Postcard of Amy Johnson c. 1930

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, which I hope will change soon. But I haven't been entirely inactive in blogging terms: I've written a guest post on the construction of authority in early British aviation for the German Historical Institute's History of Knowledge blog. The history of knowledge is a newish historiographical endeavour, which falls somewhere in between, as well as across, more familiar areas like the history of ideas, the history of science, the history of books, and so on. As explained at History of Knowledge itself:

Knowledge does not simply exist, awaiting discovery and use. Knowledge is produced, adapted, forgotten, rejected, superseded, expanded, reconfigured, and more—always by human beings (at least in this more-or-less pre-AI age), alone or in communities, always in culturally, socially, economically, and institutionally specific contexts.

Knowledge is central to most purposeful human practices, whether at work, in the family, or for worship, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether passed down by hands-on training or through books and other storage and retrieval systems. Both product and basis of human interactions, knowledge has a history. Indeed, human history cannot be understood apart from the history of knowledge.

Writing the post gave me the chance to put together a few ideas I had about how and why certain people -- I mostly discuss S. F. Cody, along with Hiram Maxim, Baden Baden-Powell, Claude Grahame-White, P. R. C. Groves, Amy Johnson and H. G. Wells -- gained the status of aviation experts in the public sphere. It didn't always have much to do with actual flying ability or even experience; it was in least part socially and culturally constructed. Much more could of course be said about the topic, but for the moment you can head on over to History of Knowledge to read my post.

Thanks to Mark Stoneman for the invitation!

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hendon, July 1928

Above is a pair of stereo photos kindly sent to me by Tim Lees, who found them in his father's collection. There's a slight mystery as to the occasion. The label at the top reads 'Hendon - July '28', which suggests they were taken at the RAF Display at Hendon in 1928, but that year it was held in June. So there's an error somewhere: either the day (it was on the last day of June) or the year (the 1927 and 1929 Hendons were both held in July). Or perhaps it wasn't at Hendon at all, but at one of the regional displays where RAF squadrons sometimes reprised their Hendon performances? It might not have been labelled until some years after the event. There's no real way to tell.

The photos themselves show reasonably well-dressed spectators standing in amongst their motor cars, watching two vics of what look like Armstrong Whitworth Siskins, judging from the sesquiplanes (click to zoom in). There's not enough detail to say much more, but that certainly fits the period: Siskins were highly maneuverable (the RCAF even used them for an early aerobatic team) and they featured at Hendon between 1925 and 1931.
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Airem Scarem

In an earlier series of posts I discussed Australia's first airship, the White Australia, which flew in 1914. It turns out that there was an earlier Australian airship, of a sort: the Airem Scarem. Indeed, according to a 1907 newspaper advertisement it was the 'First Airship below the line' (equator, presumably). From the above photo, taken in 1908, Airem Scarem was a trim little vessel, though the envelope is a bit on the small side and the propulsion system, which seems to consist of no engine and two tiny propellors fore and aft, hardly seems adequate. Fortunately the Airem Scarem was assisted in its flights by being suspended from a cable -- which has been crudely whited-out from the above photo -- because it wasn't a real airship at all but rather an amusement park ride, at Wonderland City in Tamarama, a beachside suburb of Sydney.
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G for George

Here in Australia, yesterday, the first Sunday in June, was Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The occasion was marked with ceremonies in most state capitals. The major event, at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, spanned the whole weekend and included a flypast by a RAAF Hornet and a wreathlaying ceremony, which remarkably is claimed to be the third-most attended commemoration at the AWM, after Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
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New England Airways Ltd Avro 618 Ten

Some big news. Today the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced that it is funding Linkage Project LP160101232, 'Heritage of the air: how aviation transformed Australia' to the amount of $440,000 over three years, with financial and/or in-kind contributions from Airservices Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Civil Aviation Historical Society, and the SFO Museum. The project's official summary reads:

This project aims to generate new understandings of how aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, and how the technology of global mobility has shaped people, cultures and communities. Whilst aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, its heritage is under-appreciated and at risk. The project will build a partnership between the aviation industry, community groups, museums and a multidisciplinary academic team to develop fresh insights from under-utilised sources of aviation heritage, communicate their unique stories to the public through innovative exhibitions and publications, and help conserve it for future generations. As a result, the project will make an important contribution to culture and society by enabling community access to neglected and at-risk sources of aviation heritage, and engage the public's fascination with aviation through new interpretations of its extraordinary social and cultural impact.

The reason why this is big news, apart obviously from the scholarly value of this research, is that I am on the project as a Partner Investigator. What that means is that I will still be working as a lecturer, but some of my research time will now be devoted to Heritage of the Air working as part of the project team:

I'll no doubt have more to say in future about the actual plans and progress of the project, and my involvement in it. But for now I'll just say that this is a big deal for me, as it's the first major grant I've been a part of, and it's the kind of thing that humanities academics increasingly need on their CV these days, at least in Australia. So I'm grateful to Tracy for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the team over the next few years!

Image source: National Library of Australia.

Walter Nessler, Premonition

Walter Nessler called this painting Premonition. A premonition of what? It's clearly London, judging from St Paul's, the double deckers, and so on, but it's an unsettling version. Everything is jumbled together and smothered by blood-red clouds. But apart perhaps from the ominous sky, the only direct evidence of what's wrong with this picture is the surreal image of the giant gas mask on top of the building being constructed (or deconstructed). Nessler was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and painted Premonition in 1937, the same year that his former countrymen bombed Guernica, a known inspiration for artistic protests against aerial bombardment. Clearly we may take this as his certainty -- a premonition suggests a supernatural inevitability -- that his new home was going to suffer a similar fate to the cities of Spain. (Although back in 2005 there was some journalistic silliness over the fact that two of the buses display the numbers 77 -- 7/7 -- and 30 -- the route of the bus blown up in Tavistock Square.)
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What could be more American than football, cheerleaders, and country music? According to Hank Williams Jr in 1989 [edit: more like 1996 -- thanks, Robert Farley], only football, cheerleaders, country music, and air strikes on US national monuments (which magically transform them into symbols associated with football):

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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. 


British Journal for Military History

The latest issue of the British Journal for Military History is out, and with it my peer-reviewed article 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914':

This article explores the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, so persistently that they were repeatedly investigated by both the police and the military. They were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of an enemy within. They also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasingly obvious likelihood of a long, total war.

As I've explained previously, BJMH is an open access journal, meaning that anyone and everyone can read my article for free, and even reuse it (CC BY-NC-ND). Not that I imagine it's going to have much of an impact at all, but in an age when many people are busy constructing a Muslim enemy within out of sharia, halal, and their own shadows, it's better than nothing.

Image source: British Journal for Military History.