Who was Neon again?

Last year I wrote a post in which I tried to work out the identity of Neon, the author of an eccentric but popular diatribe against aviation entitled The Great Delusion (1928). I concluded it was 'probably' Bernard Acworth, and not his third cousin (by marriage) Marion Acworth, as is usually suggested. Giles Camplin kindly offered to reprint my post in Dirigible, the journal of the Airship Heritage Trust which he edits. I took the opportunity to do some more research and reflection, which just confused the issue! To cut a long story short, I still think Bernard was Neon, but suggest that Marion did have input to or at least influence on The Great Delusion. And if you do want the long story, see the Summer 2009 edition of Dirigible!

Not surprisingly, there are a number of articles on interesting subjects in this issue: an obscure airship built in Staffordshire in 1909 by a Mr Deakin; the almost-equally-obscure story of the Britannia Airship Committee, an attempt to fund and build a rigid airship for the Navy in 1913-4; Zeppelin raids on England; sound detectors of the north-east coast; and more! Well worth a read.

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22 thoughts on “Who was Neon again?

  1. Have you come across J. A. Sinclair's book "Airships in Peace & War?" Published in 1934 it is a fantastic book that responds to Neon and very strongly states the case for the airship. I highly recommend it.

  2. An extract...

    "These writers [Neon and Spanner] have told us a great length, and with crocodile tears in their eyes, that vast sums of public money have been thrown away in these futile attempts to build airships. Well, well, it does seem pretty obvious that the wrong sort of people were playing at airships. Why in heaven's name did they not leave the job to the men of practical experience? Of course, great sums of money were spent. Why not? Experiments cannot be carried out with the expenditure of vast sums of money without the sacrifice of a few lives. This is true of every sphere of progress."

    Another one...

    "Our own post-war experiments have been carried out by experts in battleship design, not by practical and experienced airship men. Therein, largely speaking, lies our failure. I might hazard a guess as to the identity of "Neon," but it would lead us nowhere. But, Mr Spanner is a naval architect. He ought to know why these airship experiments failed. Was he not a member of the department that designed them? If so, he surely helped to spend the vast sums of money on these post-war failures?"

    As I said, it's a great read and quite an enjoyable rant in places. I'd say it's a must-read for you. Interesting timing too coming as the book is written post the loss of R101, Akron but before the loss of Macon and the Hindenburg.

    Thanks for the feedback on the NS11 – now with a much more memorable URL. Best viewed in anything other than Internet Explorer! Let me know if you come across anything NS-related.



  3. I tracked down a copy of The Great Delusion and have just finished it. A very interesting read, that ranges widely from well-researched common sense to the downright whacky. I also didn't expect the anti-internal combustion engine and pro-steam power from coal chapter. Some laugh out loud moments too that might well have been illustrated by Bateman or Heath Robinson... "If air travel is ever to be as good for the health as sea travel, it will be necessary on air liners of the future to provide a number of open seats in which be-goggled. hide-wrapped passengers can have fresh air poured into their lungs." [page 139]. How much fun would that be!

    Putting the airship chapters aside (where there is much I agree on) is there anything in the air defence and bombing chapters that you believe is not so off the mark?



  4. Post author

    It's certainly not boring! Yes, there is some sensible stuff in the air defence chapters. On the technical side, he (or she) notes that while every incoming bomber can't be shot down (Stanley Baldwin's 'the bomber will always get through' of a few years later), that doesn't mean that their loss rate can't be made prohibitively high. (Though he probably gives to much credit to AA.) And bombing is very inaccurate. On the moral side, she (or he) asks why it is okay for the RAF to bomb women and children in Waziristan, and then to bemoan the possibility of British women and children being bombed in London? (On the other hand, Neon likes naval blockades, so can't quite claim the moral high ground.)

    Still, there's enjoyable silliness too: one footnote speaks darkly of a 'far-reaching, interlocking, and powerful influence of Scientific Pools and Salaried Bureaucrats, of Wireless, of Oil and the Aircraft Industry' (234). Our era doesn't have a monopoly on conspiracy theories.

  5. Neil Datson

    Brett, firstly I feel I should apologise for having been so silent for so long, as regards your estimable website. But when one has nothing to say . . .

    Having just read The Great Delusion, or at least those parts of it that interest me, I can make one or two observations about Acworth and crankiness.

