After 1950

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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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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Sunday Post, 12 May 1935, 14

I recently came across a few more examples from 1920s and 1930s newspapers of the 'Red Baron' being used in reference to Manfred von Richthofen, which I suggested undermined my argument that, in essence, we call him that because of Snoopy. But instead of shrugging my shoulders I decided to get my data on and dig into some numbers. And they confirm my original conclusion: that Richthofen was not called the Red Baron during his lifetime, and it's only from the 1960s on that it became almost impossible to call him anything else.
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Wreck of the Hindenburg

Alexander Rose. Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World. New York: Random House, 2020.

The two men of the title both led a great aviation enterprise. Both dreamed of spanning the world with their passenger aircraft. Both struggled at times, and prospered at others. But one was outlived by his company, while the other died knowing that his life's work had been reduced to ashes. The former was Juan Terry Trippe, the head of Pan American Airways (PAA; better known as Pan Am) from 1927 to 1968; the latter, Hugo Eckener, who ran Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and DELAG, the Zeppelin airline, after the death of Count Zeppelin in 1917.1 Both wanted to span the world's continents and oceans by air: Trippe championed aeroplanes as the best way to do this; Eckener, obviously, airships. We all know how that turned out, but well-known stories are often worth revisiting because, well, you don't always know what you thought you did. And so Alexander Rose -- who is perhaps best known as the author of Washington's Spies, which was turned into a successful television series, but wrote his PhD on British air defence policy in the 1930s -- has written a thoroughly researched, fully referenced, hugely informative and compellingly readable account of the struggle for the future of civil aviation.
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  1. Citing a newspaper obituary, Wikipedia claims that Trippe got his first name from 'the Venezuelan wife of his great uncle'. But according to Rose he was actually named after his mother's stepfather, Juan Terry, a Venezuelan millionaire. Trippe hated his name and his non-WASP family connections; the fact that PAA's empire began in Latin America was a coincidence. []

Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, 23 January 1941

Mark Clapson. The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911. London: University of Westminster Press, 2019,

Open access has had its travails, but one welcome recent development, particularly in the UK, seems to be the rise of open access monographs and textbooks. An example of the former is Gabriel Moshenska's Material Cultures of Childhood in Second World War Britain, a historical anthropology which focuses largely on the material culture of air raids, and is the product of many years of research brought out by a respected academic publisher. You can buy a physical copy at the usual moderate prices, or if you'd rather pay nothing you can read it online or download the ebook. Brilliant!

Another example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Mark Clapson's The Blitz Companion, which again can be purchased in physical format (this time at an actually moderate price), or read online or downloaded for free, from here (and it's on JSTOR too). This is more of a textbook aimed at undergraduates, though upper secondary students would also profit from it, and postgraduates might find it a useful introduction to the topic. And it's a big topic: the title suggests that it's going to be about the British experience of bombing during the Second World War, but in fact it covers a whole century (and counting) and much of Western Europe beyond Britain, as well as extended discussions of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Indeed, Clapson sees 'Blitz' as a transnational phenomenon, hence the title (though this could have used a bit more unpacking, and I'd put it in lower-case when using it in this sense).
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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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Popular Mechanics, October 1922

John Ptak asks of this cover from the October 1922 issue Popular Mechanics: 'why?' It's a good question. The accompanying article doesn't really help:

Consider yourself aboard a giant airplane whose whirring propellers rapidly drive from view faint objects on the earth far below. As towns and hamlets recede in the distance you realize that you are fast approaching the one that is your destination, for the captain is giving orders to make ready for the discharge of passengers at one of the intermediate points along the route of the great air liner. The crew unfold from the capacious hold a small air boat, and lower it dangling from the huge hull by its special tackle. You and several fellow passengers climb down into the seats behind the pilot and buckle yourselves in as the big ship slows its engines to enable the little wings to catch the air. With a quick movement of a lever your steersman unleashes the small craft, which begins its motorless flight and gracefully glides downward to a safe landing, while the mother plane speeds out of sight.

It turns out that this was an idea which cropped up repeatedly in the first few decades of flight. But such 'aerial trains' never quite came to commercial fruition. Which suggests that yes, you could indeed consider yourself leaving an airliner in mid-air; but you probably wouldn't want to.
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[Cross-posted at Airplay.]

