Aerial theatre


Wide World Magazine, April 1909

The 'flight' -- The machine reached the edge of the slope, shot out a few yards into the air with the impetus it had acquired, and then dropped with a crash onto the rocks.1

I am very nearly done with N. R. Gordon, who built at least five completely unsuccessful flying machines over a period of several decades, from well before Kitty Hawk to after the First World War, when how to fly was pretty much a solved problem. But a post at the Aerodrome alerted me to the existence of some further photographs of his first and most ambitious attempt, before a large holiday crowd at Chowder Bay on Boxing Day 1894. The most remarkable is the one above, which shows Gordon's oddly sinuous machine just at the moment of being launched over the precipice. In the background there are many small boats out on the bay, and in the foreground eight or nine people with their backs to the camera, watching the flying machine. All the accounts frame the trial as a failure -- or worse, as I'll come to -- but at this very instant the possibility of success was still there. Did these spectators believe, or hope, that they were witnessing the beginning of the conquest of the air?
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  1. J. S. Boot, 'The Sydney "flying machine"', Wide World Magazine, April 1909, 32-36, at 35. []

On Wednesday, 27 May 2020, I was privileged to give a seminar to the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University on my aerial theatre research -- via Zoom, as is the current fashion. I really enjoyed giving it, and I think it was a great success (and thanks to everyone who listened in and especially those to took the time to ask questions). Because the seminar pulls together some of the different things I've been working on in some kind of coherent way, I wanted to make it available to a wider audience, and so yesterday I post-tweeted my own seminar. And to make it less (?) ephemeral, now I'm embedding the entire 51-tweet thread here in a blog post. It is of course very much a condensed version of what I said, but it's always surprising how much of the essence gets through in tweet form. (Well, I understand what I'm trying to say, but then I would, wouldn't I?)

The seminar title is 'History from below, looking up: aerial theatre, emotion and modernity'. The abstract is:

In the early 20th century, the aeroplane was the symbol of modernity par excellence. Technological change is an essential part of this sense of modernity, and few technological changes have been as dramatic or as unmistakable as the conquest of the air. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, flying was the object of intense popular fascination, and yet few people actually flew themselves, even as passengers, before the tremendous expansion of aviation during and after the Second World War. Even so, their experience of flight was often intensely exciting, since one of the most common ways to encounter flight was through seeing it, as an aviation spectacle in the form of aerial theatre such as air displays and air races. People flocked to aerodromes in their cumulative millions to watch aircraft in flight, performing aerobatics or fighting mock battles. This was a mass form of popular culture, which explicitly and implicitly made claims about the present and -- even more so -- future ability of technology to change the world, for better or for worse. In this talk I will sketch out an emotional history of aerial theatre, focusing on how it helped to construct popular ideas about modernity, primarily in Britain and Australia.

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Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 October 1894, 3

So, who was behind the Chowder Bay flying machine? In November 1894, the month before the ill-fated flight attempt, stories appeared in the Sydney press about what sounds like a very similar 'flying machine' being exhibited in a vacant lot behind the Lyceum Theatre. Given the reported plans for a launch over Sydney Harbour, it's clearly the same machine:

The object of the exhibition is to raise funds for laying a tramline for the trial, which will be mode on an elevated line across the waters of Sydney harbor. The machine is constructed of large sails, four in number, wnich are in appearance much like the mould boards of a plough, only much more flat. These are secured to stays, which have in the centre an elliptical shaped affair in which is a small boiler, and attached to the outside of which are thin strips of canvas, which are to revolve when the machine is in motion.1

Importantly, this article identifies the flying machine as being 'Mr Gordon's'.2
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  1. Australian Star (Sydney), 12 November 1894, 3. []
  2. Ibid. []


Town and Country (Sydney), 12 January 1895, 31

This photograph shows a steam-powered 'flying machine' which was to make the world's first heavier-than-air flight from the cliffs at Chowder Bay, Sydney Harbour, Boxing Day (26 December), 1894. Spoiler: it didn't.

The attempt was widely advertised, even in the other colonies: the Brisbane Week reported that
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Last year I looked at a couple of fantastic photographs from the State Library of South Australia's collection, taken at Harry Butler's 'Aviation Day' display at Unley on 23 August 1919. They're fantastic because they focus not on the flying but on the crowds watching it. Now I've found two more photos taken on the same day. PRG 280/1/24/250, wonderfully dynamic with the Red Devil (inserted in the lower left) evidently right overhead as the spectators twist and turn to keep it in view:

Spectators watching an aircraft's arrival
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[With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez and Ben Wilkie.]

