International air force

Glasgow Herald, 13 March 1941, 5

The Glasgow Herald today again leads with Lease-and-Lend, specifically the massive appropriation request made by Roosevelt to Congress -- over half a billion pounds' worth of 'aircraft and aeronautical material, including engines, spares, and accessories' alone (5). The Bill will be ready for debate early next week: the Speak of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, promised 'We are going to put everything else aside'.
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Glasgow Herald, 12 March 1940, 7

The Glasgow Herald, like many early-twentieth-century 'provincial' newspapers, made a serious effort to cover war and other international news, as well as reporting on national and local issues. (In fact, it almost seems more interested in what's happening overseas than it is in London or even Edinburgh.) Its highmindedness is also evident in its lack of interest in trivialities (no sports section today!) and in its rather staid appearance, with the outside pages taken up with classified ads, and the news and editorials at the centre of its twelve page. The Herald might be excused for its old-fashioned look: it was first published in 1783, making it two years older than The Times. (Though admittedly the Daily Mail, a jaunty newcomer, was like this too until the start of the war).

Above is the lead item in today's Herald, President Roosevelt's signing into law of the Lease-and-Lend Bill. This will allow (7)

the President to supply Britain and her Allies with almost unlimited supplies of guns, tanks, aeroplanes, ships, and all other war materials and goods.

In fact, he has already begun to do so, approving the transfer to Britain of 'the first allotment of Army and Navy material'. What this consists of was not revealed, but information from 'Well-informed circles in Washington' suggests that it may include 'Army and Navy 'planes, flying fortresses, and patrol bombers' as well as 'ships, tanks, and machine-guns'. And Roosevelt is asking Congress for another $7 billion to buy more weapons for Britain after that.
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The Listener, 12 September 1940

Today I'll take a break from the press and look at The Listener. This was a weekly publication of the BBC, a higher-brow companion to the Radio Times. Both carried listings of the week's radio programmes, but whereas these are the main focus of the Radio Times, The Listener confines them to half a page towards the back. The bulk of the magazine consists of the texts of some of the previous week's more intellectual broadcasts, as well as original articles, book reviews, recipes (I'll spare you the one for sheep's head curry) and a famously difficult crossword.
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Given that it climaxes on board an airship which is carrying a devastating new chemical weapon, Sapper's fourth Bulldog Drummond novel The Final Count (1926) is somewhat disappointing from an airminded point of view. The poison gas is not intended for use against a city, or to terrorise an enemy, but to cover up a boringly mundane (if large-scale) theft.

But there is still much of interest. Hovering in the background of The Final Count is the threat of warfare, especially aero-chemical warfare. George Simmers noted some time back that this novel seems to present an unusually early example of the feeling that the Great War had been futile. That's my impression too, from a slightly different angle. The events described in the novel take place in 1927 (i.e. the near future of the time of publication in 1926), and Europe seems to be on the brink of war again. That's at odds with my impression of the mid-1920s, certainly after the Locarno treaties of 1925; it's not that there were no tensions between nations, but there was little feeling that war was likely any time soon. Perhaps Sapper needed to exaggerate the possibility of conflict in order to find employment for Drummond and his band of merry vigilantes, preferably against the Bolshevik menace.

The poison mentioned above was originally developed near the end of the Great War by Robin Gaunt, a British chemist serving in the British army. It's actually a liquid (as was mustard 'gas') which causes instantaneous (and very painful) death if applied under the skin. This made it impractical as a battlefield weapon, because the intended victims would need to already have some minor cuts to allow the poison to get in. There is also the problem of how to spray a liquid over a large area. The plan put forward was to use tanks for this purpose (a la J. F. C. Fuller in The Reformation of War).
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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

'To-day and To-morrow' was a series of over a hundred essays on 'the future' of a diverse range of subjects, which were published in pamphlet form by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. between 1924 and 1931. The authors are equally varied: some were acknowledged experts in their fields, others seem to have been chosen for their ability to provoke. Some of the 'To-day and To-morrow' essays have since attained classic status; most have been forgotten. But as a whole they are an impressive testimony to a vibrant, wideranging (and idiosyncratic) kind of British futurism, and I think they deserve more attention. Some of them have been reprinted from time to time, and if you're rich you can buy nearly all of them in collected volumes through Routledge, but otherwise there are so many they are are hard to track down. So I've tried to compile a definitive list of the series' titles (which are mostly classical allusions) with links to online sources for the texts and some sort of author biography, where available. Google Books has many of them, but only snippets or previews, so I've linked to other sources where possible. Additions and corrections are welcome.

