bouncing bomb. Designed to destroy Germany's massive dams, the bouncing bomb was hung crosswise in the bay of an aircraft. Justbefore being dropped, the bomb was given a backward spin by an electric motor. This spin caused the bomb to skip across the surface of the water until ithit the dam. Then, instead of detonating or bouncing off, the bomb, because of its spin, would plow under the water to a depth of 30 feet where it would explode, causing extensive damage. The bombs were a great success, depriving many vital German industries of their power sources.
For his achievements Wallis was widely honored by fellow engineers and by hisgovernment. He continued to design aircraft, including the supersonic Swallow, until his death in 1979.