The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.) ...continue reading →
Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too. ↩
For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...
I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.
After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.
I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!
A common complaint1 about this blog is that it doesn't feature nearly enough pictures of airships. So here's one, a 27-metre long non-rigid which belonged to Henry Spencer, scion of a remarkably airminded family (sixteen aeronauts across four generations). Indeed, he built it with his brothers. The photograph was taken on 16 February 1909 and apparently shows the first ever powered flight from Hendon aerodrome, though neither Spencer nor his airship are mentioned in David Oliver's Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1994).
But much more interesting than the airship itself, it must be said, is what it was used for. The clue is the slogan emblazoned on the side of the envelope: 'VOTES FOR WOMEN'. Spencer had hired his airship out as a propaganda platform to Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette who was very active in the Women's Freedom League (a non-violent breakaway from the better-known WPSU). Matters had won some publicity the previous year by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons. Her airship flight was also designed to make Parliament take notice of the suffragist cause: the new session was opening that very day and it was her intention to fly over Westminster and drop Votes For Women leaflets on it. In the end Spencer and Matters didn't make it there, having been blown off course into a tree in Coulsden, well to the south. Three decades later, Matters herself gave a wonderful account of her flight to the BBC, which can be heard online here. (Ignore the photo there, which is of the Army airship Baby.)
The photograph above is from a scrapbook belonging to an American women's suffrage organisation, so the message did travel quite some distance, albeit to a receptive audience; I couldn't find any mention of Matters' flight in a quick search of the British press. It took nearly a decade for the WFL's demand to be partially fulfilled. And it's nice to see that the part Matters played in using airpower for progressive causes is still remembered in her native South Australia.
'The Hum' is a mysterious low-frequency sound just at the edge of hearing which seems to infect some places, but which only some people can detect. What causes it is unknown -- theories range from factories and air conditioners to gravitational waves -- and responsible authorities often deny that it exists at all. The most famous example from recent times is probably the Taos Hum from New Mexico, which seems to date to the 1990s, but the Bristol Hum in the UK was apparently around in the 1960s and featured in the national press in the 1970s. Before that, questions were asked in Parliament (one question, anyway) about a hum heard in East Kent; and there was the Manchester 'hummadruz' which was discussed in the local press in the 1870s but was heard in the 1820s; and Gilbert White heard something similar (though louder) at Selborne in the 18th century. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that something is going on, though whether the Hum is a real sound or just something human psychology tends to come up with time and again is debatable.
Here's an example I haven't been able to find a reference to: the London Hum during the Second World War. The following is from Philip Ziegler's London at War, from a chapter discussing the mid-war years so 1942 or 1943:
The absence of traffic, together with the rarity of raids, should have given Londoners some precious silence, but from all over the capital came complaints of a mystery noise which seemed to emanate from the same area but was curiously hard to track down. 'Not only is there almost incessant "hum",' complained Gwladys Cox, 'but a "shaking", for want of a better word; at night my very bed vibrates and I feel intermittent stiff "jerks".' One indignant victim pursued the matter with the police, the Home Office and the Ministry of Health, but got no satisfaction. Eventually he decided he had identified the culprit, a factory in west London, but was met with a bland assertion that, though they might be making a little too much noise, this was unavoidable in view of the essential war work on which they were engaged. So far as it could be established, the testing of aero-engines was responsible.1
Unfortunately, Ziegler doesn't provide citations (though Gwladys Cox was a civilian diarist living in West Hampstead; her diary is held at the Imperial War Museum). A quick search of wartime newspapers doesn't throw up any obvious references to a London hum, but Ziegler's account suggests it was a widely experienced phenomenon. Perhaps the unusual lack of traffic noises made other sounds more noticeable; perhaps the habit of listening for bombers made people more sensitive to sounds they'd usually block out. Either way, I wonder why it seems to have slipped through the cracks of memory.
Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 2002), 244. ↩
It's seventy years today since Britain and France declared war on Germany. At 11.15am on Sunday 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlainspoke to the nation via the BBC. At 11.28am, less than a quarter of an hour later, air raid sirens went off in London and (at differing times) across much of the country. This was in fact only a false alarm, caused by an unscheduled civilian flight from France. But as far as civilians were concerned, this looked like precisely what they had been told to expect when the knock-out blow came: mass air raids simultaneous with the outbreak of war. So their reactions to the alarms give us a little insight into their fear of bombing at the end of the scaremongering 1930s. ...continue reading →