Now that I've finally undone the damage WordPress 2.1 did to my sidebar (My Link Order was the answer), it's time to add a few blogs to it. Some I've only found recently, others I should have added ages ago.

Like everyone else, I've quickly become enamoured of Paleo-Future, partly because I've long been interested in how the future used to look (one aspect of which I'm exploring in my research), and partly for pure nostalgia. I myself have given up hope of seeing the skies filled with flying cars, but Futurama-style city-wide transportation tubes would save on shoe leather.

My continuing quest for quality modern British history blogs (other than those concerning war) has yielded The Victorian Peeper, the blog of Kristan Tetens, a cultural historian at Michigan State. Another (ok, not so modern) is Antiquarian's Attic. The mysterious Antiquarian researches Anglo-Saxon decorative metalwork, but posts on many subjects and periods.

Now to war (broadly defined). I've previously recommended Christopher Knowles' How it really was, where he is research-blogging his MA on the British occupation of Germany after the Second World War -- so I should have added it then! Victoria's cross? is a very interesting project, examining the proposition that the Victoria Cross is awarded for political reasons as much as for military ones. It's written by Gary Smailes, a freelance historian and researcher. And Thoughts on Military History is the, erm, thoughts on military history of Ross Mahoney, a further education lecturer in Cornwall as well (later this year) an MPhil student researching the role of the RAF during the Dieppe raid -- so as one of the airminded, he's already off to a good start as far as I'm concerned!

Finally, something a bit different: Larvatus Prodeo, an Australian group blog which admittedly is mostly political, but sometimes has posts on history. It also has the occasional post on Australian defence procurement which can be fun to try and derail with the help of fellow devil-may-care flying fools!

Update: oops, I forgot to add the new project of my R&D associate, Alun Salt: Clioaudio, a history podcast. Probably not something I should attempt, as a native Strine speaker. In fact, aorta mica Laura genst it.


The B-17 is one of the most famous aircraft used in the Second World War. It was known as the Flying Fortress. Or perhaps I should say the Flying FortressTM, for it was actually registered as a trademark by Boeing (well, Wikipedia says so, anyway). The phrase was supposedly coined by a journalist in an article which appeared in the 16 July 1935 issue of the Seattle Times, after he witnessed the rollout of the prototype Model 299. It's an apt enough name, given the number of defensive machine-guns (13 or more on the mid-war B-17G).

But I've noticed that the phrase "flying fortress" actually predates the debut of the Model 299 by several years, at least in British aviation literature. I can't say whether or not the American journalist was aware of it, but to me it looks like "flying fortress" was used widely enough to be considered a generic term for a certain type of aircraft: the self-defending bomber.
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Two big-picture histories this week ...

David Edgerton. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. An anti-heroic history of technology, which bids fair to puncture assumptions that higher tech necessarily is better tech, or that the rate of technological change is ever-increasing (take that, singularitarians!) Or so I gather from a quick skim.

Azar Gat. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read his Fascist and Liberal Visions of War. This new one looks at the evolutionary roots of war, and the way in which technology and culture have (overall) limited the incidence of war more recently, and tackles many other big questions along the way. Or so I gather from a quick skim.


Vickers-Bygrave bombing teacher

The above drawing (click to enlarge), which appeared in the 3 May 1934 issue of Flight, depicts an ingenious bombing simulator manufactured by Vickers-Armstrongs -- the Vickers-Bygrave Bombing Teacher. The basic idea is that an image of the area around a bomb target (which is printed on a glass plate) is projected onto the floor, scrolling along to represent the flight of the simulated aeroplane at 8000 or 9000 ft. The bomb aimer peers down at the image through a bomb sight, and sends course corrections to the pilot, who alters the flight path in response. An electro-mechanical linkage then moves the glass plate accordingly.

When the pupil has calculated the direction and force of the wind and has sighted on the target, he throws a switch which represents the bomb release. A device times an interval, equal to the time taken by the bomb to reach the ground, and at the end of this period the movement of the "ground" is stopped. Painted on the floor is a fixed "trail point," which marks the point on which a correctly aimed bomb should drop. Any error may be seen by the difference in the position of the "target" and this fixed trail point.1

Something very similiar seems to have been used by RAF Operational Training Units during the Second World War, though they were then called Air Ministry Bombing Teachers. (Presumably the Air Ministry's in-house version, perhaps improved over the Vickers-Bygrave.) Many former wartime airfields still have their distinctive two-story bombing teacher buildings, for example this one at Waltham. But I don't know how widely such devices were used before the war -- though 601 (Bomber) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, at least, had one in early 1934, according to the article. Given the poor performance of Bomber Command in the early years of the war, one would think that the RAF could certainly have used a few more bombing teachers!