Physically, they were very small books (pott octavo, to be precise), easy to slip into a pocket, and numbered only a hundred pages or so, in large type and generous margins. Their price was 2/6, about the same price as a cheap novel, but five times the price of the later, hugely successful Penguins. So they did not attract a mass readership, but do seem to have been much read by the chattering classes. (See Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2009), 139.) Many of the titles went through multiple impressions. And at least one was discussed in the House of Commons.
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I'm pleased to announce that my first paper has been accepted for publication, by War in History. It's about the international air force idea and is entitled 'World police for world peace: British internationalism and the threat of a knock-out blow from the air, 1919-1945'. It won't actually appear for some time, but under the terms of the publishing agreement I'm allowed to make the originally-submitted version (i.e. before peer review) available for download. It can be found from my publications page.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I recently rewatched one of my favourite science fiction films, The Day the Earth Stood Still -- the 1951 original, of course, not the currently-screening remake (which I have yet to see, but tend to doubt that it will improve over the original in any area other than special effects). I can't remember when I last saw it, but it must have been before I started the PhD because otherwise the climactic scene would have leapt out out me and smacked me in the face, as it did the other day ... (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

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This is the talk I gave at Earth Sciences back in May. It's long and picture heavy and much of it will be be familiar to regular readers, but some people expressed some interest in it so here it is. I've lightly edited it, mainly to correct typos in my written copy. I've put in links to the Boswell drawings because they're under copyright, and I've replaced one photo because I realised it was of British Army Aeroplane No. 1b, not British Army Aeroplane No. 1a! How embarrassing.

Facing Armageddon: Britain and the Bomber, 1908-1941

Today I'm going to give you an overview of my PhD thesis topic. My broad area is the history of military aviation in the early twentieth century, so first I'll give you a little background on that.

Wright Flyer (1903)

The first heavier-than-air manned flight was made by the Wright brothers in 1903, as you can see here. Within a few years, countries around the world started thinking about how they could use this new technology for warfare.
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In a previous post, I looked at some of Arthur C. Clarke's predictions, made in 1946, about how rockets would change the types of weapons and vehicles used by military forces of the future.1 He got some hits (space stations) but, on balance, more misses (rocket mines, more turret fighters). In the latter half of his paper, Clarke steps back to consider the broader implications of rockets for future warfare, and does rather better.

These are grim, given the advent of atomic weapons. It may be the case that for every weapon, Clarke says, a defence is eventually evolved. But

During the interval between the adoption of a new weapon and its countering, the damage done to the material structure of civilization grows steadily greater, and there must come a time at last when breakdown occurs. The present state of Germany shows how nearly that point had been reached even with the weapons of the pre-atomic age.2

One particularly interesting possibility Clarke considers is that of 'radiation war'.3 He notes that the vast majority of the radiation emitted by an atomic bomb must fall outside the visible spectrum, concluding that 'the bomb acts as an X-ray generator of unimaginable power'.3 So a bomb could be detonated at high altitudes to blind large numbers of people, or to ruin huge areas of crops. Atomic bombs carried by long-range rockets would be the 'ultimate weapon'.4
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  1. Arthur C. Clarke, "The rocket and the future of warfare", RAF Quarterly, March 1946, 61-9; reprinted in Arthur C. Clarke, Ascent to Wonder: A Scientific Autobiography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984), 71-9. []
  2. Ibid., 76. []
  3. Ibid. [] []
  4. Ibid., 77. []


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Nanotechnology is now starting to move out of science fiction and into the real world, though currently it's more advanced chemistry than the molecular-scale engineering foretold by K. Eric Drexler more than two decades ago. So no Strossian cornucopia machines yet, no swarms of nanobots swimming in our blood to clean out the cholesterol. But some people are already trying to think through the implications of what might lie over the technological horizon.

The November/December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contains a review, by Mike Tredar of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (blog here), of Jürgen Altmann's Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). The 'potential applications' of the book's title are both direct, for example 'specially designed warfare molecules'; and indirect, with the application of nanotech manufacturing techniques to the production of weapon systems of all types.

Thus, he [Altmann] warns, "MNT [molecular nanotechnology] production of nearly unlimited numbers of armaments at little cost would contradict the very idea of quantitative arms control," and would culminate in a technological arms race beyond control.

This is because anyone could -- with access to a nanofactory and the requisite blueprints -- construct vast quantities of very lethal weapons in very little time. Rogue states, terrorist groups, Rotary clubs. Anyone. There would be no way to police this. No hope for the future. Unless ...
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