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New Popular Edition Maps is an attempt to produce a copyright-free database of British postcodes. It does this by asking people to hunt around on a clickable, zoomable map of the UK for places for which they know the postcode (e.g. their home), and then enter that postcode at that spot. It's a bit like a stripped-down Google Maps; and you can search the map by placename or postcode. But what's interesting about this is that the maps used are out-of-copyright Ordnance Survey maps (1 mile to the inch) from the 1940s and early 1950s, which could be useful for historians or teachers, though these are obviously not the intended audience. Unfortunately Northern Ireland and most of Scotland is missing. (The National Library of Scotland has the OS maps of Scotland from the 1920s.)

Finding this inspired me to do a bit of a search for other online historical maps of Britain which similarly attempt to cover the whole country. (There's a useful list of out-of-copyright maps here.) Old-maps.co.uk has been around a while and uses OS maps from the late 19th century. Vision of Britain (which site has lots of historical statistics which you can slice various ways, and which I must explore more thoroughly one day) is more sophisticated, and has a neat trick of switching between different maps depending upon the zoom level: for example going from a 1921 large-scale map to a 1904 OS one to a NPE map. It also has 19th-century maps and a 1930s land utilisation map. But possibly the most interesting is Old Ordnance Survey Maps, which is based upon OS maps from the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The coverage is very much incomplete; but it uses the Google Maps API, which means that it has a familiar interface for users, and could be used for mashups. It already overlays the regular Google Maps satellite and street maps. There are also handy links to take you to the same location at old-maps.co.uk and Vision of Britain. I can think of some improvements (for example, printing the publication date on each map) but this approach has tremendous potential.

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Aerial Warfare

On the night of 23 March 1909, a police constable named Kettle saw a most unusual thing: 'a strange, cigar-shaped craft passing over the city'1 of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. His friends were sceptical, but his story was corroborated, to an extent, by Mr Banyard and Mrs Day, both of nearby March, who separately saw something similar two nights later. In fact, these incidents were only the prelude to a series of several dozen such sightings throughout April and especially May, mostly from East Anglia and South Wales. As the London Standard noted in May, there seemed to be common features to the various eyewitness accounts:

With few exceptions they all speak of a torpedo-shaped object, possessing two powerful searchlights, which comes out early at night.2

So, what was torpedo-shaped and capable of flight in 1909? An airship, of course. The press (metropolitan and provincial) certainly assumed that the most likely explanation for these 'fly-by-nights' was an airship or airships, generally terming them 'phantom airships', 'mystery airships', 'scareships' or something similar.
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  1. Standard (London), 17 May 1909, p. 9. 

  2. Ibid. 

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Carl Sagan in 1980

Ten years ago today, Carl Sagan died. He had been a hero of mine since childhood, since I first watched Cosmos. I would kick the rest of the family out of the lounge room, close the door, turn off the lights, pull the beanbag up to the TV as close as possible, and let Carl show me the Universe and its history. From Empedocles and the water-thief, to the discovery of volcanoes on Io; from Lowell's dreams of Martian cities dying beside canals choked with dust, to Wolf Vishniac's death in Antarctica while paving the way for the search for life on Mars; the Big Bang, the Tunguska Event and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I can't have been much into double digits when I first watched Cosmos, if that; heady stuff indeed for a young boy. His own joy in the search for knowledge was palpable, infectious, inspirational -- to the extent that I cannot understand how anyone could ever feel any differently. Here's a short clip from one episode of Cosmos, "The edge of forever": more metaphysics than physics, but if you've never seen it before, it will give you an idea of his style; and if you have seen it before, it will transport you again. It still sends shivers down my spine.

Not only did I adore Cosmos the series, and Cosmos the book, I also inhaled his other books: The Cosmic Connection, Broca's Brain, The Dragons of Eden; and later, Contact, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Demon-haunted World. Carl hugely influenced my basic worldview: rationality is our best tool for understanding the world, secular humanism our best antidote for the fact that we can never be perfectly rational. We are not at the centre of the Universe, which is anyway indifferent to our presence; but we are sentient, and that is a precious thing, or ought to be, to ourselves and perhaps to others.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.1

Carl's love for astronomy also helped steer me into pursuing astronomy as a career. From about the time I saw Cosmos on, I had a burning desire to become an astronomer and explore the Universe too. I nearly did too; I started a PhD and was nearly a year into it when I realised that (a) I wasn't very good at it and (b) I wasn't enjoying it very much. That's not Carl's fault, of course, but astronomy was such a hard thing for me to let go of, having made it a part of me for so long, and that's partly a testament to his eloquence and his passion. To cut a long story short, I switched to an MSc as a sort of consolation prize, while pondering what to do next. And it was during this time that I learned of Carl's illness. He continued to work and to write. A friend, a fellow astro postgrad, saw him speak at a conference in Hawaii and reported that he looked distressingly ill.

