Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Electric City, II: Pedal to the Metal

Edit: Dryden? Defoe? So similar, they're basically the same guy. D'oh.

Oh, heck, why not:

I knew an Eisenhower scholar once who loved this song.

I have no idea what that means. I'm going to talk about bicycles today, which I'm thinking would be more of a Stevenson kind of thing. (Happy Days: the Youtube expects you  to watch the whole episode to find out who the Fonz is voting for; but you already knew.)

Well, bicycles and metalled roads.

Let's start not with James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Excluding the patent trolls lets us tell history with the facts still in it.

In 1811, Boulton's Soho works retained a contractors' interest in 496 steam engines. Twenty-four were driving the blasts in ironmaking furnaces, and 308 were replacing or supplementing water mills, mainly within the Midlands iron industry. What we really need, though, is transport. I just recently actually opened my rescue copy (an author-signed copy from some discount table around the city, sigh) of Cormac O Grada's Ireland: Before and After the Famine: Explorations in Economic History, 1800--1925 (1993 edition) and was astonished to find a section on crops, famines, and interregional transport. We historians like to wave our hands at the problem when we talk about early modern economic history, but apparently smart people talked about this in the Nineteenth Century in a serious way and actually produced concrete results. Who would have thought?

The takeaway perhaps explains this, in that it's hardly surprising to know that the costs of interregional transport, especially of the novel potato crop, were a crucial factor in old regime famines, culminating with the Irish famine. "Potato prices" pushed money wages down, because anything left over after the family was fed was money to be spent in the market, and potatoes were so much cheaper than wheat that lower wages meant more discretionary spending. (61--2) Potatoes also are a root crop to be dug, with potato greens to be left on the field for livestock. They were a "soil-cleansing" crop that pushed future yields on the land, of whatever crop, up.

 But potatoes were heavy compared with flour, and who could imagine the role of weight being taken out of freight costs and replaced by break-of-bulk?

In the coal measures of Yorkshire, they could. Watt didn't much care for lightness, but once his patent expired, men who did could make steam engines. Men coming out of the expanding cannon-founding business were very much in the business of "adding more lightness." (I can't believe I'm stealing a joke from C. G. Grey.) An engineer did a study of the horse-related costs of a 5½ mile Yorkshire wagonway built in 1811 that showed that by 1813 the cost of working it with 81 horses was £9400 (2½ pence/ton·mile), absorbing 16% of the cost of coal delivered at Newcastle. With war absorbing vast quantities of horseflesh, the company could realise a one-time profit of £1900 from selling the horses, and operating costs were dominated by the price of fodder and wagon drivers' wages, both subject to wartime inflation. So while there would be an annual £500/year saving by replacing the horses with a steam engine, the gains would be much less in peacetime. The engineer doing the study wanted to sell the colliery a “locomotive,” but perhaps mainly proved that the window of opportunity had nearly past. (Here, 155.)

I could go on about technology and the roading of Europe. There's a lot to the story. There's Isembard Brunel putting a boot-nailing machine to work in 1811 on to meet the army's needs. There is the Goodyears, responsible for vulcanised rubber and then a boot-sewing machine. There is demand for a range of fabrics ranging from American cotton to Manila hemp for rigging, canvas, and other everyday needs of road transport. There's the Continental System that cut Britain off from pine tar and encouraged the use of creosote. And then there's iron tyres and new paving systems and canals.

But all of that is economics and innovation and profit, one kind of push out onto the roads. Today I am interested in another. Defoe has a story (although damned if I can find it [edit: Daniel Defoe, not John Dryden as originally. Here]; I'm working off the memory of a secondary source here) about a provincial lady who hitched four-and-twenty oxen to her coach to reach church of a springtime Sunday on the roads of England, such as they were in 1700. Conversely, Reverend Blome recommends a small dog for a young gentleman of means who wants to get into hunting. The dog can keep up with a running man, and take any rabbits he starts as he runs across the fields and paths of the England of that same year. 

This is two visions of the roads: one, an obstacle to be ploughed through with massive excesses of muscle power, the other young limbs, freely coursing. In 1700, they were both true in their respective times of the year, depending on location. It's a miracle of civil engineering that we all make free on the land today. What remains to be investigated is how that transformation has altered our world.