    The aerial navigation one, I wholly concede, though Roger's post on your other thread is the best explanation: 'his error is a very common one of a smart person who is looking for problems in something to which he objects.' At the time of writing aerial navigation was not possible in the sense that sea navigation was, and Acworth was obviously deeply jaundiced as regards any kind of powered flight.

    I skimmed through most of the stuff about airships, but it seemed broadly sound, airships have never taken off (as it were) and for good reasons.

    Peter Lewry's comments are somewhat disingenuous. Acworth does not advocate outside seats on an aeroplane, he quotes 'Major Oliver Stewart, a great air enthusiast' as advocating them. I might add that for my part I wholly concur with the general tenor of that section. Being stuck in cattle class on a long distance flight is surely one of the most miserable experiences known to modern man. The internal combustion or steam power issue, as handled by Acworth, seems to be that he regretted the RN and mercantile marine becoming dependent on oil, for strategic reasons. He was really expressing a sort of pious hope that the RN could revert to using coal thanks to some breakthrough technology. Possibly that is scientifically illiterate, but it was certainly good strategic sense. He acknowledged and accepted the role of the internal combustion engine as regards the motor car and aeroplane.

    Coming back to crankiness, one of the crankiest passages in the whole book can surely be found in the chapter 'Airships concluded'. Here I'm writing from memory, as I foolishly omitted to copy the passage. Anyhow, Acworth quotes Trenchard, in a speech at Cambridge University in 1925, predicting an important future for the airship - as an aircraft carrier.

  6. Post author

    No apologies necessary! Glad to see you back.
    And thanks for your comments on Neon -- I haven't looked at it for a long time, it's useful to have a fresh opinion. Yes, that bit you quote from Roger is as good an explanation as any of how somebody with an obvious technical bent could get so much so wrong. I agree that long-distance air travel isn't exactly fun, but I doubt many people would trade speed for convenience, unless they happen to have both the time and the money to afford it. I forget the substance of his argument there, but the bit about airliners needing to have open sections so passengers can get their fresh air is both terribly amusing and a reminder that people in the 1920s had different expectations and goals when travelling. (Acworth was a submariner, so I guess he knew about cramped and poorly ventilated travelling conditions.) And that's an interesting observation about his arguments about oil and steam: it almost makes him a technological optimist rather than a conservative.
    On Trenchard and the flying aircraft carrier, 1925 is exactly the period when the RAF was carrying out practical experiments in that direction, as I've discussed here before.

  7. Work to be done on assumptions of being 'inside' while travelling. Normal now, but up to W.W.II was abnormal - people expected to be in the environment.

  8. Neil Datson

    Thanks for coming back about Oliver Stewart, Peter. Stewart wrote The Strategy and Tactics of Air Fighting (1925) which (apologies if I'm mistaken Brett) I don't think has a mention on Airminded yet. I skip read it recently, it seems to me a very sensible little book which should have been compulsory reading at Andover. The preface makes some of the usual OTT claims for air power, but after that Stewart settles down to draw practical lessons from the experience of WWI. He's every bit as dismissive of airships as Acworth. If any of the followers of Airminded has a specialist interest in air combat in the period I'd be very interested in any comment he or she could make about it.

    I'm not sure about the notion that being inside while travelling was 'abnormal' prior to WWII. Trains, including underground systems in major cities. Buses, most normally inside. Cars, definitely going that way. Ships too, going out on deck was usually a matter of choice. The traveller was more likely to have a window open rather than the benefit of a sophisticated (?) ventilation system, which may be the point.

    I'll come back about Trenchard and airship ACs if I may, Brett. I did know that some efforts were made to piggy-back aeroplanes on airships. My reference to Trenchard and crankiness was more to do with the CAS predicting a future for such an obviously impractical idea. Especially when it was done by a CAS who was always (as far as I know) dismissive of naval ACs. (On that score I'd also be very interested if anyone knows any occasion when he had anything positive to say about them.)

    That leads me on to a riff, and I'd better be careful lest I go on to long. We call Acworth a 'crank' and possibly not unreasonably, but mainly because the judgement of passing history is that he was wrong about the principle of air power. He'd obviously got a ridiculous bee in his bonnet about aircraft. Heaven knows what. Maybe his wife ran off with an RAF officer? Trenchard, as CAS of the RAF, is widely considered an historically sound fellow because air power became of increasing importance. He did not have to be right about detail. In my view he was wrong about almost everything else, a lot of what he did was seriously damaging to the country's defence, and that - crucially - the basic reason for his errors was his character and personal jealousies. He let them get in front on his own judgement. If a man who was always said that floating ACs were a vulnerable waste of money yet who also predicted a great future for flying ones cannot be called a crank I really don't know who can.

