Acquisitions (omnibus edition)

Airminded has been very quiet lately, as I was working to a deadline (thankfully met). I didn't even have time to note the books I've been buying, so here they are.

Bourke, Joanna. Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War-Play Invades Our Lives. London: Virago, 2014. The argument is there in the title, the persuasion will be in the detail. Interesting to me for the connections between play, simulation and aerial theatre. Note that Bourke is the incoming Global Innovation Chair in the Centre for the History of Violence just down the road.

Boyce, Dean. Invasion of Sydney: Fears and Counter-measures of an Isolated Colony. Ultimo: Halstead Press, 2015. A history of the various invasion scares, mostly Russian, endured by Sydney in the 19th century (sadly, not the 20th century). The scaremongering effect of simulated naval battles and landings is a surprising and fascinating theme.

Hamilton-Paterson, James. Marked for Death: The First War in the Air. New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2016. Review copy (not for Airminded). Hamilton-Paterson's Empire of the Clouds was a great evocation of postwar British aviation. Here he is tackling a larger topic in a more systematic way. A new history of the First World War in the air would be welcome -- John Morrow's is nearly a quarter of a century old now -- so we'll see if this is it.

Parker, Nigel J. Gott Strafe England: The German Air Assault against Great Britain 1914-1918. 2 volumes. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2016. And sometimes classics are surpassed. I think this will become my new go-to work for the German air raids on Britain in the First World War, replacing Cole and Cheesman's The Air Defence of Great Britain (more than three decades old), though that may still have the edge for air operations, as opposed to the effects on the ground, and some more analysis would have been nice. But it's very comprehensive and well-referenced.

Patrick, Chris and Baister, Stephen. William Le Queux, Master of Mystery. Purley: self-published, 2007. Perhaps surprisingly, the only full-length biography of Le Queux available. A bit patchy, but has some valuable information.

Rid, Thomas. Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics. Brunswick and London: Scribe, 2016. Would you believe that the cyber age began with the attempt to solve the air defence problem? I would! Though that is, of course, just part of the story.

Schneer, Jonathan. Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and His War Cabinet. London: OneWorld, 2015. Some time ago Schneer wrote a book called London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, which I liked very much. A rather different topic here but a useful one (even if it does mean adding to my library another book with 'Churchill' in the title).

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6 thoughts on “Acquisitions (omnibus edition)

  1. Interested to see what you make of the Hamilton-Paterson and the Rid; the latter's on my want to buy list, and I'm half-way through the former. Current impression is it's a tighter book than _Empire_, though of course that may be because I agree more with his judgements here...

  2. Post author

    All I can say is that I was quite enjoying the first few pages of Rid's book, but then the US election happened and I decided I needed some lighter fare! Not sure when I'll get back to it.

  3. Andrew Reid

    That Rid book does look interesting -- I recently read a dense and rather disappointing book about torpedoes and the politics and technology thereof ("Torpedo: Inventing the Military Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain", K. Epstein), and was reminded about the technology of naval gunnery in the early 20th century, which involved a targeting apparatus that's essentially an analog computer hooked into the navigation system, so it can compensate for ship speed in targeting.

    So, military interest in things that look a lot like computers in the WW1 period wouldn't surprise me a bit.

  4. Finished _Marked for Death _ last night; on the whole I enjoyed it and thought it was good, but it's not a replacement for the Morrow. The thematic organisation of the book works well, and JH-P clearly knows his stuff, but his source base is all published memoirs and older histories (little post-2000 when I skimmed the bibliography). Apart from a slightly crotchety postscript it's less strident than _Empire_ as well.

    On gunnery, automatic control, etc,the sickeningly talented and prolific David Mindell wrote a book on early feedback and control before cybernetics; I've only glanced at it, but if it's anything like as good as any of his others it will be well worth a look.

  5. Erik Lund

    I quite liked the Mindell book and would recommend it as one entree into the problem of "computing before computers," that is, before the electronic computer, along with Brooks, _Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland_. (Yes, yes, Campbell-Kelly, Jon Agar.)

    But then I after I read Mindell, I went looking for army fire control and ran into Barr and Stroud and then optical surveying technology from the near end. I thought I had some idea how this worked from the Scientific Revolution era. It turned out that I didn't. For one reason, those darn astronomers get involved. For another, it turns out that I knew far less than I thought I did about early precision machine tools.

    We need, we really need, a history of surveying in the Nineteenth Century. And, yes, I know that there's been some good work done on the India Survey; I mean, a bit of wonky stuff about those steampunky gadgets in the brass cases.

