Who was Neon?

A comment from Melissa got me thinking about gender and the knock-out blow, which is admittedly not something I do very often. There are certainly a number of ways into this subject. The most obvious would be to look at the fact that airpower would bring war onto British soil for the first time since at least Culloden (ok, or since the Great War, if you want to be pedantic), thus threatening British women (and children) directly and on a large scale. Pointing this out was a powerful argument in favour of taking the threat of bombing seriously, and was widely deployed. So one could look at that construction. Or there's the gendered language which was occasionally used to describe aerial warfare, such as Trenchard's analogy of a football match, with victory going to the side which struck hardest and in their manly way made the defenders 'squeal' first. Very playing-fields-of-Eton.

Another way would be the simple one of looking at what men and women wrote about the knock-out blow, and how it might have differed in style, content and reception. Certainly most of the writers on the subject were men, which is to be expected since only men had experience of air combat and so could plausibly present themselves as experts. But, particularly from the 1930s, a number of women writers did venture their opinions on the coming era of air war, generally from the pacifist viewpoint: H. M. Swanwick, Barbra Donington (with her husband, Robert), Sarah Campion, and of course Vera Brittain. (A notable non-pacifist, was the famous aviatrix Amy Johnson who wrote for the bellicose Daily Mail in the mid-1930s.) However, male writers could be dismissive of their arguments in highly gendered terms, when they bothered to note them at all. For example, W. Horsfall Carter wrote a pamphlet entitled Peace Through Police to rebut Swanwick's works Frankenstein and his Monster: Aviation for World Service and New Wars for Old (both 1934). He thought that her attack on the idea of an international air force had 'all the misdirected fervour of a militant suffragette' and referred to her as a 'sentimentalist'.1

All honour to the pacifists whose consuming idealism and "conscience" impels them to denounce war and all its works. But when the heart is stronger than the head the result is a peace babel totally ineffective for the realistic business of peacemaking.2

Read: don't you worry your pretty little head about it, let us hard-headed menfolk sort things out!

But there was one woman who was not so easily dismissed, for she wrote the most influential attack upon the very idea of the overwhelming superiority of the bomber to be written in the interwar period. The Great Delusion: A Study of Aircraft in Peace and War was published in 1927, inspired at least one book-length rebuttal (Murray F. Sueter's Airmen or Noahs: Fair Play for our Airmen; The Great "Neon" Air Myth Exposed, 1928), and was still being cited as a prime example of airpower scepticism over a decade later. Its author was pseudonymous. Who was Neon?3

Actually, that isn't really a mystery at all. If you believe the British Library's catalogue, Neon was the pseudonym of Marion W. Acworth. Aside from the fact that I have no idea how the British Library knows this, this isn't immediately helpful, for this is not a name which otherwise appears in the annals of aviation, pacifism, strategy or anything else that I'm aware of. It doesn't appear in the Times or the Oxford DNB. The only clue from this is that she shared her surname with a fairly well-known writer on strategy, the former submariner Captain Bernard Acworth. David Edgerton notes the similarity of their somewhat unusual surnames, and also that Bernard cited Neon's book.4 Can we go further than this? Was there a connection between Bernard Acworth and Marion Acworth?

In fact, there is contemporary, though circumstantial, evidence that there was -- indeed, that Bernard actually wrote The Great Delusion, or at least had a hand (or two) in its writing. J. M. Spaight, in Air Power and the Next War summarises Neon's arguments in The Great Delusion and then immediately, and with uncharacteristic sarcasm, turns to Bernard Acworth where he writes that:

The mantle of "Neon" descended miraculously on Captain Bernard Acworth, whose book [The Navy and the Next War, 1934] was again a determined attack upon the air arm and all its works and a glorification of sea power [...]5

This is a pretty broad hint that any similarity between Neon and Bernard is not coincidental!

Another piece of circumstantial evidence comes, oddly enough, from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has put many documents of historical interest online. In a letter sent on 12 January 1928 to Stanley Bruce, the Prime Minister, his liaison in London R. G. Casey wrote:

If you happen by chance to have read a book called 'The Great Delusion' by Neon, which was published about a year ago, you may be interested to know that I hear confidentially that it was by a Mrs. Acworth, who has a brother-in-law in the Admiralty who is suspected (by the Air people) of having loaded her gun. It was, as you may remember, a violent attack on the Air Service and an implied boost for the Admiralty. It created considerable stir at the time.

So, maybe they were related by marriage?

