Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: Fishing and "The Feudal Anarchy of the Year 1000:" Or 2020, Even


From January through October of this year, and most especially through the Canadian lockdown, I helped operate a "corner store" concept for my company --4000 sq feet of grocery attached to a pharmacy in the Oakridge shopping mall. An unwelcome legacy of the old Oakridge store was a queue of items that had gone out of stock just before the old store shut off automatic replenishment. Unless we manually removed them from outgoing orders, we got a very eclectic set of items, again and again. 

Yes, they included an  item identified as kippered herring, although as far as I can tell it's not quite the same preparation as the kippered herring that comes in cans. These particular kippered herrings had to be stored frozen and cooked before eating. I bought a couple and they were . . okay. Products of the Scottish herring fishery, they are Relevant to events of today, as fishing rights come up under Brexit. Foreigners fish some fishing grounds in British waters, and it is perhaps a matter of urgency that they be made to stop. Because of conservation. Or jobs. The fact that the British are great fishers but terrible seafood enthusiasts is a very interesting subtext to the discussion, and perhaps a historical question of some significance. 

Getting back to the fish I ate (not a normal part of my diet, either), Alison Mary Locker explains that these short-life preservation techniques came into vogue in Nineteenth Century London because the fish would last long enough to be distributed by costermonger, but didn't ask too much in the way of cooking equipment and time. She's probably not the only historian to explain such things, but, in comparison with agrarian history, there's a bit of shortage of fishing/salt industry historians. In spite of that, there's been some movement in the field in the last few decades, perhaps not entirely synthesised yet. (I keep finding references to Kurlansky's Salt in academic monographs. Surely if there was something less popular, it would be cited instead?)

(By some kind of miracle I actually found one of the songs that CBC Radio wakes me up with)

Friday, October 9, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, June 1950: Pointing the Way

Pretty cool and historical that the USAF specified that its 1956 fighters should be capable of remote control via the Sperry Zero Reader directing the autopilot, right? Hopelessly precious, to be sure, but even that is grist for the historian's mill. Anyway. What's a Zero Reader?

Stop giving me those pitying looks. I figured it out.  The Sperry Zero Reader is just a flight director. I feel dumb not figuring it out, or at least not pursuing the question far enough to find someone to explain it lucidly. 

There's a little more to be said about its gyroscopic magic, and it wouldn't be Fifties-era militariana if it weren't a little sinister in a nuclear-holocaust-sort-of-way. I'm also going to touch base with a classic of history of technology, Donald MacKenzie's Inventing Accuracy. Looking back a generation later, it does seem to me that MacKenzie's pioneering work  ought to have been the starting point of a historiography rather than all the profession has written on the subject. There's a lot going on here that historians could pull into perspective so that we could understand this world of ours before we run head on into slow motion disasters like the 737Max grounding.

But what do I know? I'm just a historian. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Postblogging Technology, June 1950, II: Fall of the Air Horse

R_. C_.,
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Father:

Scene Does Not Appear in Novel

I could get to love Hong Kong eventually! If it ever cools down. Best of all, my father threw an absolute fit over my refusing to book a ticket east the day after the war started. ("It's not safe," and "It's that boy!") Well, yes, Dad. It is the boy. You know, my fiance. Who has interests that need looking after whilst he is busy flying in the war. If "snooper" missions over the Straits of Formosa count as war, which I think they do! In fact, I'd like to be in Formosa, but apparently it's no place for an American girl. Of course, you don't want to know what the kind of people who say that, think of Hong Kong. Well, a big raspberry to them. Where else can you go out to a dim sum lunch with movie stars? And admittedly also pay for it, because Hong Kong movie stars can't afford dim sum. 

Yes, these reports will continue to be written out of Time and Aviation Week for the foresseable future, as the sad days of normality from B.D, "Before Diphtheria," seem like they will never return. 

Yours Sincerely,

PS: If you like your science with extra science-fiction check out the Air Force's call for bids for the interceptor-escort fighter, which requires a provision for "automatic control via radio link with the automatic pilot" by the time it becomes practical in 1955. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Postblogging Technology, June 1950, I: No Coke

R_. C_.,
Shaughnessy, Vancouver,

Dear Father:

You will have heard from Uncle George, but I'm still going to repeat what he told me. The North Koreans --and not the Russians or Chinese-- are going to invade the South in the first week of summer. This is through the family network, although I'm sure Uncle George told you more than he did me about sources! He also didn't share how he passed on the information, but I'm not surprised to hear that he didn't get a hearing from MacArthur's staff or the Generalissimo. Other quarters of the Koumintang are a different matter, but basically everyone who is in the know on Formosa, which isn't a long list, sees this as a last minute reprieve. I do wonder if someone has got it out, because there's a long story in Time about how the South Koreans are ready to receive the north and send it home. Uncle George's sources don't agree, but it goes beyond that, because he figures  the South Korean army will fold like the Koumintang, for the same reason. The officers are a lot more attached to the skim than to their "careers."  That's why Uncle George is staying in Hong Kong, and why he's telling me to dig in for a long stay. 