Australia is a long way from anywhere, even from itself. It nearly always takes a long time to get to where you want to go. Historian Geoffrey Blainey famously popularised the idea that this remoteness has shaped Australian history and culture in the title of his 1966 book, The Tyranny of Distance. The longing of European Australians, especially, for closer connections to Europe and America found an expression in an interest in technological solutions, as in a speech given by J. L. Rentoul in 1918:

We are now living in a day when fast ocean greyhounds have broken the tyranny of distance; when the wireless has annihilated space.

A couple of years later, Rentoul might have mentioned the aeroplane: the first flight from England to Australia was completed by Keith and Ross Smith in their Vickers Vimy in December 1919. They took 28 days in total, which admittedly may not seem impressive to Australians today, when we can get to London in under 24 hours. But when compared with 45 days by steamship (Rentoul's 'fast ocean greyhounds'), that was a huge leap forward. And it was only the start. In the 1920s and 1930s, the England-Australia route became the ultimate venture for pioneers who wanted to test themselves and their machines against one of the longest air routes in the world: Alan Cobham, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson. In 1938, you could board a Qantas airliner in Sydney and be in England 10 days later; another fifteen years on, that was down to 3.5 days. The introduction of jets in 1965 brought the travel time down even further.
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Graphic, 25 May 1918, 631

Manfred von Richthofen is undoubtedly the most famous aviator of the First World War, possibly of all time. But he's not famous by name, so much as by nickname: he is the Red Baron, a reference to his red aircraft and his aristocratic birth. It instantly evokes images of knights of the sky, grappling together in mid-air until one is felled, tumbling to the ground far below. As an example, here's an account from the British press of 'The end of the Red Baron' (with Joseph Simpson's illustration, above):

Cavalry Captain Baron von Richthofen was shot down in aerial combat on the day when the German papers announced his 79th and 80th victories. Boyd Cable writes: 'The Red Baron, with his famous "circus," discovered two of our artillery observing machines, and with a few followers attacked, the greater part of the "circus" drawing off to allow the Baron to go in and down the two. They put up a fight, and, while the Baron manoeuvred for position, a number of our lighting scout machines appeared and attacked the "circus." The Baron joined the mêlée, which, scattering into groups, developed into what our men call "a dog fight." In the course of this the Baron dropped on the tail of a fighting scout, which dived, with the Baron in close pursuit. Another of our scouts seeing this dived after the German, opening fire on him. All three machines came near enough to the ground to be engaged by infantry machine-gun fire, and the Baron was seen to swerve, continue his dive headlong and crash in our lines. His body and the famous blood-red Fokker triplane were afterwards brought in by the infantry, and the Baron was buried with full military honours. He was hit by one bullet, and the position of the wound showed clearly that he had been killed by the pilot who dived down after him.'1

The odd thing is this is the only use of the phrase 'red baron' in the British Newspaper Archive in reference to Richthofen for the entire war -- and even then, it's after his death. Nor have I been able to find it in the other major English-language newspaper archives: Gale NewsVault, ukpressonline, Welsh Newspapers Online, Trove, PapersPast, or Chronicling America. (I can in fact find quite a few mentions of 'red baron' in BNA during the war, but not as anything to do with 'the' Red Baron, or even a person: it was the name of a prize winner at the 1912 Royal Ulster Agricultural Society show, described in 1916 as 'Red Baron, the stud bull in the herd of the Hon. Frederick Wrench, Killacoona, Ballybrack, that has proved such a veritable gold mine for him'.2) Nor does 'red baron' appear in Flight magazine for the war, nor in the 1918 English translation of Richthofen's autobiography Der Rote Kampfflieger, tellingly translated as 'The Red Battle Flyer'.

So if Richthofen was called the Red Baron during the war, as I had assumed and as seems widely to be believed, this practice does not seem to have made its way into the press and so can't have been very widespread. Perhaps it was a nickname bestowed upon him by Allied airmen, though even there something less polite seems more probable. But in any case, Wikipedia's claim that

Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called 'The Red Baron', both inside and outside Germany.

needs to be qualified, a lot.
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  1. Graphic, 25 May 1918, 631. []
  2. Aberdeen Press and Journal, 4 September 1916, 7. []