Via Philobiblon comes word that the British Library is facing steep budget cuts, and may have to start charging scholars for access, and/or close its fabled newspaper collection at Colindale, among other measures. See here and here. As I'm not a British tax-payer, I don't really have the right to complain, but it would be distressing to see those who do (and, entirely coincidentally, those foreigners who don't!) lose access to Britain's heritage for the sake of a measly few million pounds. At the very least they should digitise Colindale's holdings before closing it down!

I hope it's just a scare campaign to minimise the funding damage, but perhaps it's one that should work.


Jack McGowan of Smashing the Window has some very interesting reflections on his experiences in seeing his first paper through to being accepted for publication (congrats!). A timely read for me, as I start to think about doing this myself.

While I'm on the matter of writing advice, here's a chance to use the WordPress Democracy plugin I installed the other day. Near the start of chapter 3, I have a sentence which begins 'In this chapter, I will briefly examine ...' 'I'. 'I'! While I use the personal pronoun all the time on this blog, and have already done so once this sentence, I find that it really cuts against the grain to do so for academic writing. I don't think it is such a sin in writing in the humanities, but I first learned academic writing in the physical sciences, where the personal pronoun, singular or plural, is rare (though not unknown). Instead, one would use phrases like 'the present author' where in less formal writing one would say 'I'. I guess this is to avoid the academic equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. On the other hand, taking ownership of a sentence with a personal pronoun is a good way to avoid the dreaded passive voice.

So, am I worrying too much about this? Does anyone care about this any more? Should I just embrace 'I'? Here's the poll:

Edit: I have removed the poll plugin for security reasons. But here's a screenshot of the poll results as of 22 November 2011:

Person vs person

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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

[Image removed at the request of the copyright holder.]

The minute hand of the famous Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just moved closer to apocalypse: it is now set at five minutes to midnight. This is the most dangerous level it has been since 1988. The dangers currenty facing humanity are summarised thus:

The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.

Obviously, the precise position is fairly arbitrary -- the relative movement back and forth is more significant, i.e. whether the world is getting more dangerous or not -- but it's interesting to reflect on the past movements of the minute hand:
...continue reading


I've put up a biographical blurb about H. G. Wells, celebrated author of Select Conversations with an Uncle and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island. Wells is almost the Alpha and the Omega of my thesis, and perhaps the Kappa too -- at least in chronological terms: he wrote the first major novel in English on aerial warfare (The War in the Air); was banging on about the use of airpower as the basis of a world government almost until the day he died; and produced a couple of other airminded science fiction novels (The World Set Free and The Shape of Things to Come) and one film in between (Things to Come). His body of work is huge, but most of it little read today, outside of his most famous science fiction novels -- The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and perhaps The Island of Doctor Moreau. Actually, that's not quite fair: though his LibraryThing holdings are dominated by those works, many of his other novels have fairly respectable numbers for an author who produced his best work over a century ago.

His Who's Who entry has some noteworthy points. He clearly measured the worth of his public life by his publications -- no honours listed (except for his D.Lit.) or organisations joined (other than his clubs, and he was clearly very clubbable). Most of his works just get a publication date, a few get a terse explanatory note, e.g '(Sorbonne lecture)'. But interestingly, one, and only one, gets a longer description:

The Outline of History, first published in fortnightly parts and then in several book editions, 1920, is an attempt to reform history-teaching by replacing narrow nationalist by a general review of the human record

This seems odd to me, because The Outline of History was surely one of his better known works (certainly of his 1920s output), and it's still read today.1 So it doesn't seem particularly necessary to explain what it's about. Perhaps he viewed it as his most significant book? That several of his later books relate to it, or at least to allude to its title, might support this: Mr. Belloc Objects to the Outline of History, The Science of Life is 'a companion to The Outline of History' and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind is 'an Outline of Economic, Social and Political Science'. Also, I suspect that his future history, The Shape of Things to Come owes something of its form, at least, to The Outline of History, though I haven't actually read the latter yet so I can't be sure.

I find it amusing that such a world-famous figure would list his telephone number (Paddington 6204), not to mention his address (13 Hanover Terrace, Regents Park, N.W.1). Did he not get pestered by well-wishers, celebrity-seekers and out-and-out nutters? Maybe he had a secretary to answer the phone.

  1. That's assuming that he did actually write it in the first place, and not Florence Deeks ... 


I haven't written for a while on where I'm up to in terms of the PhD thesis (you know -- the reason why, ultimately, this blog exists!) I'm nearly at the (nominal) half-way point, and I think it's coming along ok. Last month I finally completed a draft of chapter 2 (the evolution of the knock-out blow, 1932-1941), which along with chapter 1 (the origins of the knock-out blow, 1893-1931) and the (very preliminary) introduction, adds up to 29500 words. It took me much longer to write chapter 2 than I expected, partly because I was tutoring in 2nd semester, but also because there are just so many sources: it's twice the length of chapter 1, despite covering only a quarter as many years.

So now I am working on chapter 3, logically enough. This is on defence panics and high technology. By "defence panic" I mean something very much like a moral panic, except that the focus of anxiety is an external threat to society, instead of an internal one -- phantom airships (for example) rather than mods and rockers. It seems to me that in the early 20th century, (largely) media-driven defence panics were a prime means by which public opinion on the threat of bombing was influenced, transmitting and amplifying for a wider audience the warnings of the airpower experts I've examined in chapters 1 and 2. The connection with high technology is that very often defence panics hinged upon the predicted impact of some new technology -- gas being the prime example.

Other objectives for this year include getting a couple of papers out (one probably based on chapter 2), attending a conference or two, and getting over to the UK -- by hook or by crook!


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!