  9. As I suggested, work to be done. Common complete insulation from our environment is a modern assumption, and we misunderstand our predecessors by missing that they didn't see the need for the levels of insulation we expect; I'm suggesting it's a change over time, evident in many ways (Victoria's permeable houses, open city trams of that era - the first railway trains were often open, enclosure was status as much as comfort and not safety related). Arguably underground railways were the first transport that required significant enclosure, and the media of the time wondered about the limits and risks, seeing the enclosure as a risk, not an advantage as we do for local 'climate control'.

    The Charabanc was usually open, the double decker often. The fabric hood being common up to the 1930s. Maybe W.W.II is late, but there's plenty of exceptions up to then (the Italian fighter pilot being only a few years behind his contemporaries demanding an open cockpit). Attempts to enclose cockpits in W.W.I by designers usually removed in use (S.E.5, H.P O/100) we usually note poor technology as the reason, but cultural expectation was as important.

    Likewise safety equipment in vehicles has changed. Today only a mad fringe would disparage seat belts, but it was a hard change to make (60s - 80s) - and going even further back, early aviators (pre-W.W.I) didn't see any merit in being belted in despite the fatalities that resulted from people losing their seat. Relates to alcohol impalement cultural issues, as well.

    Pioneer pilots thought from horse riding experience (even aside from the spur-wearing cliché) as much as themselves as airborne drivers and no-one considered 'strapping in'. Notably it's only relatively recently horse riders have serious protective equipment and dedicated fall-triggered kit.

    Hmmm. More worked needed when less crook.

  10. Thinking further there's something to do with 'driving' or 'command' in here too. Open pilot's compartments and enclosed passenger cabins into the 1930s in airliners (this started from someone thinking the new Junkers F-13 replicas should have enclosed cockpits) open locomotive footplates through W.W.II; open bus driver compartments in the same era. Sportscars to date. Ships with open bridges (enclosure initially to protect navigation equipment, not commanders?).

  11. Post author

    It's a fair point about changing expectations about passenger travelling conditions, and comfort and risk were weighed differently than they are. It was much more common for them to exposed to the elements in the early 20th century. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that from quite early on the trend in large passenger airliners was for enclosed passenger cabins. Even setting aside DELAG's Zeppelins, the Ilya Muromets already featured such before 1914, and then in the years immediately after 1918, with the various conversions of bombers into airliners (e.g. the Vimy Commercial or the DH.16) the addition of passenger cabins was the biggest and most obvious change. It makes sense; air travel was by definition a luxury in the 1920s. The sorts of passengers they were hoping to entice on board (Lady So-and-so; Sir J. Bloggs of the City; etc) were not likely to put up with being buffeted by the elements for hours on end. Which actually could make Stewart's original 'open seat' comment more comprehensible: he perhaps was thinking in terms of recreating or adapting the eminently respectable habit of going on long sea cruises for health reasons, for the same kind of market.


    I agree Stewart's Strategy and Tactics of Air Fighting is pretty sensible -- it gets a mention in my book. I've also discussed a later book of his here.)

    On the flying aircraft carrier, I think it's a bit harsh to simply dismiss it as 'an obviously impractical idea' -- that's exactly why my post was entitled 'The flying aircraft carrier: why?'. There were valid reasons to explore the idea (CAP, recon, transport, even strategic air defence); that they eventually turned out to be not worth the effort does not mean that should have been known at the start. That said, I don't have any insight into Trenchard's interest in the matter. I don't see any necessary contradiction with a disdain for (floating) aircraft carriers, though -- flying aircraft carriers would come under RAF control, so that's obviously better than letting the Royal Navy 'borrow' RAF squadrons to station on their floating targets. (As an aside, I'm no partisan of Trenchard (or Trenchardism), and certainly don't think he was some great prophet of airpower; he was an institution builder. But he is long overdue for a new biography.)

  12. Neil Datson

    Brett, I think we'll just have to differ on the flying AC. My point is that a flying AC is obviously more vulnerable and less capable than a floating AC.