It's not that long ago that I was posting about the Australian bushfires; now it's the turn of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, and it's worldwide. Social media is an essential tool in such times of crisis, but it also can be a misleading one. Here's a fairly trivial example relevant to my own interests.

Kathleen tweeted this on 13 March:

The Italian airforce gives a big emotional lift to their nation with Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma (let no one sleep)and where lyrics say venceremos(we will overcome)they have their planes dramatically facing and overpowering the single plane (virus) with their National Flag!

As of 16 March, the attached video has been viewed 10.6 million times. And why not? The display is beautiful, the music inspirational, and it fits in with other videos we've all seen of quarantined Italians singing together from their balconies. Unity and culture will defeat the pandemic! Viva Italia!
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My article, 'The meaning of Hendon: the Royal Air Force Display, aerial theatre and the technological sublime, 1920–37', has been accepted for publication in Historical Research (the journal of the Institute of Historical Research). I'm not sure when it will be published yet, and I can't self-archive the post-peer-reviewed version until 24 months after publication. The submitted, pre-peer-reviewed version I can self-archive now, however. There are some substantial differences between the two, mainly in the historiographical discussion in the introduction, as well as some errors I caught after submission, but the two versions are close enough that I'm happy to post the submitted version now -- and here it is. This is the abstract:

The annual Royal Air Force Display at Hendon was a hugely popular form of aerial theatre, with attendance peaking at 195,000. Most discussions of Hendon have understood it as 'a manifestation of popular imperialism', focusing on the climactic set-pieces which portrayed the bombing of a Middle Eastern village or desert fortress. However, scenarios of this kind were a small minority of Hendon’s set-pieces: most depicted warfare against other industrialised states. Hendon should rather be seen as an attempt to persuade spectators that future wars could be won through the use of airpower rather than large armies or expensive navies.

There are three things I wanted to do with this article, which to some extent are independent of each other. The first is to push against the prevailing historiographical understanding of the RAF Display as primarily imperialist and racist propaganda. This is the one thing that everyone 'knows' about Hendon, and I've written that myself, but it's wrong. As noted in the abstract, my case here is primarily numerical and chronological: only a quarter of the set-pieces were 'imperial', none of them after 1930. This doesn't necessarily invalidate discussions of those specific set-pieces as imperialist and racist propaganda, because they were, but we need to recognise that they were not what Hendon was mainly about.

So the second thing I wanted to do was to offer an alternative reading of Hendon, and that is as 'one long argument for airpower supremacy' (to quote myself). Most of the set-pieces involved industrial (and so presumably European) targets: factories, power stations, and so on. (See my posts on the Hendon set-pieces.) These were targets that only the RAF could attack. Other set-piece targets, such as siege guns and merchant cruisers, could have provided an opportunity to portrary cooperation with the Army and the Navy, but didn't (a point I could have made more strongly in the article). So Hendon was 'a cultural projection of what David Edgerton terms liberal militarism' (to quote myself again!)

The third and final thing I wanted to do with this article was to showcase the usefulness of aerial theatre. I've already given the concept an outing in my article on 'The militarisation of aerial theatre', but Hendon was of course the biggest and best air display in interwar Britain and so it's the ideal case study -- if the concept has any validity at all! I've also tried to link aerial theatre to the concept of the technological sublime; again, I'll be interested to see what others make of this.

This is not my final word on Hendon, by any means, but it's a good start.


Spectators watching an aircraft's arrival

Tim Sherratt pointed out this remarkable image, PRG 280/1/24/108 in the State Library of South Australia's collection. The description reads:

A large crowd of spectators packed into stands around a show ring looking up into the sky as they watch for the arrival of the local aviator Harry Butler's aircraft.

The date is given as 1919; there's no location other than it's in South Australia.
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Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet

This is the cover of a leaflet produced in 1916 by the Australian Air Squadrons Fund, the Australian arm of the Imperial Air Flotilla which raised funds around the British Empire for presentation 'battle-planes' for the Royal Flying Corps. My interest in it is not so much for its own sake, though I am struck by the slightly confusing promise that this aircraft 'will carry your name and message of sympathy and support over the heads of our troops into the enemy capitals', as well as the sadly forlorn hope that 'This is, please God, the only war in which we will be able to take part'. Rather, it's here as an example of the aviation records to be found in the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), which is being digitised and made freely available through Trove.
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