Before 1900

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Coppin's balloon medal, 1858

In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:

In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket.1

I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.
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  1. Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (London: William Collins, 2013), 94-5. 


Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.

Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

This cartoon appeared in Flight in 1913.1 It's entitled 'In 1950' with the caption 'Flitting -- by the light of the Easter moon'.

Now, 'flitting' is a term used in Scotland and the north of England to mean moving house. It is, or at least was, a practice which happened much more often there than in the south. In fact, it was something of an annual tradition in Scotland, with 25 May in particular being Flitting Day. The Motherwell Times described the scene in an 1898 leading article:

The week that has about gone provides at least one field day in the year for a considerable proportion of our population. Some people must flit every year, and they are no sooner installed in their new diggings than they begin to cast their vision about in order to select the battle-ground of their next upheaval. Now may be seen the central figure of the show, the commander-in-chief of the whole operations, with whitewash in her hair, fire in her eye, and anathemas on her lips, careering wildly about, seeking for some devoted one which to explode her righteous indignation. The poor titular head of the house is altogether a secondary and quite unimportant individual, and if ever he has been prone to at any time think of himself as somebody in particular, it is about now that he gets the starch taken out, and he is made to realize that he is only small potatoes after all.2

There's an obvious gender aspect to this, and a less obvious class one too -- the poor were much more likely to rent their homes rather than own them, and so were much more likely to move about. This is evident in Flight's cartoon, too: although the flitting in 1950 is being done with the aid of a (not particularly realistic) aeroplane, it has patches on its wings and the passengers perched on the back are of humble appearance. What's more, it's not just any old flitting that is being done, but moonlight flitting: i.e. secretly moving house in the dead of night, in order to escape creditors and landlords.

What is the point of this cartoon? It doesn't seem to be any sort of topical reference, and it was published a couple of months before Flitting Day. Obviously it's not meant to be taken particularly seriously. There's probably a play on the other meaning of 'flitting', in the sense of the swift motion of small animals, particularly flying ones like birds and bats. But there is also a glance at Britain's airminded future, even if in a very lighthearted way, at the idea that aviation would become an integral part of British society, that Britons would naturally and instinctively turn to the skies, that even the poor would have access to aircraft. It's also perhaps a little satirical though, because -- at least in this respect -- becoming airminded has not fundamentally altered British society. People are still poor, still evade their debts, and still flit by moonlight; all the coming of flight has done is to change their mode of transportation.

  1. Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

  2. Motherwell Times, 3 June 1898, 2


Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 February 1915, 1

On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune's daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:

The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.

Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1

Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good -- at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate's anonymous astrologer.
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  1. Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 15 February 1915, 6. 


'Excubitor' is Latin for 'sentinel'; it was the pseudonym chosen by a frequent correspondent on naval affairs for the Fortnightly Review. In March 1908, for example, Excubitor contributed an article entitled 'The British reply to Germany's dreadnoughts'; the following January, 'The blessings of naval armaments'. By May 1913, though, a new theme had appeared. 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy' argued that the naval arms race with Germany was over: 'the naval predominance of Great Britain in Europe to-day is greater than it was before the passage of the first of the [German] Navy Acts in 1896'.1 But this didn't mean that Germany was going to give up its ambitions to match Britain at sea: it just meant that it was transferring its efforts to the air:

by the development of the new aerial arm -- airships and hydro-aeroplanes -- they hope to turn the scales in their favour. Germany possesses already about twenty large airships and over a dozen 'docks' of a permanent character, apart from private ships and 'docks' subsidised by the Government and available for naval and military use, and it is now proposed to increase the number of aerial Dreadnoughts to forty, and to build many more 'docks.' Cuxhaven, 300 miles from England, is to become a great airship station, with revolving sheds so as to enable the vessels to be launched whatever the direction of the wind, and to set forth, armed with quick-firing guns and provided with explosives, on missions of reconnaissance over the British arsenals and the bases and the bases where British squadrons and flotillas are being prepared for action. British naval strategy is to be robbed of secrecy, and secrecy in preparation is of the essence of successful strategy. This the Admiralstab in Berlin fully realises.2

