1940s

John Llewellyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow

John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rees was born on 7 May 1911, got his pilot's license on 4 July 1934, and was killed in a flying accident on 5 August 1940. Those bare life events hardly stand out among the airminded young men of his generation. But as well as flying, Rees wrote (albeit as John Llewelyn Rhys). His two novels, The Flying Shadow (1936) and The World Owes Me a Living (1939), and a handful of short stories, collected as England is My Village (1941), are suffused with -- drenched in, might be a better phrase -- a love of flying in all its pleasures and perils. It's because of this that he bears some comparison as the English-language equivalent of the slightly older Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Certainly, passages like these are rare in contemporary British aviation writing:

Below, the clouds were flat as beaten snow, dazzling white in the brilliant sunshine, undisturbed except for the shadow of the Moth which slid easily, silently, over their even surface. For scores of miles there was no movement, nothing but the sunny emptiness of the sky and the hard, white floor of the clouds, the enormous silence pricked by the stutter of the engine. For the hundredth time the beauty of such a scene hooded his mind, the sense of overwhelming desolation intensifying his realization of individuality. Nothing in the world, he thought, was as lonely as this, no scene so static in beauty, so expansive in monotony.1

Or:

We flew on for hour after hour, seeing nothing of the earth but the peaks of mountains standing up through the clouds, the only other moving thing our shadow which raced silently beneath us, following every curve of the clouds with effortless grace. Above was the dome of heaven, a nightmare blue except for the blazing ball of the sun, no trace of cloud to break its pitiless emptiness. The one sound in our ears was the roar of the engines mingling with airscrew thrash. We were alone, racing through a dead world.2

These convey beautifully a sense of the sublime nature of flight, its awesome majesty and terror, intensified at every point by the ever-present possibility of death (possibly a little exaggerated; surely Rhys sensed the 'inarticulate lust for the blinding novelty of a crash' among readers just as much as spectators).3

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  1. John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 39.[]
  2. John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 237.[]
  3. Rhys, England is My Village, 122.[]

R.100, St Hubert airfield, Montreal, 1930

If you've ever read anything about the last great British rigid airships, built between 1924 and 1930 as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, you will almost certainly have come across a statement to the effect that R.100 was known as the 'capitalist' airship and R.101 as the 'socialist' airship. This was because the former was designed and built by Vickers and the latter by the Labour government (at least, it was conceived and flown under Labour; most of the construction was actually done under the Tories).

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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.

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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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Sphere (London), 26 April 1947, 99

There have been many big bangs. One particularly important one is the 'Big Bang' in which the Universe began, according to current cosmological understanding, approximately 13.8 billion years ago. This was not a bang at all, in the sense of an explosion, because there was nothing to explode into -- rather it was space itself which was expanding, as it has continued to do for 13.8 billion years. Why, then, do we use this evocative but misleading name for what is arguably the most important event to have ever taken place? It was famously coined by cosmologist Fred Hoyle in a BBC Third Programme broadcast on 28 March 1949 to describe the expanding universe concept, then the main competing theory to one he helped develop, the (now-discredited) steady-state (or continuous creation) theory (emphasis added):

We now come to the question of applying the observational tests to earlier theories. These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements.1

The term 'big bang' stuck -- or it least it did from the 1970s -- and it now stands for the entire cosmological theory of which it is just one part.2

But why did Hoyle choose that particular phrase, 'big bang'? On one level it is simply catchy, evocative and onomatopoeic. Hoyle himself said later that 'I was constantly striving over the radio -- where I had no visual aids, nothing except the spoken word -- for visual images [...] And that seemed to be one way of distinguishing between the steady-state and the explosive big bang'.3

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  1. Fred Hoyle, script, March 1949; in Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition. Apparently reprinted in Listener, 7 April 1949, but I haven't seen this.[]
  2. Helge Kragh, ‘Big Bang: the etymology of a name’, Astronomy & Geophysics 54, no. 2 (2013): 2.28-2.30.[]
  3. Quoted in ibid., 2.29. Kragh argues, I think persuasively, that Hoyle did not intend 'big bang' to be derisive, as is often said.[]

Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1913-1946 (BNA)

The time has finally come to address the claim I've made in the title of this series of posts, that the air raid somehow vanished. Why did I say that, and what does it mean? Well, look at the plot above. Previously I looked at how often 'air raid' (and related phrases) appeared per issue in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in each month across the First World War. The above plot, now, is how often 'air raid' appeared per issue in each year from the start of the First World War (when 'air raid' was first used) until the end of the Second. Now you can see that the first peak in 'air raid''s popularity came in 1917, at an average of 0.8 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA; and that this was followed by a second, much bigger peak in 1940 of 5.2 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA. All of which makes sense.

What's more surprising is what happened in between. From 1921 to 1934, the phrase 'air raid' almost completely disappears from BNA. At the lowest point, 1929, the average number of mentions per issue was just 0.026, or one in about 38. In other words, if you read 38 issues you might expect to read the phrase 'air raid' once, which is more than six weeks of reading a daily. If you want some absolute figures, 'air raid' appears 609 times in the 23054 issues contained in BNA for 1929. So 'air raid' was not a phrase you were at all likely to see in a newspaper in the 1920s and early 1930s.

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Victory Through Air Power (1943)

Back in the depths of last winter (and the great Melbourne pandemic lockdown of 2020) I had great fun as the co-host for the Historians at the Movies Australia (#HATMAus) livetweet of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'm going to be doing it again, this time along with James Kightly and Daniel J. Leahy as a special #HATMAus-Aviation Cultures co-presentation of the 1943 Disney film Victory Through Air Power, based on Alexander de Seversky's book of the same name. It's a wonderful example of both wartime and airpower propaganda, and I hope you'll join me for it. If you need more convincing, just before the main feature we'll be giving the 1950 Australian short Flight Plan the same treatment. If you need even more convincing, it's all free (you don't need to buy a conference ticket -- though please feel free to do so! -- and the movies are publicly available.) It starts at 7pm, Friday, 26 March 2021, on Twitter; the details and links are all here. See you there!

Image source: Victory Through Air Power (1943).