Thanks to the magic of digitisation, I've now got a bit more information. It turns out that Marion was the wife of Joseph John Acworth, a chemist and developer of certain photographic processes. His obituary appeared in the Journal of the Chemical Society and provides a few details about her:

In his technical work, he was very capably assisted by his wife, who, as Miss Marion Whiteford Stevenson, had taken the Associateship course at the Royal College of Science and received her diploma (A.R.C.Sc.) in physics in 1893. She was the third woman to earn the Associateship, and the first in physics.6

So, it appears that here we have our Marion Whiteford Acworth. She was clearly an intelligent, educated and technically-minded person. And 'neon', one of the noble gases, makes some sense for a scientist's pseudonym. Still, is she a likely candidate for the author of a diatribe against the aeroplane?

Let's turn aside from Marion for a moment, and look at Bernard Acworth. If he was Marion's brother-in-law, then Joseph would have been his brother. But this doesn't work. Bernard's 1937 Who's Who entry says that he was born in 1885 and that his father was the Rev. Herbert Sumner Acworth. That must be this genealogist's Herbert Sumner Acworth, born 1845, with a son Bernard born 1885. But if the Reverend was born in 1845, then he can't be the father of Joseph, born in 1853, according to his obituary. They could be brothers, at best.7 So, perhaps Marion was Bernard's aunt by marriage.

Now (and we're nearly there, I promise), if Bernard did write The Great Delusion, he presumably chose not to publish it under his own name because he was still in the Navy. I'm not sure when exactly he retired, unfortunately, but he was in it for at least 24 years, so he can't have left it any earlier than the mid-1920s. And he started producing the first of a steady stream of books (at least one a year up to 1940, bar 1931) in 1929. That suggests that it was shortly before then that he lay down his sword and picked up his pen. Which fits with Neon's known publications in 1927 and 1928.

In his later writings, Bernard was apparently always a navy man, a sceptic of airpower and a controversialist by nature. This all fits with the style and content of The Great Delusion. In fact, his first book (under his own name, at least) sounds like it has some overlap with Neon's: This Bondage: A Study of the "Migration" of Birds, Insects, and Aircraft, with Some Reflections on "Evolution" and Relativity (1929). According to Robin Higham, it contained an attack on the RAF (to the point of 'hatred') and on airships in particular.8 And according to my notes on The Great Delusion, the first nine chapters (out of fourteen!) are about 'airships and how useless they are'. Even more intriguing, I notice that the first chapter is about air currents (as relating to flight), and Bernard published a letter on this subject in the Times on 15 August 1930, p. 8. All circumstantial, but all pointing only one way.

But even if Bernard published a book under a pseudonym while still in the service, as many officers did, what, then, did Marion have to do with The Great Delusion? Here follows complete supposition. The drafts of Neon's book were evidently substantially complete by the start of 1927, because the preface (by Arthur Pollen, the inventor of a sophisticated naval fire control system) is dated 8 and 18 January 1927. And Joseph Acworth died on 3 January 1927. So, here's my best guess: that Bernard put The Great Delusion under his newly-widowed aunt's (pseudonymous) name, in order to earn her a bit of much-needed cash? Or maybe he was just especially paranoid about having the book traced back to him and so used his aunt for an extra layer of plausible deniability?

Well, far from exploring the subversion of gender norms in airpower literature by way of Marion Acworth, it's seems I've ended up reinforcing them by way of her possible nephew Bernard Acworth! That is, Neon was probably Bernard Acworth, not Marion Acworth. Let the word go forth.

  1. W. Horsfall Carter, Peace Through Police (London: New Commonwealth, 1934), 6. 

  2. Ibid., 3. 

  3. She also wrote at least one article: Neon, "The future of aerial transport", Atlantic Monthly, January 1928, also in a sceptical vein. 

  4. David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319. He also gives Neon's full name as 'Marion Whitford Acworth', but I think this is a typo -- see below. 

  5. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Next War (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1938), 50. 

  6. "Joseph John Acworth", Journal of the Chemical Society (1927), 960. 

  7. Herbert and his siblings are listed on a page about the village of Rothley in Leicestershire, but as that information is drawn from the 1851 census, it can't tell us anything about a possible brother born in 1853. 

  8. Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain: 1918-1939 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981 [1966]), 61. 

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21 thoughts on “Who was Neon?

  1. Lester Hawksby

    Nice article and an interesting story.

    Sorry to be a picky git, but I fear you may have inadvertently sprung a typo… “It turns out that Marion was the husband of Joseph John Acworth” was a surprise.

  2. That is a v. neat detective story which gripped me completely. Judging from the title of “This Bondage: A Study of the “Migration” of Birds, Insects, and Aircraft, with Some Reflections on “Evolution” and Relativity”, the scientific Marion was allowing herself to be a sock puppet for a fairly dotty point of view.