Start at the centre, I suppose. It's just a random story, but I can't help but be fascinated by the coincidence of  John Mowlem starting out as a quarryman sometime before 1807 and taking on a Freeman as his partner as his business transitioned to civil engineering contracting. That might be a little grandiose, as in his lifetime, big paving projects still consisted of London markets. This is a bit of a ways from metalled roads reaching out into the shires. Yet Freeman's grandson was Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman, the man in charge of RAF procurement during World War II. (Source.) Within three generations, the world had gone from laying granite flagstones at Billingsgate Market to the dawn of the jet age. It's not an isolated coincidence, either, although I'll spare you my other anecdotes.

What I will talk about is a man named Alfred Harmsworth, whom you may know better as Lord Northcliffe.

Harmsworth (1865--1922) belonged roughly to the same generation as Freeman and Portal's fathers, although by all accounts he was a much more unpleasant man than practically anyone who actually made a functional home. Harmsworth could hardly have been the only teenager of his generation to undertake hundred mile bicycle excursions in the summers at the turn of the decade of the 1880s or we wouldn't be talking about a a "bicycling craze.".(Because.)  The ruckus of the Franco-Prussian War had died  away, the first safety bicycles were either on the market or being anticipated by products lost to history. That being said, it's the kind of thing an incipient bipolar case might do. 

Forced to make his own living, young Harmsworth wrote freelance for the hobby weeklies Cycling and Wheeling until they were bought out by the Illifes and folded into the Bicycling News. Harmsworth was soon found too hot for the Illife house style, and went on promoting the bicycle industry without Harmsworth. The bicycle industry was adapting to, and promoting, the transformation of the world's great cities, and it didn't need "heat" to accomplish that. It thought. (Here's Stephen Inwood, saying it better than I can.)

Harmsworth made a good case for the contrary, because in 1894, he bought the Evening News* and "adopted the topical style, illustrations, and easy reading formats introduced a decade before in the Pall Mall Gazette." The Daily Mail that followed was even more "easy reading" than the earlier members of the Harmsworth stable. I'm directly quoting the biographer here because the alternative is a formula closer to "he brought American yellow journalism to Britain," which seems a little loaded. Yellow journalism has many inventors, and the label obscures the importance of the new four-colour printing processes. Technology is as important here as lack of press ethics. 

That being said, there is truly nothing new under the Sun. Harmsworth supported the Primrose League and the Navy League, drummed up war scares and trade war scares, and relentlessly promoted the bicycle until, in 1896, it turned to the automobile. If it was true that "The Daily Mail was written by office boys for office boys," then office boy interests were expanding as the 1890s turned into the 1900s from hundred-mile bicycle rallies into the deepest countryside to actually living there in a "garden estate." In 1906, in the wake of French aviation experiments, the newly minted Lord Northcliffe turned to "airmindedness," code for the much-relished imminent destruction of civilisation by bombing from the air. 

(Wells' 1907 War in the Air wasn't syndicated in The Daily Mail, and wouldn't have been, considering his politics, but it does feature a protagonist who starts in a bicycle shop, witnesses the destruction of the tenements of New York with grenades rained down from German zeppelins, provides the anti-imperialist world with the ultimate guerilla weapon of cheap heavier-than-air aviation(!), and, in the wake of the destruction of global civilisation by bombing, a White Plague, financial skullduggery, and Jewish conspiracy (nice one, Herbert), settles in as a democratic New Anglo-Saxon pig farmer in the Weald. It's the perfect alternate history of the Edwardian era.)  

 Northcliffe's early death prevented him from influencing the interwar period. He's a bridge from the age of bicycling through the age of the automobile, and hardly the only one. It's a reasonably well-known trope in British industrial history, illustrated by the likes of Lord Nuffield, that the Midlands bicycle industry was the chrysalis from which the automotive industry followed, along with automatic sheep-shearing equipment and such.  

That's one strand. The other is the Franco-Prussian War, left dropped earlier. Here's a fascinating, if slightly bewildering book, Rabinbach's The Human Motor.  I perhaps shouldn't throw stones, but Rabinbach starts a lot of rabbits in his tour through the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century's discovery of metabolism and the body. My attention was brought to a single short section beginning p. 224, in which Rabinbach summarises France's 1880 discovery that "the catastrophe of Sedan represents in history the triumph of  German legs." 

