|Wikipedia: The trackless forest of Anderida, where the Royal Navy's gunmakers lived and worked: Unsized because it's so damned evocative.. Obviously it's a bit spoiled by the embedded blog material, but you can go to the original if you like.|
Robert Constant opens The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution in the mountains, in the same place that Clint Eastwood opens Pale Rider, with the same powerful vision. Water, under human control, washing down the mountains.
We are in the middle of a mountainside industrial revolution. Not in the Weald, but rather in the Sierra Nevada, this Monitor operator is finding gold with high-pressure water. In Eastwood's vision, hydraulic mining is an evil thing. The cinematic composition implicates environmental hazard, but the crime that brings the ghost of death(?) to town to kill all the bad people with guns is that of putting old fashioned panners out of work. In the nostalgic old days, people panned gold in communities. Now the Monitors had come to make their labour obsolete. This part, except for the offensive framing, is hard to swallow at this distance. It is not like panning in hillside shantytowns is a lifestyle that should have been preserved. Worst, behind it, and lurking just below the in-itself-defensible environmental talk is a discussion about flood control-related public policy in California, where noble, anti-hydraulic mining discourse hides a less benevolent objection to state flood control intervention on the grounds that it would be paid for by taxes on people not directly affected. As time goes on, Pale Rider will be remembered more for Eastwood lifting his story than with an argument over the evils of hydraulic mining that may actually have had more to do with resistance to a.
Anyway, Constant's take is less the Monitor than the Pelton wheel that was another component of this mining-industrial complex, because if you squint at the facts in the right way, you get to Lester Pelton's invention being the introduction of the "impulse turbine." If you have heard of the Pelton wheel, you have no excuse for being surprised by "the turbojet revolution."
Now, as usual, it turns out that calling it a "Pelton wheel" turns out to make us complicit in patent trolling. I wouldn't push this too far. Lester Pelton might have been inspired by, for example, the Fourneyron turbines rather than by a sudden thought that struck him as he looked at a water turbine made by the Knight Foundry. Again, there does seem to be dark deeds done here. The point of Pelton's improvement was to take business share from Knight. It was in no-one's interest to stop tinkerers in the California gold fields with vexatious patent-infringement suits, and even one's sympathy for Knight ought be measured. Pelton was able to build up a corporate interest that made a great deal of perfectly good mining equipment.
If Constant had started with Fourneyron, or with Charles Parsons, we would have missed a chance to see the Sierra Nevada. That he could have started with them is beside the point. He could have started in a great many places. Arguably, he ought to have started with those poor, sad Brown-Boveri salesmen trying to stimulate interest in their promising, new "gas turbine" concept in 1939. They are the guys who put the technology of the combustion gas turbine out there on the market in the last years before World War II so that, finally, inescapably, it was obvious that the very near future belonged to turbines rotated by jets of combustion gas driving electrical generators, or powershafts, or compressors. Here is an actual industrial combine working to establish first mover advantage in what it clearly perceives to be a growth technology. The reason that we don't is so obvious as to be uninteresting. Brown-Boveri was a Swiss firm, and had no access to the Air Ministries of the great belligerents in an imminent world war. It was those air ministries that would pioneer the combustion gas turbine, because while Brown-Boveri was thinking of locomotives and ships and power regeneration in oil refineries, they missed the most important technology, the one area where buyers might be interested in something other than economic rationality: fighter jets!
By now we understand the problem. In its earliest stages, a combustion gas turbine installation is not likely to be more efficient than one of the highly-polished precursor technologies it is meant to replace. A great deal of money is required bring the new technology to the point where a gas turbine pushes a freighter around more efficiently than a steam turbine --and steam turbines have never been that popular in mercantile shipping, anyway. On the other hand, as the speed of objects through air reaches a band within about 20% of the speed of sound, the air that it pushes aside ceases to be compressible and becomes incompressible. The rules of aerodynamics change and, unless the shape of the object likewise changes, its effect on the air changes, too. In a propeller-driven aircraft, this happens first at the tip of the screw, and that is why, in spite of ever more powerful engines, the top speeds of the hottest fighters of World War II top out around 460mph. Propel an aircraft with reaction mass out of a nozzle, and you can go much faster, and the "transsonic" limit will be reached by the plane's lifting surfaces instead, at speeds much closer to the local speed of sound. Your fighter jet will comfortably go a hundred miles per hour faster than its propeller-driven rivals, and getting through the transsonic limit to the endless horizons of supersonic flight is a possibility.
I am throwing a "Patent Troll" tag on this posting in honour of Lester Pelton, but my tergiversations above will suggest that I am a little uncomfortable with this. I am not an impulse turbine expert, to put it mildly. But he's dead, and I don't think that he would mind developing the context of the posting in this manner because I think that there's an important point here. As long as we look at the advance of technology within the framework of heroic inventors, we belong in a conceptual universe such that the public revelation of the existence of jet fighters in early 1944 (spoiler alert!) is all about Ohain or Whittle having a Big Idea. Now that I have set the context, however, it becomes a little more puzzling. Why these two, heroic innovators. Why not everyone?
Here, then, I take you up into those other mountains, the Wealden fastness, to the lands of the charcoal burners and the ironmasters (and the Anglo-Saxon anarcho-syndicalistic commune of swineherds). It is time to contemplate our oldest and greatest communal technological praxis, to talk about blood and rye and salt and iron.