Nov 10

War, what is it good for?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Both of Monday’s talks as part of the Festival of Ideas (@festivalofideas) Autumn Programme looked at how much of the technology that we all rely upon started out with military funding.

(Disclosure: I was invited to attend both talks in return for writing this short review)

Whilst both speakers were looked at technology from war (and other base instincts) they were separated by over 150 years. Peter Nowak (Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it) looked at mostly post World War II innovations that were now commonplace, and Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey) looked back to the 1790’s and the birth of the Ordinance Survey.

Peter’s book is an enjoyable romp through just about every gadget, meal and (ahem) alternative entertainment you’ve ever heard of (and a couple you probably haven’t) and how they can trace their roots back to either military research projects or the companies that produced them. If anything was missing, it was a sense of grand narrative. A couple times during both Andrew’s interview and the subsequent Q&A he was pressed on the ethical questions raised but never really answered them.

Peter did make one prediction that robotics are now, where the PC was 20 years ago and that in 20 years time robotics would be as ubiquitous as the computer is now. Not quite sure I agree with that, there are lots of deeper sociological issues with robots such as challenges to our sense of self, issues over robot rights (robot is, after all, literally serf labor, in Polish), and the sheer creepiness of human-like robot forms.

A very interesting comment from the floor suggested a fourth base instinct to go with war, food & sex which was our innate curiosity and desire for the next shiny shiny thing. Whilst some of these companies can trace their origins to military activity, their current innovations and particularly their speed of innovation, are driven more by consumer competition rather than warmongering.

Map showing Trig Points used in the 1936 Ordnance Survey "Retriangulation of Britain" between 1936 and 1962.

By contrast, Rachel gave a fascinating and engaging talk about the origins of the Ordinance Survey and the people involved. It was quite clear that whilst the maps were commissioned to provide Britain with a military advantage in the event of invasion, the cultural impact of having a unified map of the country was also very important to those early cartographers. I was especially taken by the notion that William Mudge encouraged alternative uses of the original map series.

Rachel also noted that the early trig points were located at the sites of the national chain of warning Beacons (as these were on natural sight lines around the coast). Their rudimentary theodolites frequently needed flares to provide them with sufficient light to focus upon, and these flares naturally gave rise to the very real fear of imminent invasion!

In the equally entertaining and informative Q&A that followed, Rachel explored the cultural importance of maps and the role that the Ordinance Survey played in the cultural life of Britain, national rivalries with France, technology advances, and the location of the original Base Line (now mostly under Heathrow Airport).

A great evening all round!

Oct 17

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.