I was thinking that a few bells and whistles could have increased the realism of the Vickers-Bygrave dramatically. For example, dry ice could be used to simulate clouds over the target. You could use a negative, with most of the features painted over, to imitate night bombing. Hydraulics (or manpower!) could be used to buffet the airframe, as in turbulence or anti-aircraft fire (a few firecrackers could help with that too). Not surprisingly, I wasn't the first to have this idea. This interesting site on the history of flight simulation has a page on the Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT), developed at the RAF's request by the makers of the Link Trainer. Though no mention is made of the Vickers-Bygrave, it's clearly a very similar concept, with the addition of what is effectively a planetarium above, so that the navigator could practice celestial navigation. According to the RAAF (which had one at East Sale), 'The CNT instructor could introduce bumpy flying conditions, changes of wind, create daylight or nightfall, scurry clouds across the sky, or arrange static to worry the wireless operator'. But development of the CNT was initiated as late as 1939, and the first one didn't come into operation until 1941 or later. (The RAAF's remained in operation until the late 1950s, so it must have been very useful.)

Perhaps it's because, as a Gen Xer, I grew up with simulations in a way that previous generations did not, but it seems incredible to me that it took five years or more to take the basic concept of the Vickers-Bygrave and add substantial degrees of realism to it. (Well, I can't completely exclude the possible that this happened sooner, but I have no evidence for that as yet.) Then again, one of the dangers of simulation is that it can reinforce preconceptions, rather than challenge them: to a large degree simulations simulate what is thought will happen, rather than what will actually happen. In other words, garbage in, garbage out. So, maybe the failure to develop a Celestial Navigation Trainer before 1939 is of a piece with the failure to practice bombing runs under warlike conditions in the same period, and the failure to set up a Bombing Development Unit before the start of the war. If bombing is thought to be easy, then there's no need to train too hard for it. Wartime experience was, of course, the ultimate bombing teacher.

See also: this American bombing teacher from 1940, with that wondrous war-winning Norden bombsight fortunately shrouded from public view.

  1. 'Bombing instruction', Flight, 3 May 1934, 434. The drawing is on the facing page, 435. 


It's never too early to start thinking about the shape of the next war, even if the current one is still being fought. At the end of May 1945 -- only three weeks after V-E day and over two months before V-J day -- some discussion on the subject was held in the House of Lords by interested peers. On 29 May, Lord Vansittart proposed an international commission of scientists to monitor Germany to make sure it did not develop or use 'any scientific discovery or invention considered dangerous to the safety of mankind'.1

He said we were dealing with a periodically homicidal nation, and unless we kept a firm hand on them we should have V10 in less than 10 years. There had been an insufficient answer to V 1, and no answer at all to V 2 except the old-fashioned one of conquering the sites. Science had not given the answer. The second world war had been within measuring distance of the atom bomb. Where would the third begin? We had had the very devil of a lesson, and it would be our own fault if we had another.2

He also called for something like 'a world inspectorate in order to guard against the development or over-development of secret devices',3 which could lead to 'a secret armaments race of a far more terrifying character' than any that had gone before.

Vansittart was clearly disturbed by the effects of the German V1 and V2 missiles on London. At this time, London was (along with Antwerp) the only great city in the world with experience of missile warfare -- the last one had fallen in March 1945. V2s in particular were very unsettling, as no defences and no warnings were then possible for objects travelling on a ballistic trajectory four times faster than the speed of sound.
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  1. The Times, 30 May 1945, p. 8. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 


Part of a BBC broadcast by George Bernard Shaw, entitled 'Whither Britain?', 6 February 1934:

Are we to be exterminated by fleets of bombing aeroplanes which will smash our water mains, cut our electric cables, turn our gas supplies into flame-throwers, and bathe us and our babies in liquid-mustard gas from which no masks can save us? Well, if we are it will serve us right, for it will be our own doing. But let us keep our heads. It may not work out in that way. What will London do when it finds itself approached by a crowd of aeroplanes capable of destroying it in half-an-hour? London will surrender. White flags and wireless messages 'Don't drop your bombs; we give in' will fill the air. But our own squadrons will have already started to make the enemies' capitals surrender. From Paris to Moscow, from Stockholm to Rome, the white flags will go up in every city.1

Shaw accepts a key tenet of the knock-out blow here: that it is awesomely destructive. So much so that the immediate impulse would be to surrender. But he also accepts another tenet: that it is extremely fast. He uses this to paint an absurd picture of the capitals of Europe therefore surrendering simultaneously. In effect, the knock-out blow is so powerful that it is pointless to attempt it. Flight (the more moderate of the two British aviation weeklies) quoted Shaw because he illustrated its editorial position, that the bombing of civilians as such would not happen, just as dum-dum bullets were not used in the late war, and prisoners were not tortured to death: 'absolutely unrestrained warfare is unthinkable. A line must be drawn somewhere'.2 It was therefore sensible to ban bombing of civilians (as opposed to legitimate military targets), but not to ban bombers altogether, as some were trying to get the Disarmament Conference at Geneva to do. Even worse would be to ban fighters, because they were a sure defence against airliners converted into bombers.

