Before 1900


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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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. []


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. []

N. R. Gordon was behind the Chowder Bay flying machine, but who was N. R. Gordon? His full name was Newton Roberts Gordon, and he emigrated from Britain in 1882.1 Although he described himself on a 1900 patent application as an 'engineer', and worked at one point as a mining engineer, it's not clear if he had any formal training.2 He was, though, said to be 'an exceptionally clever mechanical draughtsman' who did 'professional work for various civil engineers'.3 This no doubt helped him to draw up plausible blueprints, and he certainly had a penchant for invention -- besides aviation-related patents, he also dabbled in motion picture technology.
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  1. Sylvia Black, 'Dreaming the impossible dream', East Melbourne Historical Society Newsletter, June 2016, 6-7. Though brief, this is the best source for Gordon's life. See also David Craddock, 'Antipodean aeronautica', Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales 135 (2002): 1–15; The Aerodrome. []
  2. National Archives of Australia [NAA], A4618, 10449, 'Correspondence with Newton Roberts Gordon concerning invention entitled - Improvements in aerial machines'; Evelyn Observer, 30 August 1907, 2. []
  3. Table Talk (Melbourne), 16 May 1907, 7. []

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.

[tweet id="1265825214488707074" conversation=false]
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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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Post balloon, Paris, 1870

This is the story of the world's first aerial combat. It is not a true story.

It is 30 September, 1870. Revolutionary Paris is under siege by Prussian forces. But it has a secret weapon: Nadar. Nadar is famed as a photographer, a writer, and—more importantly here—an aeronaut. He has taken the lead in organising communication with the outside world by balloon; the first left a week earlier and sailed defiantly over the heads of the beseigers, landing safely 60 miles away with 125kg of letters from the beseiged. Three more balloons escaped within the week.
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Critical Survey has just published an early access version of my peer-reviewed article 'William Le Queux, the Zeppelin menace and the Invisible Hand' -- that's right, no subtitle! -- here. Here's the 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.

Unfortunately the publishing agreement doesn't allow me to upload a green open access version of the article for 24 months, but it's based on a post I wrote here a few years ago about Le Queux's wartime spyhunting in Soho and Surrey, so you can get a flavour by reading that. The expanded version includes more of Le Queux's conspiracy theorising, placing it in the context of his wartime literary output and the evolution of 'Hidden Hand' conspiracy theories on the British far right in the First World War.
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