International air force

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.

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[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'.4 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'.5
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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. 

  5. Ibid., 77. 

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[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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It's the 75th anniversary of Stanley Baldwin's famous 'the bomber will always get through' speech. It's an important text which is widely quoted, both in my primary and my secondary sources, as a testament to the fear of bombing in the 1930s. But I've never actually read it very closely, and I think I'm in good company because it's usually the same couple of lines which are quoted, and the rest of it is ignored. And as it doesn't seem to be online anywhere I thought it would be a useful exercise to transcribe it and put it up on the web.

Baldwin was not Prime Minister when he gave the speech, as is sometimes said. He had been PM twice before, in 1923-4 and 1925-9 (and would be again in 1935-7), but at this time he was Lord President of the Council, a Cabinet-level post with no major duties attached to it. Baldwin's real importance was as leader of the Conservative Party, which had by far the most seats in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. He had power without responsibility, one is tempted to say.

The occasion for the speech was a debate in the House of Commons about disarmament, held on 10 November 1932 -- the eve of Armistice Day. The original motion was proposed by Clement Attlee, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and read:

That, in the opinion of this House, it is an essential preliminary to the success of the forthcoming World Economic Conference that the British Government should give clear and unequivocal support to an immediate, universal, and substantial reduction of armaments on the basis of equality of status for all nations, and should maintain the principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations by supporting the findings of the Lytton Commission on the Sino-Japanese dispute.1

This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister, a well-known pacifist -- and a hated former leader of the Labour Party. But MacDonald didn't speak in the following debate; instead, his Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, defended the Government's record and went into some hopeful diplomatic initiatives in some detail. George Lansbury, Labour's leader, lashed out and accused all nations of failing to fulfill any of the international peace pacts signed since the war. Baldwin spoke last of all. According to the Times's parliamentary correspondent, when he finished 'There was a deep and almost emotional round of applause' from the House.2 Of course, he was the party leader for most of the MPs, but it does seem that he had touched a chord. Baldwin had a longstanding record of concern about the air threat and his sincerity would have been evident. And -- not that there was ever any doubt given the huge majority enjoyed by the National Government -- Attlee's motion was defeated by 402 votes to 44.

The following transcript of his speech is taken not from Hansard but from The Times.3 I've edited it lightly, mainly to move the murmurs of approval from the listening MPs into footnotes. The phrases in bold are those which are most commonly quoted.
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  1. The Times, 11 November 1932, p. 7. 

  2. Ibid., p. 14. 

  3. Ibid., p. 8. 

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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

It's 50 years since Sputnik I lifted off. Although I was airminded as a kid, I was much more spaceminded. So 1957 was always a crucial year in my understanding of history back then: it was where the modern age began. (In fact the very first historical work I ever I started -- but never finished! -- was a history of the space race from Sputnik on. I can't have been older than 12 so it's not exactly sophisticated ...)

More than that, to me 1957 was where the future began. A future where humans would spread out into the solar system and then explore the universe beyond. And who knows? Maybe I'd even get to take part in that somehow! That future hasn't quite worked out the way I'd envisaged it -- yet -- but of course, I'm in good company where failing to predict the future is concerned. There's a good article by Michael J. Neufeld in the July/August 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on Wernher von Braun's proposals for manned orbital battle stations. In the early 1950s, von Braun predicted that these would be used to deploy nuclear weapons in orbit. For example, in a conference paper published in 1951, he wrote that

Our space station could be utilized as a very effective bomb carrier, and for all present-day means of defense, a non-interceptible one.1

and that

The political situation being what it is, with the Earth divided into a Western and an Eastern camp, I am convinced that such a station will be the inevitable result of the present race of armaments.2

Neufeld makes the point that for all his expertise in rocketry -- including leading the V2's development team -- von Braun's obsession with space stations meant that he failed to realise that ballistic missiles actually made a lot more sense as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons, rather than space-launched hypersonic gliders -- a space station being a relatively big and very predictable target, for one thing.3

Von Braun wasn't the only one arguing along those lines. There were others. The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein co-authored a popular article in 1947 for Collier's Magazine which suggested putting nukes in orbit. In a novel published the following year, Space Cadet, he expanded upon this idea. Now, I read Space Cadet probably a couple of dozen times when I was a kid, but haven't for a long time so I'll have to rely upon the Wikipedia page to explain:

The Space Patrol is entrusted by the worldwide Earth government with a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and is expected to maintain a credible threat to drop them on Earth from orbit as a deterrent against breaking the peace. [...] The cadets are taught that they should renounce their allegiance to their country of origin and replace it by a wider allegiance to humanity as a whole and to all of the sentient species of the Solar System.

It never occurred to me before now, but this is nothing more than the international air force concept, so beloved of liberal internationalists in the 1930s (it was included in the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1935 general election, for example), but now updated for the coming space age! Only now instead of pilots of all nations standing by, ready to drop high explosives on any aggressor nation, it would be astronauts with atom bombs. Plus ça change ... sometimes, anyway.

When I was 12, I understood that Sputnik I was part of a 'Race for Space' between two superpowers, as I put it, but I mainly saw it it as a straightforward -- if impressive -- technical achievement, which the Soviet Union managed to do first. I certainly didn't have much clue about the bigger picture of the Cold War or the historical background to the decision to launch a small sphere into orbit, though. Now it's hard for me to see things in any other way, as all of the above probably demonstrates. But sometimes it's good just to forget about all that context and just appreciate the thing-in-itself.

So I'll end by reverting to age 12 and saying wow, that is just so ace!


  1. Quoted in Michael J. Neufeld, "Wernher von Braun's ultimate weapon", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, 53. 

  2. Quoted in ibid. 

  3. But the fact that von Braun was still trying to sell the public on manned space stations in 1965 with no military role beyond reconnaissance suggests that it's more that he just really, really liked space stations, rather than that he wasn't aware of the potential of ballistic missiles.