I didn't know that GBS had spoken on the wireless about the threat of bombing. It was only in looking through another, printed, source that I came across this excerpt. As it happens, Shaw's broadcast (part of a series of twelve; another speaker was H. G. Wells) has been preserved3 and can be purchased, or even listened to for free (if you are in the British Library).

Radio Times, 1934

But more generally, I wonder what the best way to find information about the contents of early radio broadcasts is? Infax is great, but very incomplete for my period, has only very basic search capabilities, and limited information as to content. Ditto for the British Library Sound Archive. I think the best sources are likely to be the Radio Times and The Listener. The former isn't available here (before 1959, anyway); I've never seen a copy and I don't even know how detailed its information would be. But I see that the State Library carries The Listener -- apparently more highbrow and so probably a better bet anyway -- from September 1937 onwards, so that's something.

Image source: TV & Radio Bits.

  1. Quoted in Flight, 15 February 1934, 141. 

  2. 15 February 1934, 141. 

  3. You'll have to search for it yourself, thanks to the BL's ignorance of the value of stable URLs. Searching for what seems to be an alternative title, 'Are we heading for war?', should take you straight to it. 

Chain letters are a kind of meme, but not a good kind -- inane, threatening, pointless. They are surprisingly venerable and ubiqitous, however. Many past cultures had some form of chain letter, generally claimed to be communications from a god. In medieval and early modern Europe, these "messages from heaven" seem to have been fairly common. Here's part of a letter written in English by Jesus Christ himself in 1795:

And he that hath a copy of this my own letter, written with my own hand, and spoken with my own mouth, and keepeth it without publishing it to others shall not prosper; but he that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me, and though his sins be in number as the stars of the sky, and he believe in this he shall be pardoned; and if he believe not in this writing, and this commandment, I will send my own plagues upon him, and consume both him and his children, and his cattle.

And here's one which I found the other day in the Spectator of 20 May 1922, p. 621:


Copy this out and send it to 9 people to whom you wish good luck. The chain was started by an American officer, 'Buddie,' and should not be broken. It should go three times around the world, and whoever breaks it will have bad luck. Do it within 24 hours and count 9 days, and you will have great good luck.

According to a detailed analysis of chain letter evolution by mathematician Daniel VanArsdale, there was a deluge of these (or very similar) "good luck" chain letters in 1922 -- another British one from the month before is reproduced here. The above example was sent in by T. Herbert Bindley of Denton (apparently a translator of Christian apologetics), who -- having received three examples in the previous few weeks -- despaired that `there is still a number of idiots at large who, out of sheer superstition, are unable to refrain from perpetrating and perpetuating an imbecility' such as this. He thought it a sign of 'intellectual degeneracy' in an age of 'waning faith'.

Well, that was then -- this is now. Luckily I'm not an intellectually degenerate idiot, and so won't be helping this bad meme to propagate.


Thinking Blogger Award

It turns out that memes are like buses ... none come along for a year and a half, and then I get tagged three times in about a month! Firstly, William Turkel of Digital History Hacks tagged me with 5 Things. Then Dave Davisson, the Patahistorian,1 independently tagged me with the same meme. Finally, Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory very graciously tagged me with a Thinking Blogger Award. Well, it's sort of a cross between a meme and an award -- the award bit is that I get a little badge thing to display here (above) and the following citation:

Brett Holman's Air Minded focuses on British history between 1908 and 1941 and while that may seem like a fairly narrow focus he somehow manages to comment on much broader issues related to war, society, and technology. The upshot is that I end up learning a great deal about a period in history that I know little about.

The meme bit (which originated at the thinking blog) is that I have to tag five other bloggers who I think fit the description of "thinking bloggers" (which I don't think is meant to imply that everyone else is an unthinking blogger!)
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  1. I think there's still only one. Either that, or We Are All Patahistorians Now. 


Here in Australia, we're just catching up on the last two series of Foyle's War, a British detective drama which differs from the estimated 734 other British detective dramas in existence by being set in Sussex during the Second World War. This is a very large part of its charm (though due regard must be given to the performances of the three leads, Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks, and Anthony Howell -- classic English diffidence and stiff-upper-lippery all round, if you like that sort of thing). The war is used very well, I think -- plots generally revolve around some aspect of wartime experience, such as black marketeering, conscientious objectors, homegrown fascists. The Blitz and the threat of invasion overshadow the early episodes; the Yanks turn up in the later ones and start stealing all the women.

But the episode which screened last Sunday, "Bad blood", initially didn't look very promising in terms of its use of history. There were some uncharacteristically clunky references to various battles and personalities shovelled into a couple of conversations, along the lines of 'well it looks like Russia's done for, Stalingrad will be next to fall (wink wink) and what about old Rommel, eh?' Though it does at least allow us to date one scene to a period of approximately 5 minutes on the morning of 19 August 1942, because we are told that 'it looks like things might work out in Dieppe'! But all of that was forgiven as the central plot unfolded ...
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