    But maybe she sat enthralled at the dining room table listening to the energetic submariner nephew, as her husband was approaching death.

    If she had her diploma in 1893, she was born some time around or earlier than 1873. So she was maybe twelve years older than Bernard and probably around sixty at publication. Her husband was older – he was 74.

    Assuming that she was not a mature age student and therefore any age short of senility, she could well have relished some kind of entry into a fight that she supported. It was a way out of grief, into a wider immediacy.

    We have to wonder why the guess about Marion was considered to be plausible. Surely, in the technocratic culture of London, those who could pick her behind the pseudonym would see past her to the truculent submarining nephew.

    There is even a metaphor of concealment in this very idea.

    Maybe there was some notion that the argument was denigrated even more completely if it could be pinned on a woman, a recent widow to boot. The Neon name being a primary bit of evidence, of course.

    Ah, I do love this superficial crap.

    Ah, the fun of trash speculation…

  3. Post author

    I nearly wrote something about the pseudoscience angle — Bernard seems to be remembered mostly for his scepticism about evolution these days, as he co-founded the Evolution Protest Movement in the 1930s, with another physicist, Ambrose Fleming (inventor of the diode). I wondered if Marion might have influenced Bernard’s scepticism about relativity, since she was educated in the pre-Einsteinian days of classical physics? But the problem here is that I’m not sure what Bernard meant by ‘relativity’ — IIRC he uses the term in his 1930 letter to the Times, but there he means the relative motion of birds/aircraft and wind currents.

    But his anti-scientific stance and her scientific education are certainly a curious fit, and invites speculation …

    My assumption was that Marion was ‘officially’ associated with Neon in some way, and not just by rumour, partly because of the Casey letter (he had the info ‘confidentially’, and he would have moved in pretty high circles). But maybe it was something like what you suggest — after all, most of the discussion I have is from people sympathetic to the RAF and the Air Ministry (Spaight was a senior civil servant there, though he doesn’t actually suggest Neon was a woman). Wish I knew why the BL so confidently declared that Neon was Marion!

    Anyway, glad I could provide some momentary diversions :)

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  5. Post author

    I noticed today that The Great Delusion is listed in the bibliography of Rolland A. Chaput, Disarmament in British Foreign Policy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935), 380. Which is only interesting because the author is listed as ‘ACWORTH, MARION, “Neon”‘! (And a couple of books by her probable nephew Bernard are listed too.) It seems unlikely that Chaput had any direct knowledge of this — it looks like he was an academic in Geneva. Anyway, this is the earliest source I have for the identification of Neon with Marion Acworth.

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  7. Erik Lund

    Acworth’s argument, as summarised in an article in the _Naval Review_, is that planes, aircraft, and especially airships, can’t navigate with respect to the ground, but only with respect to the wind, and so can’t really get anywhere. That’s the relativity thing. The evolution thing is that birds clearly aren’t really migrating, just ending up somewhere, so they didn’t evolve to migrate.. (I think. I was following the same track as Brett, discovering the identity of the mysterious “Neon.”)
    So planes can’t navigate.
    But wait, there’s more! There’s all this physicking stuff about frames of reference in here. I think you’re discounting Ms. Acworth’s contribution. At least some of the dotty stuff seems to come from a dotty physicist rather than a dotty navalist.

  8. Post author

    Yes, she may well have influenced him, but I still think he was the driving force. That ‘relativity’ stuff is amazingly loopy. I found an excerpt from This Bondage here:

    Turning again to sucessful flights and projected routes from North Africa to South America, we at once observe the significance of the steady and permanent north-east trade wind. But where can we find the return voyages? In South America, European aircraft will become as indigenous as are European birds reported to become indigenous in the Cape Verde Islands. Flights to and from South Africa follow the route, and to a great extent, the seasons, of the swallows. There is indeed no exception to the rule that aircraft in long flights migrate with the wind and are seldom seen again in the land of their origin if the prevailing wind is from one direction, as in the northern hemisphere it is. Thus all ‘migratory’ aircraft in the northern hemisphere gradually accumulate in the East until they are destroyed from one cause or another, when they are replaced from the ‘breeding grounds’ in the West.

