From a recent review in Technology and Culture:

Torgovnick devotes two chapters to Eichmann, the architect of the plan that moved millions to the death camps and the Holocaust, but she should have also considered the man behind the massive bombing of German cities, the Royal Air Force's General Arthur Harris. If she had devoted less attention to Eichmann -- simply another German robot -- and examined Harris's conscience, her argument could have been taken down some very interesting roads. Harris knew that his bombing campaign killed millions of innocents; it also left a cultural memory of the vast efficiency of air power that carried into the cold war, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq, even posing a temptation to use nuclear weapons once again.1

There's more than one thing wrong with this paragraph, but by far the most objectionable is the highlighted part. Millions of innocents? MILLIONS? That's a gross distortion -- even if you accept the identity that civilians (including workers) = innocents. I don't think any serious scholar would place the figure at that level. R. J. Rummel, who likes to add up death statistics in search of "democides" (and so I would guess has little incentive to underestimate), lists a range of figures from the literature for civilian deaths in the Allied bombing of Europe. He finds a range of 300,000 to 600,000, settling on 410,000 as the most likely, of which he attributes 378,000 to British bombing (lines 182-216). That ought to be a huge enough figure to be getting on with -- but it's almost a factor of 3 smaller than even a single million, let alone 'millions'.

PS Thanks to Gob and Lleyton for this post's title.

  1. Neil M. Cowan, review of The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, by Marianna Torgovnick, Technology and Culture 47 (2006), 835. 


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Earlier this summer, I read several studies of national airmindedness, which inspired two previous posts. By way of a coda, here's a reading list on airmindedness, comprising these works and others I am aware of, along with some scattered thoughts as to what it all means.

There are plenty of important gaps, at least in English: in particular, French and Italian airmindedness would certainly repay close study. Non-Western airmindednesses, too, perhaps? Similarly, there isn't much in a comparative or global vein, but I do know of the following:

  • Bernhard Rieger. Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Robert Wohl. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Robert Wohl. The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

So, what is this "airmindedness" thing that I keep bandying about? In contemporary usage, it referred to the abstract state of being airminded, that is, enthusiastic about flight. Scott Palmer (who blogs at The Avia-Corner) defines it slightly differently:

I have chosen to employ "air-mindedness" in reference to the particular set of cultural traditions, symbols, and markers that, combined with existing political culture and social institutions, constitute a given nation's response to the airplane [...] Although Americans, Britons, Germans, and French may all be said to have been enthusiastic about aviation (or, air-minded), the specific manifestations of that enthusiasm (air-mindedness) were the products of those nations' unique historical and cultural traditions.1

I like this definition, because it highlights the connections between aviation and the larger narratives of a nation's history. The works cited above demonstrate these connections. In Russia, aviation continued a pattern (going back to Peter the Great) of trying to compensate for perceived inferiority in comparison with the West by jump-starting entire industries and exaggerating successes, which anyway were often more symbolic than useful. In Germany, widespread enthusiasm for Zeppelins served as a unifying symbol for a nation only a generation old, while in the Weimar period the new sport of gliding became a way of expressing hostility to the Versailles treaty. In the United States, an enormous faith in technology (combined with the more traditional kind of religious faith) led to hopes for an airborne millennium, with an aeroplane in every family's garage. In Australia, like Germany a new nation, the motivation was more practical: the need to bind together cities and towns separated by hundreds of miles of trackless bush and desert, as well as to shorten the effective distance to the mother country. In Britain, the primary concern was how to defend the integrity of the nation against the power of the bomber, but by the same token, there also appeared to be possibilities for holding the Empire together by use of airpower, military and commercial.

Leigh Edmonds (talking about the Australian context, but it applies more generally) suggests that the word "airmindedness" fell into disuse after the 1930s, because people were now 'so airminded that to use the word would have been as useless as referring to all people as bipeds'.2 There's something in that: flying is now taken for granted and air travel democratised. Most members of affluent societies, and affluent members of poorer ones, can choose to fly, and usually do, for long distances. But it seems to me that it's not that everyone is now airminded, rather it's that airmindedness itself is superfluous, because aviation's potential has largely been realised. Faith and imagination (a word which appears in the title of four of the books listed above) are no longer required to see the benefits of flight: just go to any international airport and watch all the people come and go. There's no need for aerial evangelism anymore, and so airmindedness is now more personal than public, a hobby or a job rather than a vocation.3 But as I hope I've at least hinted at here, the study of historical airmindedness is much more than an exercise in mere nostalgia: it's a way to explore a nation's hopes and fears.

