1910s

Thanet Advertiser, 29 April 1916, 5

The above facsimile letter was published in the Ramsgate Thanet Advertiser on 29 April 1916. It reads:

April 7th. The writer of the first 'German messages' has been absent from Ramsgate some time now, so the 'Alien’s post-card' is by another hand. If I did not fear prosecution for "failing to register an alien," I could give the police his address to find him, as he is due to return this Wedy. here. The enclosed I found in his overcoat pocket the night before the raid (after he left here on 18th ult.)
Veritas.
To the Editor.1

The enclosure referred to was a second letter, 'another foreign missive, addressed to “Herr Chaney, Burgomeister von Ramsgate.” It states that the Zeppelins have a nightly victory and contains some abusive epithets'.2

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  1. Thanet Advertiser (Ramsgate), 29 April 1916, 5.[]
  2. Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.[]

Postcard showing Zeppelin LVI bombing Leige, 6 August 1914

I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.

Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.

Image source: Tales from Rat City.

Sphere, 1 March 1913, 223

'In the future, every historian will be relevant for 15 minutes', as somebody once said. Here's my 15 minutes, an interview with journalist Connor Echols for Responsible Statecraft on the parallels between the 1913 phantom airship panic and the 2023 spy balloon panic. As I've been busy with other things and have had to watch take after hot take flash by (most interestingly from my point of view was Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian invoking another interest of mine, balloon riots), I appreciated the opportunity to think about what I do think (if that makes sense!)

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One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950), Y axis = Hours (travel time) between Sydney and Melbourne. The data points are few before about 1910, there are some between 1910 and 1915 and then many more between 1920 and 1940. There is a trend towards lower values (faster travel) but it is not strong

Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.

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Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

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Queenslander, 8 March 1928, cover

Continuing this miscellany, on 23 August 1913 the Maitland Daily Mercury published a letter from the Reverend G. W. Payne reporting that he, his wife, and a Mr and Mrs Preston had seen 'an aeroplane with searchlight hovering fairly high over Newcastle and the Hunter Valley'.1 This was just before 4am on 22 August 1913, though Mr Preston had also seen the light at 2am on 21 August. What they were all doing at such an early (or late) hour is unclear, but it was 'A reflection of the light on the still waters of the lake' (presumably Lake Macquarie) which first caught their attention:

The four of us watched it traversing a line from the direction of Newcastle north and west. Though at a considerable distance from us and fairly high in the air, the nature of the light was quite unmistakeable. It passed away in a westerly direction after loitering some time over the Hunter Valley.2

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  1. Maitland Daily Mercury, 23 August 1913, 4.[]
  2. Ibid.[]

William Le Queux, The Zeppelin Destroyer (1916)

A few years back, my article 'William Le Queux, the Zeppelin menace and the Invisible Hand' was published in Critical Survey, with the following abstract:

In contrast to William Le Queux's pre-1914 novels about German spies and invasion, his wartime writing is much less well known. Analysis of a number of his works, predominantly non-fictional, written between 1914 and 1918 shows that he modified his perception of the threat posed by Germany in two ways. Firstly, because of the lack of a German naval invasion, he began to emphasise the more plausible danger of aerial attack. Secondly, because of the incompetent handling of the British war effort, he began to believe that an 'Invisible Hand' was responsible, consisting primarily of naturalised Germans. Switching form from fiction to non-fiction made his writing more persuasive, but he was not able to sustain this and he ended the war with less influence than he began it.

Now you can read the green open access version, which can be downloaded for free from here. Or you can simply enjoy the above cover of Le Queux's 1916 novel The Zeppelin Destroyer.

History of the Second World War

It seems like only last week that I was spruiking a podcast appearance -- actually, it was last month, which is also not very long ago! This time it was on the History of the Second World War podcast with Wesley Livesay, chatting about the German air raids on Britain of the First World War (and how that affected British thinking and planning for the air raids of the Second World War).

Wesley is indefatigably thorough, or possibly thoroughly indefatigable: this was his 27th interview for this podcast, on top of 97 regular episodes, and he's still only in the interwar period! (This is after doing 295 podcast episodes on History of the Great War, too: clearly he knew what he was getting into.) So there is plenty more world war content to consume -- including another five episodes on interwar airpower, and an interview with Alan Allport on 1930s Britain -- and when you've finished with all that you can go read Wesley's sources.