According to Excubitor, the danger is grave:

Sea-power is costly, while air-power is cheap: for the cost of a single Dreadnought of the sea, a dozen Dreadnoughts of the air, each with a revolving shed of the latest type, can be constructed. German expert opinion believes that by command of the air Germany can neutralise our superiority on the sea, besides unnerving the civil population and thus embarrassing the Government by cruising over these islands -- high above the reach of artillery -- and dropping bombs. This is the confessed policy of Germany, and we have not a single long-range airship by which we can take the only effective defensive action -- the strong offensive.3

And the hour is late:

We cannot reply to the aerial danger by developing our naval or military strength, but we must take the offensive in the air, threatening with our superior airships, in numbers proportionate to our naval strength, any potential enemy. We are now open to attack by Germany, and we must lose no time in placing ourselves in a position to retaliate.4

But not yet too late:

if immediate steps are taken there is no reason why we should not make as secure our command of the air as we are making secure our command of the sea, convinced that the future will show that aerial power and naval power are interdependent and inseparable. The essential point is that we must adopt in aerial matters our well-tried policy in naval matters -- the bold offensive. Our airships, like our sea-ships, must be able to carry war to the enemy's frontiers and thus free us from its horrors. This is the only policy compatible with safety, and to that policy we must bend all our splendid industrial and scientific resources if we are not to incur the risk of our naval supremacy passing from us.5

As I'll discuss in another post, Excubitor was far from alone in asserting an 'interdependent and inseparable' connection between aerial strategy and naval strategy, that Germany was attempting to use its mastery of the air to overcome its inferiority to Britain at sea.

  1. Excubitor, 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy', Fortnightly Review 93 (May 1913), 868. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid., 868-9. 

  4. Ibid., 880. 

  5. Ibid. 


Dellschau 1969

The art of Charles Dellschau has been receiving some attention lately, thanks to the recent publication of a book about his work. Dellschau, who produced thousands of strange and wonderful watercolours, drawings and collages in Houston, Texas, between about 1899 and 1922, is significant as an early outsider artist, but he is mainly of interest to me for two things. Firstly, his subject matter: his artwork is filled with strange flying machines (balloons? airships? aeroplanes?) intermingled with press clippings about aviation. Secondly, his overarching narrative: that his artwork records the activities of the Sonora Aero Club, a secret group of airminded inventors who actually created and flew the aircraft he depicted in California in the mid-nineteenth century. This is a beguiling idea, and some of Dellschau's admirers have tried to find out whether it is actually true (such as Pete Navarro, who is largely responsible for rescuing Dellschau's work). The Atlantic describes it as 'The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed', as though we should be surprised if it had not. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we can in fact say that it pretty much definitely never existed. There is no evidence for the Sonora Aero Club that does not appear in Dellschau's artwork, but plenty against it elsewhere in the historical record.
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

(Or, 'Trenchard at sea'.)

Jamel Ostwald's recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it 'The lesson of the naval bombardments'. Stated negatively, this lesson was that 'it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities'.1 Or, stated positively, 'there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives', mostly (but not exclusively) 'those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy's military effort and to which, therefore, the term "military objectives" may be broadly applied'.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn't even necessary, because airpower itself 'is the great disarmer'.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, 'it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare'.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that 'an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked'.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: 'the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist'.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument -- the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years -- but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan's palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it's easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight's prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.

  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92. 

  2. Ibid., 93. 

  3. Ibid., 165. 

  4. Ibid., 235. 

  5. Ibid., 234-5. 

  6. Ibid., 95. 

  7. Ibid., 96. 

  8. Ibid., 95. 


Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' vs uses of 'Mars' only in peer-reviewed astronomical articles, 1861-1970

So, to wrap up this accidental series. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal.
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