    Compare with Neon’s Atlantic Monthly article:

    The domination of the wind over aircraft is complete. An aeroplane in the air cannot use the wind. There can be no comparison between the action of wind on a sailing ship and the action of wind – moving air – on an aeroplane flying in it and completely surrounded by it. In the air there can be no ‘trimming of sails,’ no ‘beating to windward,’ for to all the courses of the air and to its full speed the aeroplane unconsciously and completely conforms. A ‘sea’ of air envelops it; within this moving ‘sea’ the airman unconsciously drives his plane and steers a course. His course over land or sea and his speed ‘made good’ are the resultant of known and unknown factors. Adequate provision can be made for the known factors, and should no engine trouble occur or compass errors develop, and were the ‘sea’ in which the airman flies as stationary as the sea or land beneath him, the airman must arrive at his destination and at the prearranged time; were even the movement of the medium known, and could it be relied upon not to alter in rate and direction during the whole journey, the time of safe arrival could be calculated beforehand; but should the aviator’s ‘sea’ take some unexpected course during passage, the time of arrival is uncertain—in a long flight the end may never be known. The skill of the pilot cannot ensure success or avert disaster, for the wind is at the helm, imposing upon a craft its own direction and speed.

    It’s the same line of argument.

    I did find somewhere which suggested that he connected his critique of ‘relativity’ (which is Galilean relativity) with Einstein’s, but I don’t think that was his main target.

    What a wonder the human mind is, that it can in all seriousness come up with a sentence like ‘Thus all ‘migratory’ aircraft in the northern hemisphere gradually accumulate in the East until they are destroyed from one cause or another, when they are replaced from the ‘breeding grounds’ in the West’!

  9. John Acworth

    Marion Acworth’s husband Joseph John William Acworth (1853-1927) and Bernard Acworth (1885-1963) shared the same Great Great Grandfather James Acworth, shipwright at Chatham, b 6.10.1762

    The latter being my Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather

  10. Post author

    Thanks, John! So Bernard and Marion were third cousins, is that right?

    Can you shed any light on the relationship between Neon, Bernard and Marion?

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  13. Ian Wereley

    I just stumbled upon this neat article,
    I have been doing research on Bernard Acworth, ‘Neon,’ and ‘Poseidon’ (another of his pseudonyms). Bernard was, among many other things, quite the energy critic, and wrote throughout the interwar period on oil, coal, and energy security. (See the last chapter of the Great Delusion). This past winter I visited Wales researching Acworth, and met with his father in Portsmouth. Confirmed, Neon was Bernard all along, but he is reported to have enjoyed many afternoons discussing aircraft, fuel, strategy, and other topics with his favourite cousin, Marion Whitford Acworth. Acworth used Neon to remain anonymous, until he retired in February of 1931, and occassionally afterwards as well. My best guess on Bernard’s tech savvyness is that he was a sub commander, torpedo technologist, and commander of an anti-submarine research flotilla — all experiences that would have given him a great deal of training in applied sciences. Acworth was a very fascinating man, and I’d enjoy any more discussion.

  14. Post author

    Thanks, Ian! Since writing this post I’ve become more and more convinced that Neon was Bernard Acworth, mainly because of the similarity of style and subject matter, both quite idiosyncratic. I’m glad to find somebody else who has reached the same conclusion independently! (I assume you met Bernard’s son in Portsmouth, not his father :) Will you be writing up your findings somewhere? (I updated this post for a non-academic publication but I still didn’t have a definitive answer then.) So I have some questions, if I may. Do you have any idea how Marion Acworth became associated (at least as far as rumour and the BL are concerned) with Neon? I’m just curious as to how this happened, since (in retrospect) he’s the more likely candidate. (Nice to see they were close, though, my hunch that she had at least some influence seems borne out.) You say he also wrote as ‘Poseidon’; I haven’t seen that, what did he write about? (Something more nautical I would guess!) Finally, what is your judgement of his writing on energy security (which I admit I haven’t paid much attention to) — does it hold up better than, say, his thinking on the impossibility of long-distance air routes?

  15. So, looking at Current History yesterday, a sort-of precursor to Henry Luce’s Time. I didn’t find what I was looking for (coverage of the French Army Law of 1928), but I did find a full-page ad for The Great Delusion. It looks like there was quite the advertising push for Neon’s big book.

  16. Post author

    Interesting! Presumably this is the US edition. What was the sales pitch? Were there any endorsements? When was it published (the book itself must have been complete by January 1927, which is when Pollen’s introduction is dated)? If it was after Lindbergh’s flight in May a book attacking aviation (including the very idea of trans-Atlantic air routes) would seem to be a hard sell; on the other hard, Lindymania probably made it possible for clever publishers to sell any and all air-related books, anti- or not.

  17. It’s exactly all about Lindbergh. “Congratulations to Charles Lindbergh, but before you get all excited, read Neon’s Great Delusion, or copy to that effect.

    This looks to be a few months before Current History launched a regular aviation section. though I wouldn’t hold myself to the timing. I was skimming quickly and in increasing frustration for coverage of the French Twelve Month Service Army Law. Editorial was in pretty steep decline (with the obvious exception of all that awesome airmindedness) compared to the WWI numbers.