I've toyed with this notion before. It seems to me like it might work as a (partial) explanation for 1914 and 1940, given that since mobilisation bit deeper into French society than German, it stands to reason that the French armies might have been, on average, less fit. As far as 1870 goes, it really does seem like buried history. If you played Dungeons & Dragons when you were (much) younger, you may recall fitting out your dungeoneers with provisions in the form of "iron rations." It turns out, per Kephart, that E. Gary Gygax was recalling the ghastly iron-fortified dried pea soup ration issued to Prussian troops for that campaign. As it happens, "iron rations" doesn't keep your half-elven ranger fit and hearty longer down amongst the purple worms and the Eye Tyrants. But it was a reasonable supposition in 1870, when the notion of nutritional supplements was novel, and the connection between lack of iron and anemia, on the one hand, and iron and manlike vigour seemed so plausible. (I swear it's in here somewhere, although Wikipedia finds a later source of inspiration.)

In the event, what the French did was not to issue high-energy rations that made miracles of physical culture possible. That came later. What they sought instead was a "scientific course of military training." I could have sworn that it was Rabinbach who put me onto the Chasseurs a Pied experiment, but it turns out that this is wrong, it was actually Paddy Griffith. My chronology was also off, as I would have realised had I thought about it, given that Ardant du Picq was a key figure in the craze, and he died in 1870. 

The French idea here was to discover new methods of training, or motivation, or nutrition, something that would, as part of the total transformation of tactics, allow infantry to march faster, further. It was a pretty widespread idea that helps explain the many special forces of the late Nineteenth Century, from the Chasseurs a pied to the Chasseurs alpines, the Jaegers, the Celeri, and many other continental units that aren't going to get proper diacriticals until Blogspot makes it a whole lot easier than it is right now. 

The idea of an elite, hard-marching vanguard infantry was pretty much a lost cause, as we now know. Adopting bicycles didn't help, and it all turned out to be a detour on the way to mechanised warfare. 

The only reason that I'm resurrecting it here is in the context of this late Nineteenth Century burst of youthful energy. We know now what Northcliffe's generation was looking for. As it turns out, it was the automobile industry. What has been, perhaps, less well explored is the restless energy invested in the tireless search down the highways and byways that brought it to light. 

Here's what I think happened. this was a youthful generation in the most technically demographic sense. The collapse in infant mortality rates at the beginning of the century had created a youth bulge that could push the market in its preferred directions. And, in hindsight, we can see this demographic bulge playing a clearly demand-side role. The young folk today, they want to get out into the country. To see it, to enjoy traditionally upper class "country life," and, ultimately, to live there. They had no idea what might make this possible, and they experimented with a great many technologies and a great  many ways of reinterpreting their world before they settled on the internal combustion engine. The idea of fast-marching infantry, for example, doesn't obviously lead to rush hour on the interstate a century later. My point is that the market that made that possible didn't know what it wanted before the product was offered to it. It sufficed that it wanted speed, and range, life, and penetration deep into the countryside.

 Isn't that what youth always wants?

*It looks like the biography I'm following is incurious about this little financial miracle. J. Lee Thompson,  Northcliffe: Press Baron in Politics, 1865–1922 (London: J. Murray, 2000). In better known cases there is a money trail leading back to the political parties, and one can see why the matter is obscure in cases where it is obscure.


  1. No, I hadn't. Although colour me unimpressed by the claim that the Norse were the first settlers in southern Greenland. The Saqqaq preceded them by 3500 years, and I believe the (probably mistaken) debate about Dorset Culture settlement in the south has it that they were there, then retreated north just in time to cede the ground to the Norse, then advanced again "later."

    It seems far more plausible that the early Norse settlers were wrong to claim that the land was uninhabited. What they were reporting was that the "best" land at the head of the fjords was vacant. The Paleo-Inuit would have been present from the start on good fishing camps on the outer coast, and thus were available to lead the early settlers through the pack ice.

    Presumably they started getting in Viking faces,as business partners will do, when the Ramah Island Chert Exchange Network began to express an appetite for Norse goods and slaves.

    As for the claim that Icelandic Christianity was different because it was mixed up in folk beliefs, all I can do is say a prayer to St. Kilda that High John the Conqueror grant him the second sight.