Plots and tables

So I half-promised a final post in this series about the airship panic of 1915. There are a couple of methodological points I'd like to make.

The first point is that this is an unusually well-attested panic. There are panics with more sources, but not with so many different kinds of sources. Here, there are three overlapping and fairly consistent layers of evidence for phantom airship sightings or rumours of air raids: stories in the press; military intelligence reports and analyses; and private diaries and letters. For peacetime panics, newspapers are normally the only source of information, with scant evidence for official interest -- for example, the 1913 phantom airship panic. In wartime, there is much more in the way of intelligence interest, but less full and/or less frank press coverage, partly due to censorship -- for example, the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand. In both peace and war, presumably private individuals wrote in letters and diaries about the mystery aircraft they saw or heard about, but they're hard to survey on any scale, inevitably hit and miss, and in any case I don't think anyone else has looked.
...continue reading

1 Comment

In order to start characterising the possible airship panic of 1915, let's generate some n-grams and do some distant reading to get a basic overview of press interest in Zeppelins during the early part of the war. Here are the number of articles per month in the British Newspaper Archive for 1914 and 1915 mentioning the word 'zeppelin', normalised by the number of issues published each month, to account for variations in BNA's coverage (since, if there are more newspapers in total, all else being equal you would expect to get more articles about Zeppelins).1

zeppelin, monthly, normalised

There are a few things that are apparent from this plot. One is that the start of the war is really obvious: Zeppelins are mentioned ten or more times more frequently from August 1914 onwards than in the earlier part of 1914. (Even the peak of the 1913 airship panic was only about a fifth of the level of August 1914.) In the wartime period itself, there are a number of peaks. The biggest is in June 1915, which corresponds to the aftermath of the first Zeppelin raid on London. The next biggest are January 1915, the period of interest here, and September-October 1915, in which there were a dozen raids in total. Also of interest is October 1914, when there were no air raids on Britain at all. This was when the possibility of aerial attack began to be taken seriously (and when the Zeppelin panic of 1914 took place, but that's a subject for another day, or article).
...continue reading


  1. It would be much better to use the total number of articles each month for this normalisation, but I don't know how to get that from BNA. Words common enough to appear in practically all articles, like 'the', are now stop words, so they can't be used to estimate how many articles there are in total. 

3 Comments

As of May 1916, the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla consisted of 91 machines purchased with funds donated by Britons overseas, 69 for the RFC and 22 for the RNAS. The RFC donations were organised through the Over-Seas Club -- £1500 for a B.E.2c and £2250 for a Vickers F.B.5 -- and were as follows.1
...continue reading


  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 18-23. 

3 Comments

Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

regionzeppelininvasionspy
Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

...continue reading

1 Comment

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 February 1915, 1

On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune's daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:

The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.

Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1

Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good -- at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate's anonymous astrologer.
...continue reading


  1. Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 15 February 1915, 6. 

Press interest in airships, January-April 1913

'Everybody's Doing It' was the name of a popular revue which opened in the West End in February 1912; the music and lyrics (including a near-eponymous song) were co-written by Irving Berlin. It was also the Manchester Guardian's stab at a contemporary pop cultural reference to describe just how widespread the phantom airship scare had become by the start of March 1913. There are more concrete ways to express this than ragtime. Geography is one; chronology is another.

The graph above shows two things. (After relying on Plot for many years, I've switched to DataGraph, which is not free but is more powerful and much easier to use.) The blue bars represent the number of British periodicals (mostly daily newspapers, London and provincial) which mentioned mystery airships on each day in January-April 1913, while the red bars represent the number which mentioned airships, whether mysterious or non-mysterious (for example, the activities of German or British military dirigibles). It doesn't matter whether a newspaper mentioned scareships once as a humorous aside or devoted half a page to a topic, both are counted equally here. Three phases can immediately be distinguished. (I must admit to having fudged the data a little bit: I've assumed that every issue of the Aeroplane would have mentioned airships, as I don't have access to copies to check. Flight certainly did.) The first, from the start of January through the third week of February, is characterised by a relatively low level of press interest in airships, in which references to mystery airships predominate (though not so much towards the end of this period). The second phase is clearly the peak of the phantom airship scare, the last week of February and the first week of March, when more than two or three times the usual number of periodicals talked about airships, overwhelmingly the mysterious kind. The third phase extends from the second week of March until the end of April. There are far fewer mentions of scareships here, even compared to the first phase. But interestingly, the amount of attention paid to airships in general remains very high: several times that of the first period, and not too far short of that in the second, peak period.
...continue reading

Western horizon from London, 21 February 1913, 8.30pm

The planet Venus normally sticks close to the Sun and so can only be seen very shortly after sunset, to the west (or before sunrise, to the east, when it is a morning star). But every 584 days, when it reaches maximum elongation in its orbit, it is far enough from the Sun in apparent terms that it remains visible for quite some time after dusk. It also relatively close to the Earth at this time and so unusually bright: only the Moon is brighter. At such times Venus dominates the western sky and it can be very startling, especially for the infrequent stargazer.

As it happens, Venus reached maximum elongation on 11 February 1913, right in the middle of the phantom airship scare. The above thumbnail probably isn't very clear, but the full-size version, made with Stellarium, shows the western horizon from London at 8.30pm on 21 February 1913, the beginning of the scare's peak. (London without any buildings, light pollution or clouds, admittedly, but the view would have been roughly the same from anywhere in the British Isles.) Venus can be seen low above the horizon, almost exactly due west, and extremely bright (apparent magnitude -4.1, though extincted by the atmosphere to -3.2). Anyone who happened to glance in that direction would see a brilliant light hovering in the distance, very different to the other stars and even planets. If they watched it for a few minutes they might see it drifting northwards and perhaps sinking lower; if there were clouds scudding by or trees waving in the wind the effect might be enhanced. It would be very easy to think an aircraft was flying about, equipped with a searchlight.
...continue reading

Daily Mirror, 17 February 1913, 5

The Daily Mirror has a curious item today under the headline 'BRITAIN'S PERIL IN THE AIR' (p. 5; above). It is apparently a statement made yesterday by an unidentified 'famous naval tactician', but instead of setting it out as an article or a letter to the editor it is given as an extended quotation with no gloss apart from the hint about the person's identity. Even if it is from an interview, it's an unusual way of doing things.
...continue reading

16 Comments

Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' vs uses of 'Mars' only in peer-reviewed astronomical articles, 1861-1970

So, to wrap up this accidental series. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal.
...continue reading

In my post about the lingering scientific interest in the Martian canals hypothesis after 1909, I said that there was a problem with journal coverage. What do I mean by this? Have a look:

Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' in peer-reviewed astronomical articles

This is a repeat of the first plot in the previous post, showing the number of articles published in peer-reviewed astronomical journals mentioning 'Mars' and 'canals' between 1861 and 1970, only this time for each of three journals: Observatory, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, and Popular Astronomy. I chose these three because they were the journals which had the most such articles, both over the entire period and in the peak decade of the 1890s.
...continue reading