  1. Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air, 2-3. 

  2. Edmonds, "How Australians were made airminded." 

  3. Of course, this is a common fate for new technologies, from railways to telephones to (probably, one day) the Internet. 

The winners of the 2006 Cliopatria Awards for the best history blogs are out. This time, three of the winning blogs are already on my sidebar: Digital History Hacks (Best New Blog), Chris Bray at Cliopatria (Best Series of Posts), and Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well (Best Writer). As I did last year, I've now added the other winners: Axis of Evel Knievel (Best Individual Blog), Civil Warriors (Best Group Blog), and Participant Historian (Best Post).

Congratulations all!


This is my third post about maps out of the last four, so I've given in and made a Maps category. It's not just me: there are another three posts about maps at Breathing History, and also at Philobiblon and My London Your London about an exhibition at the British Library about maps of London. And then The War Room alerted me to a great blog called strange maps, the subject of which is just what it sounds like -- fascinating and unusual maps of all kinds: historical, fictional, satirical, political. There are three Second World War era maps produced for propaganda purposes: one supposedly showing German war aims, another supposedly showing Allied war aims, and one especially interesting to me, supposedly showing a 1934 German map of a supposed aerial threat from Czechoslovakia:

Czech air menace, 1934

The provenance of the map is not clear -- it's labelled in German 'A small state threatens Germany', but under that is another label in English explaining that it was 'published in Germany in 1934 to create fear of Czech bombing', so who knows when or where it was published in English, or even if it was ever actually published in German. My guesses would be 1938-40, a British newspaper, and yes, but the online source doesn't say. Anyway, plotting the range of aircraft in order to demonstrate the threat of bombing was common enough by this time, as I've previously discussed.

There's no doubt that Germans in the 1930s lived under the shadow of the bomber: by 1934, the Nazi-founded Reich Civil Defence League already had 2.5 million members, and the prospect of morale bombing would have been especially disturbing to believers in the Dolchstoss legend, that Germany had not been defeated in the field in 1918 but "stabbed in the back" by weak-willed civilians. Hitler described Czechoslovakia as a dagger aimed at the heart of Germany. But Czechoslovakia never came close to bombing Germany; instead it was Goering who threatened the aerial destruction of Prague, to make sure that Czechoslovakian forces didn't resist the illegal German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939 (sorry, I mean the liberation of Slovakia). Assuming it is actually genuine, this map would have been one small justification for the progressive German campaign against the Czechs.


Note: This map DOES NOT show real air routes, from 1920 or any other year! They are purely imaginary.

While writing the post on old maps, I happened upon the following example, which is labelled 'The world -- principal air routes' and dated to 1920 by the host site, Hipkiss' Scanned Old Maps:

Principal air routes, 1920

The only other information given is that it is from The People's Atlas and produced by the London Geographical Institute.

Now, this is interesting, because it most certainly does NOT show air routes in 1920: there were very, very few, and they certainly didn't criss-cross the world as this map suggests. Many of these routes had not been flown at all, let alone by regularly scheduled services. For example, here's a close-up of the North Atlantic:
...continue reading


L. E. O. Charlton. The Royal Air Force and U.S.A.A.F. from July 1943 to September 1944. London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1944?]. I didn't know of this book by Charlton. It's a chronology of the air war, with hundreds of great photos; looks like writing these kept Charlton gainfully employed during the war.

Jörg Friedrich. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2006. A controversial and best-selling book in Germany a few years ago, now translated into English. Note: this is a review copy supplied by the publisher (a first for Airminded).

Kenneth Munson. Airliners Between the Wars 1919-39. London: Blandford Press, 1972. Not a complete survey, just the 70 most significant types. I'll have to do a plot of the performance data at some stage.

John Ray. The Night Blitz, 1940-1941. London: Arms & Armour Press, 1998. Probably the standard history of the Blitz.

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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.


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.
...continue reading

  1. Standard (London), 17 May 1909, p. 9. 

  2. Ibid. 


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. 


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.