    In my last contribution I termed Trenchard a 'crank'. Actually, I think that's not a good way to put it. He was worse than that. As you suggest Trenchard's approach seems to have been that it was necessarily a 'good thing' to keep aircraft out of the RN's hands. That is essentially what I find so disturbing about the man. Inter-service rivalry has both positive and negative aspects, and no armed service has ever been wholly innocent of some negative rivalry, but to me Trenchard comes across as a man who was dangerously influenced by personal jealousies and animosities.

    I freely admit that my opinion of him is somewhat strong, but I'm certainly in the market for evidence that counters it. I couldn't agree more that he is overdue a good biography.

  13. Post author

    Well, I'm not saying that the flying aircraft carrier was a good idea, though. But I'd rather find out why people at the time thought it was, or at least thought it was worth experimenting with, than dismiss it as an obviously foolish dead-end.

    I would agree with you about Trenchard though (even though I've just said in another comment to you that he can be a bit of a scapegoat!) I get why he is revered within the RAF, but even outside it the way his role is either exaggerated or glossed over is most irritating.

  14. Neil Datson

    Perhaps I ought nuance my point on the flying AC a little further. No, it shouldn't necessarily have been dismissed as an obvious dead-end, and it is of interest to know why some were pursuing the idea . . . but by the end of WWI airships had been defeated in combat roles (the RN had even chased German airships out of the North Sea) and secondly Trenchard always dismissed the floating AC. For a man whose first, second and third priorities should have been the defence of the nation and empire it just won't do. My criticism of him is not the bombing line, it is a deal stronger.

    On Acworth, it may be of interest - I can't think it has any bearing on his attitude to aeroplanes or airships - to know that in 1918, when he was in command of HM Submarine L2, he was severely depth-charged - by three US destroyers. The episode can be read in The Story of our Submarines by 'Klaxon' (John Graham Bower).

  15. Post author

    As much as I agree that Trenchard was a blinkered partisan, I doubt he would have disagreed that his priorities should have been the defence of Britain and the Empire, and I equally doubt he would have considered that they weren't his priorities. For the airminded the RAF was far and away the most important service; the next war would be fought and won or lost in the air, possibly before the Army and Navy had done anything at all; if money must be spent on them at least aviation must be under unitary control.

    I don't think it's necessarily contradictory to dismiss the naval kind of aircraft carrier while putting forward the air force kind (though I wouldn't exactly be shocked if it was just inter-service rivalry either). From the air force point of view, or at least the extremist one, aircraft carriers are just sinkable aerodromes; and in the 1920s they'd only been around for barely a decade and they hadn't seen much real combat. Being opposed to them wasn't self-evidently foolish. Admittedly, flying aircraft carriers were even less tested and even more vulnerable (and could carry far fewer aircraft) than floating ones. But they were also faster and -- not unimportant in the cash-strapped 1920s -- much cheaper. And while you're right, by the end of 1918 it was easy to shoot down airships, all that means is that they wouldn't be used as bombers and wouldn't be sent into the teeth of the enemy air defences. (And at least the kind of airships we are discussing would have had the potential for a CAP of sorts, unlike the Kaiser's Zeppelins.) I'm (still!) not saying it was a brilliant idea, because it wasn't, but I don't think Trenchard was foolish or inconsistent for trying it out. And of course the RAF didn't take it any further than a couple of trials, unlike the US Navy which designed, built and operated two flying aircraft carriers, and then finally gave up on the idea.

  16. Neil Datson

    Yes Alan. But surely there's a counter argument somewhere in the Disney canon? Possibly The Little Mermaid itself? Or Finding Nemo? More research needs to be done.

    Brett, if I'm not careful I'll end up writing an essay on Trenchard and the AC question. I rather think of it as a ball that you and I might kick back and forth more or less indefinitely.

    The first thing I must acknowledge is that it's far too easy to have the wisdom of hindsight. Airships have - yet - to find a successful military application, and they almost certainly never will. Their greatest success was in WWI, before the incendiary bullet. We know that now, in the 1920s it wasn't so clear. But the evidence against them was mounting up. After the incendiary bullet arrived on the scene probably after the RNAS blimps were their most successful application, but only in areas that weren't penetrated by German aircraft or even German warships mounting AA guns. Naval ACs on the other hand, were only just coming in at the end of the war, and hadn't really been tried. Possibly just a vulnerable airfield? Well, yes. But possibly not and, despite what all the bomber fanatics were claiming between the wars, where was the hard evidence that warships were vulnerable to aircraft at all? Mitchell's circus act wasn't evidence. Evidence has to be from war itself.

