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!


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.