  18. Post author

    Since I was just looking at it, I searched UNZ.org for any mentions of The Great Delusion. I only found one US ad, though it’s a very small one. A couple touch on the (now resolved) question of Neon’s identity; one says ‘rumor asserts him to be a lady’; another that they are ‘said to be a high authority of the British Navy’. But the one which intrigues me most is a 1929 article about the library taken by Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica that year, as a variation on desert island books. Among the hundred volumes, in the polar science section, was ‘”Neon on the Great Delusion”‘! Did Mawson give credence to Neon’s theories about the impossibility of aerial navigation etc, or was the The Great Delusion taken along for amusement value?

  19. Roger

    Apologies for another “necro-post”; now I have found your site I am trawling through the archives!

    I haven’t read “The Great Delusion”. However, based purely on the excerpts quoted above I would say that “Neon’s” notions about the impossibility of aerial navigation are exaggerated rather than outright dotty. The general pattern of his error is a very common one of a smart person who is looking for problems in something to which he objects. He spots genuine issues, things to which people really should pay attention; but is completely blind to solutions.

    What Neon says about the (Newtonian) relativity of movement through the air is correct, and means that navigating aircraft /by dead reckoning/ is actually impossible.

    His argument falls down in two areas. The lesser objection is that in many practical cases, the issue that he identifies is not important. The error due to relative motion in the air depends on both the distance travelled, and ratio of airspeed to wind speed. This means that for fast aircraft travelling short distances, the error is insignificant; and the faster the aircraft, the greater the distance it can travel before the error becomes substantial. However for a naval man in 1927, this is generally not the case. An aircraft travelling distances of naval significance at 1927 airspeeds, could easily end up “embarrassed” by a hundred miles. Not a good scenario if you are bingo fuel “somewhere in the North Atlantic.”

    The more important objection is that dead reckoning is by no means the only option for navigating an aircraft. Of course over land in fine weather and daylight, visual ground references will suit, but this is hardly satisfactory for military aircraft. In 1927 the next best alternative was astronavigation, just as it was used in ships. However there were limitations here also. It depended on either having clear skies, or the ability to fly above the cloud cover. In this era /many/ aircraft were lost when weather simultaneously denied them a glimpse both of the skies, and of ground references.

    For Neon, a more serious problem was that practical astronavigation in an aircraft was simply not accurate enough for military purposes. If you were looking for a civil airfield, you only needed to get within a few tens of miles in order to find other references or beacons that would guide you in. But to bomb a military target in darkness, or to find an aircraft tender in the open ocean (assuming it cannot make smoke), you need to come in at most a few miles off your mark. This is occasionally possible, but to assume that you can do it routinely, under operational conditions, is wild optimism.

    In 1927, Neon’s objection here was a genuinely serious problem, and I have seen several references to suggest that many airmen — perhaps with less experience of navigation than a naval man — seriously underestimated the problem. Indeed, the reports of Britain’s first bombing forays against Nazi Germany suggest that some senior personnel still seriously underestimated the problem in 1940.

    Nevertheless Neon and his physicist friend were wrong. Not because they had not identified a real problem, but because they did not follow it up with “is this solvable?” In fact, the Germans had developed a crude radio-navigation aid for Zeppelins even during WWI, and the UK rolled one out in 1929. By 1932, the US Commerce Department was mass-deploying radio-navigation aids across the US.

  20. Post author

    Fair point, long-distance aerial navigation was no simple task and you’re quite right that Bomber Command, for one, underestimated its difficulty to its great cost. It was a problem to be solved and to that extent Neon/Acworth had a point.

    Nevertheless, I still think he was a crank. He only had to take some notice of aviation as it had already developed by 1927 to have seen that his theoretical objections might have been misplaced. At least half a dozen transatlantic flights had already been made before Lindbergh, for example, notably including one apparently made using celestial navigation alone (Cabral and Coutinho’s flight from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922). Also, as a submariner he ought to have been alive to the potential for technological solutions. As you note even in the First World War radio navigation had been tried out. Airway (i.e. light) beacons had been used as navigational aids along air routes in the US since 1923, and in only a couple of years a radio-system would be launched. And then there’s his blithe dismissal of the beliefs of ornithologists that birds migrate from continent to continent. Rejecting out of hand the idea that ‘so-called experts’ might know more about their field than you do is a classic hallmark of the crank, as is myopic ignorance and an over-willingness to generalise from other areas of experience (i.e. your own). In other words, it’s not so much that he was wrong; it’s that he was so sure that he was right.

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