I really hope that I'm not running mining missions against Shanghai any time soon. The latest Russian fighters are pretty hot stuff, and that's not even getting into their fighter jets, which as usual with the hottest new ships might be a far off vista at the flight development unit, or in service by the dozens. 

Your Loving Son,

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1950: "No Way Out"

 Well, the UBC Library system has taken the perfectly reasonable and in no way money-saving step of extending its whole library-free university experiment into the Fall semester. Yay. Because, really, what kind of university lets its precious monetary fluids be sapped by researchers who seek to consume its essence? (Technically, the kids can get a book or two or maybe some photocopies if they ask politely a week in advance and it's not too much work, but alumni and other community users can go suck it. I'd recruit my nephew, but periodicals and other ephemera definitely count as "too much work.")

I will get on June, 1950 next week. In the mean time, there's a bit more to be said about spinning things. Because while I'm upset at UBC, there is still something to be said for looking at a project that you've gotten yourself into, and just deciding that it's too hard, and shutting it down. It might not be what we're told to do by children's programming television, but look how many lives Armstrong Whitworth must have saved by giving up on the Apollo!

In 1950's No Way Out, Sidney Poitier and Mildred Joanne Smith play nice Black hospital people who have to deal with a White racist criminal patient. Smith's promising career was cut short on 11 February, 1952, when she was aboard National Airlines Flight 101, a DC-6 departing Newark Airport, when, it suddenly began to veer left while losing altitude. Two minutes later, it clipped an apartment building and plunged into the ground, "narrowly missing an orphanage," says Wikipedia, and bursting into flames. Twenty-nine of 63 people aboard perished, along with another four from the apartment building. Smith survived, but with severe injuries, including a broken back. 

The CAB determined that the cause of the accident was the accidental reversal of the propeller of the No. 3 engine. Coupled with the crew's mistaken decision to feather the No. 4 engine, Flight 101 was pretty much a brick. This was three weeks after the crash of an American Airlines Convair 240,  with the loss of all onboard and two girls associated with the girl's school near which it crashed, and two months after the crash of a Miami Airlines Curtiss C-46 with the loss of all onboard, again with additional losses on the ground in spite of managing to crash into a warehouse district. Neither of the earlier two accidents go to  the subject of this post, which overworked postwar airscrews, turbines, rotors and closely associated spinning things, but they are a pretty good reminder of just how dangerous postwar civil aviation actually was. Having the propellers of a major airliner be subject to three separate Airworthiness Directives in four years, warning of separation of neoprene layers in the propeller core, overspeeding, and engine overheating issues doesn't help. (That's the Stratocruiser, if you were wondering. The poor British taxpayer just can't catch a break.) 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1950: Jetliner Dreams


Early jets tended to lack a bit of oomph coming off the runway.

I've covered the outline of the early passenger jet here before. The De Havilland Comet seemed to have the market to itself at first, but then was pinched out by the Boeing 707, which was developed from a jet-powered tanker that the USAF eventually decided it needed to support its B-47 fleet. The Comet plays an important part in the British narrative that says that Britain's postwar aviation subsidy programme was a big waste of money. Meanwhile, the USAF order for 250 KC-135 Stratotankers cushioned Boeing's 707 project and suggests that Cold War military spending played an important role in the transition to jet transports. 

But is there more to say about this? In a quiet week before, hopefully, the UBC Library reopens, I take my inspiration where I find it, and Brad DeLong has posted a lecture online suggesting that the historic expansion of the British economy through 1870 might have run up against a renewed Malthusian world but for a bunch of exogenous factors that accelerated "innovation." 

It's modern economics latest surrender to the implacable grasp of the "free lunch" school of technological progress, according to which "innovation" comes from outside the economic process, and that the human species is forever vulnerable to a return to a Malthusian world of subsistence economics at any arbitrary level of technological achievement if we ever fail in our continuing propitiation of the mad gods of invention. 

As, away back in May of 1950, the American aviation industry plays with the idea that a transition to jets is impossible, barring some kind of "socialist" intervention to pay the costs of developing a jetliner out of the taxpayers' pocket, I'm inclined to stop and meditate on exogeneity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Postblogging Technology, May 1950, II: Is The World Warming Up?

R_. C_.,
Vancouver, Canada.

Dear Father:

Not much to report from steamy Formosa, where all the news is about Koumintang evacuations of offshore islands and everyone is waiting for Congress to come through. Chiang apparently thinks that he can twist MacArthur round his little finger, same as Chennault. The connection is probably GOP politics, which the Madame plays like a maestro. 

I know, I know. No-one reads this for my political opinions. I'd like to update you on the latest family news, but I'm down here on Formosa and I'm as much in the dark as you! Or more! 

Your Loving Son,