    From the British point of view, there's another problem with the 'ships will be sunk willy-nilly by aircraft' line of argument. If they are, the nation will starve. So the problem has to be dealt with. Failure is not an option. Later practice was to show that the best way to deal with the risk that aircraft undoubtedly posed to ships was to give them their own aircraft, with the AC being obviously the best way to provide them. But it wasn't only later practice. From the middle of 1917 the RN was carrying quite large numbers of reconnaissance planes and interceptors into the North Sea and so chasing the Zeppelins out of the North Sea, and at least posing a risk to German aircraft. The system worked fine but for one flaw, which was that the aircraft usually had to be ditched. The obvious solution to that was the AC. So the real 'Zeppelin menace' (as maritime scouts) had been dealt with by mounting aircraft on the fleet, and there was - at least up to Nov 1918 - no evidence to suggest that German land based aircraft were going to trump the RN's ship based aircraft.

    Let's have a look at the cost of floating ACs against flying ACs. Clearly, floating ones are far cheaper. Quite apart from the fact (I write fact, though it's a presumption and I'll gladly withdraw if I'm wrong) that the flying AC never got beyond the stage of being a 'one shot' use, like the RN's aircraft in WWI, so we're not really comparing like with like. On 11 Aug 18 L53 was shot down by a Camel that took off from a lighter towed behind a destroyer, only make the lighter large enough and the plane could presumably have been landed again. So there we have the closest equivalent to the flying AC. HMS Argus carried about 20 aircraft. What would the cost have been of an airship AC that could carry 20 aircraft? And how long would it have lasted? Argus was operational through most of WWII and only scrapped in 1946. (Though she'd have been scrapped before WWII if the RN had had their way, and replaced with something better and/or cheaper to operate.)

    Now, as for Trenchard. Yes, I'm sure that he would have claimed to have been prioritising the defence of the realm. He may even have believed it; we can't know what a man who is long dead actually believed. But in Nov 1918 he left the walked away from the IAF convinced that it was a total waste of money, within a few short years he was a thoroughly convinced strategic bomber, dismissing other ways of fighting a war as redundant. When exactly was his damascene moment? He can't even claim the defence of Sykes, Groves, Douhet etc, of imagining that aircraft had changed all the strategic rules of past warfare. Maybe I'm something of a cynic, but really can anybody seriously argue that he didn't come to be a 'strategic bomber' because it was the one theory that implied the need for an independent air force? That was bad enough. What was surely worse was then arguing against other uses of aircraft that had been tested in war and shown promise.

    Finally (this is nearly an essay):

    For the airminded the RAF was far and away the most important service; the next war would be fought and won or lost in the air, possibly before the Army and Navy had done anything at all; if money must be spent on them at least aviation must be under unitary control.

    As I see it, this is the core of the problem. The air enthusiasts (as above, but not Trenchard before he became CAS) had decided that somehow or other they had been shown an amazing revelation, and aircraft were certain to bypass all the established strategic rules. Of course, they hadn't got a shred of evidence to back their conviction. They were wrong then, and to this day aircraft haven't rewritten the strategic rules. (Arguably nuclear weapons have, but I won't go there.) Through the 20th century aircraft were: firstly, a means of reconnaissance, secondly, a weapons platform and thirdly a means of transport. But they didn't change the strategic rules. There was a parallel delusion in the RN of WWI. Almost all the sailors were convinced that in the new technological age (steam power, rifled breech loaders, torpedoes, submarines and even aircraft) that the age of convoying merchant ships was over, because it was a 'defensive' tactic and the future lay with 'offensive' patrolling to counter commerce raiders. And we all know how that ended up.

  17. Post author

    Okay, I think (after nearly 3 month's silent on my part) that it's time to let this thread die! I'll only add that what needs to happen is that the archival sources need to be looked at to see exactly what the point of the Air Ministry's flying aircraft carrier programme was, and put in the context of the only operational flying aircraft carriers, the USS Macon and Akron. So if somebody could get onto that, that would be great.

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