Ten years ago today, I sobbed like a child into my girlfriend's arms, and I must confess that I am tearing up even now. (Having Vangelis's "Heaven & Hell Part 1" playing in the background probably doesn't help.) Carl Sagan is gone, and he is sorely missed, but his influence will remain -- at least for as long as I live, and I suspect for much longer than that.

Other memories of Carl which have crossed my personal blog horizon: Bad Astronomy Blog, Centauri Dreams, Respectful Insolence, Cocktail Party Physics, Butterflies and Wheels, a great one from Larvatus Prodeo, and most poignantly of all, from his wife and collaborator Ann Druyan. These are all part of a larger blog commemoration effort (the results of which can be seen here), and the blogless can join in too.

Image source: Wikipedia.


  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York and Avenel: Wings Books, 1995 [1980]), 4. 

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Forgot to write this yesterday ... I blame the pre-Xmas social round! Both of these were bought after being seen elsewhere (at least the author was, in the latter case).

Simon Garfield. We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. London: Ebury Press, 2006. Drawn from the Mass-Observation archives, covering from August 1939 to October 1940, so should be a fair bit of air raid stuff to keep me interested. Would have liked to have it go to the end of the Blitz but one can't have everything.

Peter Hennessy. Never Again: Britain 1945-51. London: Penguin, 2006 [1992]. Post-war Britain is still a bit of an unknown country to me, as I've spent so long now reading up on, first the Edwardian period, and now the World Wars and the bit in between, so this is just the ticket.

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Frederick Lanchester was a clever British engineer. He was one of the pioneers of the British automotive industry, but his main interest was in aviation, particularly aerodynamic theory. In my opinion, he has a good claim to be the first person to elucidate the knock-out blow concept, in his book Aircraft in Warfare: The Dawn of the Fourth Arm (London: Constable & Co., 1916) -- which also happens to be a very early example of what was later termed operations or operational research. And as I've found out recently, he's also a business guru in Japan!
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Anthony Eden at a United Nations Association rally at the Albert Hall, 1 March 1947:

Mr. EDEN and M. JAN MASARYK, Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, were the other principal speakers. Of international affairs, Mr. EDEN said: "Our planet has become very small. We are nearer to San Francisco to-day than we were to Paris 100 years ago. We are all so closely interdependent; we have to rub shoulders whether we would or no.

"Can we learn this lesson of interdependence? If we can there is no limit to the standard of material prosperity and, I believe, of human happiness to which mankind can attain. If we cannot learn it, then a future conflict, with the added horror of modern weapons, may seal the doom of the human race. The choice is as simple as that. Suspicions, jealousies, even hostility, are as easy to engender between nations as between neighbours. Sometimes I think the people of this distracted planet will never really get together until they find someone in [sic] Mars to get mad against."

Governments, Mr. Eden added, were not much wiser than the peoples they led. If the peoples would reach understanding the Governments would reach it, too.1

I can't resist pointing out that nearly a decade later, Eden went on to prove that his own government, at least, was not very wise! The 'added horror of modern weapons' refers, of course, the atom bomb (Masaryk's message was that 'unless we were very careful we could slip back from the Atomic to the Stone Age in a matter of a few weeks'); and the reason why the world was so small was, in part, the aeroplane.

Eden's suggestion that the people of Earth needed a Martian threat to set aside their differences brings to mind Ronald Reagan's much later musings along the same lines (source):

I doubt Eden inspired Reagan, but he did apparently inspire the author of the first book to use the term "flying saucer" in the title: Bernard Newman, whose The Flying Saucer was published by Victor Gollancz in 1948. I haven't read it, but judging from a summary in a Magonia article by Philip Taylor, it's about a group of scientists who fake flying saucer crashes in order to fool governments into believing that there is indeed an extraterrestrial threat:

An international league of scientists springs into action and with remarkable speed the differences between the world's governments dissolve under the 'Martian' threat. The final chapter sees every international political problem speedily resolved, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland. This 1948 fantasy is very much of its time: it was published in the very month of the Russian blockade of Berlin. Newman's heroes find a way around the frustrating limitations of the new United Nations, with, in the background, the emergence of the super-power blocs and the omniscience of the atomic scientists all playing their part.

As it happens, I own another book by Newman (who wrote many), Armoured Doves: A Peace Novel (London: Jarrolds, 1937 [1931]), as it's relevant to my thesis research. I haven't read it yet, but it seems to share at least one theme with The Flying Saucer, namely that of a group of pacifist scientists imposing peace upon the world, though in this case by use of a death ray rather than a disinformation campaign.

