Tools and methods

Western Mail (Perth), 1 March 1951, 10

I've made a new Trove bot to accompany @TroveAirBot and @TroveAirRaidBot: @TroveUFOBot. The name is somewhat misleading, since it doesn't search Trove Newspapers for the keyword 'UFO' at all, which turns out to be a bad keyword. Firstly, it's so short that it frequently turns up whenever the OCR is bad and a random string of u, f, and o appear, and so there were just too many false positives. Secondly, it was only coined in 1953, which is only a couple of years before the Trove copyright wall, so there aren't many good hits to find anyway.

Instead, I've gone with the following:

flying saucer
flying saucer
flying saucer
flying saucer
mystery airship
mystery aeroplane
mystery light

The obvious substitute for 'UFO" is 'flying saucer', which was a very popular term right from the start of the modern UFO era in 1947. This should pick up most of the available articles from the 'classic' UFO era.

However, that restricted the results to a narrow range between 1947 and the mid-1950s. That was a bit boring, and also outside my own period of interest, so I decided to introduce some keywords related to what I see as a related, if distinct, historical phenomenon: mystery aircraft, including mystery aeroplanes and mystery airships. (Helpfully, Trove looks for plural forms, as well as 'mysterious'.) This does come at the cost of another set of false postives, in which aircraft can be mysterious but not that mysterious.

Because those keywords are all very technological, though, I decided to add a more neutral phrase, 'mystery light'. I'm hoping this will find lights-in-the-sky, including natural phenomena like ball lightning and will-o'-the-wisps. But again, there are all sorts of mystery lights that aren't in the sky. So I may end up removing this one.

Finally, in the above list of keywords 'flying saucer' appears three times. That's a crude attempt at weighting, so the bot will select that three times as often as each of the other keywords, which only appear once. That means that those interesting but low-yield keywords don't dominate the results, and about half the tweets will end up relating to what most people would recognise as UFOs. And, as there are going to be relatively few articles in total compared with my other bots (about 19,000) I've turned down the frequency a bit, to one tweet an hour, so it should last a couple of years before recycling.
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Aeroplane, 8 June 1911, 21

A few months back I wrote about alternatives to the (still missing, still missed) FlightGlobal archive of Flight magazine, a key source for aviation history (for me, anyway). I forgot to mention that Flight's great rival, The Aeroplane (founded and edited by the egregious C. G. Grey), is also partially accessible through the Internet Archive. This is thanks to the Smithsonian, which has scanned and uploaded The Aeroplane's first 23 volumes covering 1911-1922 (except for the second half of 1920 1921 [thanks, John]). This is much more limited than the Internet Archive's Flight holdings, which cover 1909-1935; but it does nicely do for the First World War, for example. As with Flight, you can flip from page to page, search for text, or download in a variety of formats (including PDF). But because the scans are labelled somewhat erratically (most of them have the publication date as 1911, for example) they're a bit confusing to navigate. So I've gone through the available volumes and put them in a more usable order:


Image source: Aeroplane, 8 June 1911, 21.

Last year I looked at a couple of fantastic photographs from the State Library of South Australia's collection, taken at Harry Butler's 'Aviation Day' display at Unley on 23 August 1919. They're fantastic because they focus not on the flying but on the crowds watching it. Now I've found two more photos taken on the same day. PRG 280/1/24/250, wonderfully dynamic with the Red Devil (inserted in the lower left) evidently right overhead as the spectators twist and turn to keep it in view:

Spectators watching an aircraft's arrival
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Newcastle Morning Herald, 17 March 1943, 1

I've remixed Trove Air Bot 2 into a new bot: Trove Air Raid Bot. As the name suggests, this is picking up a different subset of Trove Newspapers articles to @troveairbot, namely those relating to air raids, which it then tweets, one every 30 minutes. In fact, that's the only key word, or rather phrase, it searches on: 'air raid'. And it's clearly picking up a coherent population of articles. There are Zeppelin raids:

(Unfortunately I forgot to update the greeting text to reflect the new topic, so the first tweets say 'aviation' instead of 'air raids'.)
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Flight, 16 January 1909, 31

Since 2007, the FlightGlobal Archive (AKA the 'Flight archive') has been an incredibly useful resource for me, many other aviation historians, and Wikimedia Commons, as it provides online access to high-resolution PDFs (with OCR) of nearly every page of the key British aviation trade magazine Flight (from 1962 Flight International), from the first issue in 1909 up to 2004 -- all for free!1 Or rather it was incredibly useful, because since a FlightGlobal upgrade in late 2019 it has been unavailable, with the following message splashed on the landing page:

As part of the relaunch, the Flight magazine archive is undergoing maintenance to transition to our new web platform. It will be back online as soon as possible.
Thanks for your patience.
In the meantime, why not subscribe to Flight International and get access to the past editions from 2012 through the digital library.