    So I guess my point is that you've got your angulators and your tide-calculating machines and your live-line carburettors. . . . Which doesn't make a lot of sense except as a rhetorical flourish. Let me see if I know enough about this that I can put it into some kind of order. Probably not.

    i) Surveyors are taking on increasingly ambitious projects, and want to be able to look through a sight, adjust a knob until two reticules line up, take a reading off the knob, and, hey, presto, distance-and-elevation, hopefully in such a way that you can just draw it directly onto a map. The gadgets they were building by the late 1800s to do this are amazing. And, of course, they lead directly to the naval fire control problem. Army, too. Steampunky gadgets with brass cogs and then pneumatic motors and then they go and wire radar into it and ruin everything with their electrons!

    ii) Kelvin's tide-calculating machines. Very specific, but Kelvin was bright guy, who didn't at all owe his position in life to all the other engineer-and-physicist Thomsons (yes, I'm a bit bitter about the nepotism thing these days), and he influenced the academic scene to think about building mechanisms to generate numerical solutions to partial differential equations. This flows pretty directly into stuff that we do know about, like Vannevar Bush's differential analyzer, but there you go with the electronics again.

    iii) Precision powered tooling: Making a machine that can cut steel finely enough to make a rifle or a '75 or some footling internal combustion engine is hard! Making it so that every machine in a bank can draw power from a common source and still do separate machining operations is even harder. Hele-Becham and Shawe weren't trying to solve that problem with their rotary pump --as far as I can tell, they were just trying to make naval gunnery more accurate by making the machines that rotate gun turrets more accurate, but the upshot is reliable hydraulic feedback, and another opportunity to embody mechanical, numerical solutions to partial differential equations. There's an old book by Noble, Forces of Production about NMC as a social phenomena, which seems to have fallen dead from the press in 1986.

    iv) Speaking of feedback: controlling furnace temperatures with thermometers is hard! This is in some ways the most recognisable precursor technology, since it is Minneapolis Honeywell's entree into the industry, but there were a lot of people working on it besides Honeywell. And yet as far as I can tell, no-one cares about the kind of industries that used this technology to write about it. Robert Solo, an economic historian at Eastern Michigan, touched on it obliquely in his criticism of the idea of directed technological progress in the context of the wartime rubber industry and the Manhattan Project (where feedback controls based on technology developed for the distillery industry and subsquently used in artificial rubber production partially automated the multistage gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge), but I seriously doubt it made an appearance in his big books.

    v) Automatic pilots: somewhat complicated by Sperry's bullshit about having solved the problem to start with. This is the core of Mindell's project, because it's the kind of automation that we care about. (Replacing the pilot/gunner, who are manly men!) Automatic steering goes into all sorts of things --the most thorough historical piece I've read on the subject is Pout's great appendix to the recent two volume work on radar in the Royal Navy in WWII, in which he analyses the problems with remote position control of naval AA, but clearly this is a larger subject than its relatively ample existing historiography. I haven't read Rid, but he sounds like a contribution to this line of research.

    vi) Fuel supply. The Dowty live-line carburettor ("the carburettor that thinks for itself") was where I first encountered this, but it turns out that Dowty was following along a path already blazed by marine machinery fuel vaporisers/burners. I'm honestly not sure where this path might lead. At the end, the burner-designers invade the jet engine business. At the beginning, I catch suggestions that they were involved in the machinery for the blockade-supporting RFAs the Admiralty was building in the late 30s, such as Breconshire of Malta fame. Maybe the work was classified on this account? The last time I followed up on this, someone at the successor company told me that there was an engineer on staff who was going to write a Big History when he retired, and that he was holding onto the documents. Anyway, a metered injection pump controlled by feeback is --again-- an opportunity to solve a partial differential equation numerically. The interesting point with an aeroengine carburettor is that you're simultaneously attacking the same problem with respect to the c.s. airscrew and the supercharger gear-changer as well.

    But you know what? I idly looked up the company where the "Lubbock burner" on the Whittle engine originated, Asiatic Petroleum, on Wikipedia, and was introduced to the Yung Hao Incident. Wow. You know, never mind the history business. I could go with a full time career coming up with plots for pulp novels.

    That is, marine machinery is clearly a global industrial market capable of mobilising considerable capital for research into ways of increasing fuel economy and control automation. Then, on top of that, there is the interest of naval authorities. Again, the subject is not well investigated, and when I look at it, I hardly get past David Brown, who, while a good naval architect, is no mechanical engineer --and who anyway relies on a pair of rather cracked sages (Louis LeBaillie and Harold Bowen, neither of whom even seem aware that fuel injection was a thing. And then the most interesting plant --that on the L/M/N destroyers, the fast minelayers, and, again, Breconshire hardly have histories. I think, from the efficiency curves published in the Proc. Mec. Eng. that something interesting is going on in RN powerplants in the late 'Thirties. I just have no idea what. The hypothesis that I'm implying here is that they're getting more efficient burners that are directly ancestral to the ones that Lucas built for the early jet turbines. I just have no idea why Asiatic Petroleum is the vector between the RN Engineering Branch and the jet industry.

    So that's where I am on computing before computing.

  6. Post author

    On cyber prehistory I have nothing to add to Erik's list (!!!; NB Erik, write a book or three, will you please) but to point back to a much earlier post and discussion here about the Vickers-Bygrave bombing teacher and the idea of simulating a system for comprehension and control, which connects in one direction to gaming and in another to spectacle. I'm still struck by the way that we today are simulation minded in a way that nobody before the 1950s or so was, despite all the antecedants that Erik and others can point to (Link trainers, air defence systems, police control rooms (hi Chris!), train control systems...)


    I had my suspicions about Hamilton-Paterson and rather thought they would defeat my hopes... but I'm about to start reading it for myself.

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