Incidentally, the Magonia article is also worth reading for the account of Gerald Heard's theory for the origins of flying saucers -- that they were spacecraft piloted by giant bees from Mars! Yes, I said giant bees. Heard was an unconventional thinker (obviously) and a pacifist, who hung out with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood in California. But in the early 1930s, he was well-known as the BBC's first science commentator. And, inevitably it seems, he's also a person of interest to me, contributing an essay entitled "And suppose we fail? After the next war" to Challenge to Death (London: Constable & Co., 1934), about the depths British society would sink into after a knock-out blow. It's all one seamless tapestry, isn't it.


  1. The Times, 3 March 1947, p. 6. 

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Orac responds to me ... sort of:

Orac paused, his lights blinking, patterns ever changing. It was almost as though he were thinking, if such a thing were possible by a computer. Then he went on, "Of course, as much as I've defended Dawkins before against similarly spurious uses of the Hitler analogy, now that I think of it, I have caught him before making arguments based on a dubious understanding of history."

"Not everyone would agree with you on that last bit," said Vila, smiling because he loved to see Orac get a comeuppance, and betting that Orac would be surprised that he knew of that little fisking.

"My basic point was correct," snapped Orac, his lights blinking red, "but I will concede that I may have overplayed my hand with respect to discussing Bomber Harris, who was a true ideologue. Certainly the Americans would have embraced the technology, even if Harris did not. [...]"

This is just a small part of a much longer post on a controversy raging among atheist bloggers at the moment, which itself is an interesting use/abuse of British history, as it revolves around calling anyone perceived to be "soft" on the intrusion of religion into science a "Neville Chamberlain atheist", i.e. an appeaser -- apparently a trend begun by Richard Dawkins. There's even a cute, ironic graphic to go with it (from here):

Proud Neville Chamberlain Atheist

I don't think this is an argument I want to get into! Anyway, I think that's something of a concession from Orac on the Harris issue; and I do appreciate his extended Blake's 7 pastiche, as I'm currently working my way through the first season on DVD. And Vila is one of my favourite characters, so I'm honoured to see him take notice of my humble blog :)

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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I've been reading Joseph Corn's The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, a classic study of airminded culture in the United States -- which was very different to that in Britain. The "winged gospel" is the term used by Corn to describe an intense complex of hopes and expectations associated with the coming of flight:

Faith in that mission, in flight as a veritable religious cause, energized not only fliers but also millions of other Americans during the first half of this century. Airminded men and women embraced what was often called the "gospel of aviation" or the "winged gospel." Like the Christian gospels, the gospel of aviation held out a glorious promise, that of a great new day in human affairs once airplanes brought about a true air age. Lindbergh offered one version of this gospel, prophesying a future in which air travel would be commonplace and large transport planes shuttle from city to city, unhampered by the weather. Other enthusiasts voiced even grander prophecies, looking to aircraft as a means of achieving perfection on earth or even immortality, promises usually identified with more traditional religion.1

Corn offers many examples of this faith, some of it verging on the ludicrous -- such as the expectant mother who rushed to a nearby airfield so that her child could be air-born, or the doctor who claimed that pilots must be descended from birds, whereas the rest of humanity hailed from the unfortunately non-aerial fish lineage (!). Only somewhat less quixotic were the predictions that flying would erase gender or racial discrimination, or the idea that every American family would one day own their own airplane, freeing them from the need to huddle in densely-populated cities.
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  1. Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 26-7. 

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Duff Cooper. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 1915-1951. London: Phoenix, 2006. Nobleman, socialite, Conservative MP, Cabinet Minister, anti-appeaser, and apparently a fine diarist too. Edited by his son, John Julius Norwich.

Adam Tooze. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Allen Lane, 2006. I've heard good things about this book. Seems to assign a higher value to the Combined Bomber Offensive than do some, but argues that it was often misdirected (e.g. Battle of Berlin).

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Two deadlines expire shortly. If you were intending to meet them, your time is fast running out!

One is for nominations for the 2006 Cliopatria Awards, for the best bits of the historioblogosphere this past year. Nominations close on 30 November. Collectively, my R&D associates have done well. Revise and Dissent itself has been nominated in the best group blog category. Alun Salt's Archaeoastronomy, Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory, and Jeremy Bogg's Clioweb have all been nominated for best individual blog. David Davisson's Patahistory Manifesto has been nominated for best post, which makes me rather ashamed to note that my own An unpleasant surprise is also a contender in that category. Finally, Alun has another nomination, this time for the best series of posts with his Vidi not-a-carnivals. Good luck all!

The other deadline is for submissions for the next History Carnival, which goes up at Barista on 1 December (Australian time, which is ahead of most of the world, so don't be late). Submissions can be made here. Should be a real pearler. As David name-checked me, and because he's one of the few people on Airminded's blogroll who is in the same hemisphere as me (practically within shouting distance, in fact), I feel obliged to post this reminder. Which of course reminds me, I haven't had a look for suitable posts myself -- so, if you'll excuse me ...