As the Archive been down for over three months, that patience is starting to turn into anxiety, and I think some people have tried contacting FlightGlobal to find out what the story is, but with no luck, as far as I know. My uninformed (but not uneducated) guess is that the original archive depended on a bespoke and probably very spaghetti environment written by some long-gone sysadmin, which was broken by the site upgrade. And precisely because it's free and presumably generating no revenue, there would understandably be little incentive for FlightGlobal to fix it quickly, even with the best of intentions. If that's the case, then considerably more patience may be required. But there's good news, and bad news; and more good news and more bad news.
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  1. '100% FREE ACCESS -- forever. In fact we’re positively encouraging you to link to, copy and paste from, and contribute to the development of this unique record of aerospace and aviation history.' []

Last Friday I was privileged to be at the Airways Museum for the world premiere of Out of the Blue? How Aviation Accidents Shaped Safer Skies:

Centred on accidents in the vicinity of Sydney’s Mascot Aerodrome, this movie outlines developments in Australian aviation safety from the 1920s to the 1970s. It combines original research, interviews, archival footage and graphic simulations of civilian and military accidents. Presented by historian Dr Peter Hobbins and produced by Steven Pam, it features the collections of Melbourne's Airways Museum.

Peter is well known to airminded Australian historians as one of the driving forces behind the first four iterations of the Aviation Cultures series of workshops. He's also a Chief Investigator on ARC Linkage Project Heritage of the Air and until recently an ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney, both of which grants funded production. The film covers a lot of ground in just 18 minutes; it's a novel and accessible way of presenting Peter's academic research into the history of aircraft safety in Australia. The use of flight simulator-style graphics to portray and explain some of Australia's key aircraft accidents (including probably the most famous, the 1931 disappearance of Southern Cloud) and near-accidents (yikes), is especially effective; I'd love to do something similar with Hendon's set-pieces one day...

You can watch Out of the Blue above or on YouTube. Have a look!

Today, a Trove API upgrade, or to be more precise, the decomissioning of the old API, briefly broke Trove Air Bot (and all the other Trove bots). Fortunately Tim Sherratt worked out a solution, and Trove Air Bot is now back in action with all new code, which (with slightly more useful comments) can be found here. Probably nobody noticed anything other than me -- except for when the bot blasted out a few dozen tweets in the space of a few minutes while I was editing the project! Sorry about that...

Bonus! The bot still does basically the same thing as originally, and its tweets look much the same; but it now uses a wider range of keywords, rather than just one. Whereas version 1 searched for newspaper articles containing 'aviation' (or variants, such as 'aviator'), it now randomly searches on one of the following:


I could have added others, particularly for the aircraft. An obvious one is 'plane', but this gets hundreds of thousands of results every decade in the second half of the 19th century, which will be nothing to do with aviation. (This could be a problem with 'balloon', too.) Conversely I could have included words like 'Zeppelin' or 'autogyro', but that becomes a question of diminishing returns (where do you stop? 'ornithopter'? 'ekranoplan'?? 'vimana'???), and given that the selection of keywords isn't weighted in any way I don't want the results to be dominated by a weird, long tail. The above set of keywords should capture a high proportion of the kind of articles I'm looking for, while remaining reasonably coherent. Hopefully!

Distracted boyfriend mem

The man: Stanley Baldwin. The place: the House of Commons. The date: 10 November 1932. The quote:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through [...] The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.1

I use this quotation all the time in my scholarly writing: in my book, in four peer-reviewed articles, and in two forthcoming publications (as well as a bunch of times on Airminded). It's just such a perfect encapsulation of the knock-out blow theory, and from such a prominent British politician too, that I find it impossible to resist. (To be fair, I'm hardly alone.) The only competitor for my affections is by B. H. Liddell Hart:

Imagine for a moment London, Manchester, Birmingham, and half a dozen other great centres simultaneously attacked, the business localities and Fleet Street wrecked, Whitehall a heap of ruins, the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud, the railways cut, factories destroyed. Would not the general will to resist vanish, and what use would be the still determined fraction of the nation, without organization and central direction?2

Which is more vivid, but not as succinct, and doesn't get across that the consequence of the apparent impossibility of air defence is the logic of mutually assured destruction. And so I always come back to Baldwin. I have used the Liddell Hart quote in my book and in one forthcoming publication, but always as well as 'the bomber will always get through', never instead of it. Baldwin is just too quotable.
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  1. Stanley Baldwin, speech, 10 November 1932, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, vol. 270, col. 632. []
  2. B. H. Liddell Hart, Paris, or the Future of War (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925), 47. []


Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet

This is the cover of a leaflet produced in 1916 by the Australian Air Squadrons Fund, the Australian arm of the Imperial Air Flotilla which raised funds around the British Empire for presentation 'battle-planes' for the Royal Flying Corps. My interest in it is not so much for its own sake, though I am struck by the slightly confusing promise that this aircraft 'will carry your name and message of sympathy and support over the heads of our troops into the enemy capitals', as well as the sadly forlorn hope that 'This is, please God, the only war in which we will be able to take part'. Rather, it's here as an example of the aviation records to be found in the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), which is being digitised and made freely available through Trove.
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