Saturday, August 13, 2016

Zeus, Hurling Comets: A Vacation Extra

(Not quite a vacation: My "accumulated time off" is being purged ahead of back to school.)

One of the more colourful stories about the end of the Hittites is that when they say that when the "Thunder God of Hattusa" smote his people, he literally smote them. With a meteor. I'm not advocating for this theory: I'm reaching for a reference to the Bristol Olympus, but here's a website with lots of nice pictures that deserve to be appreciated without reference to any wackadoodle theories.

I'm not going to offer you any deep insight into the Bristol (Rolls-Royce) Olympus or anything else, here. It's a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine that began its development cycle in November of 1946, Wikipedia says.

CC BY-SA 3.0,
It found its first use as the engine of the Avro Vulcan, and then was chosen for the BAC TSR-2 and the Concorde. 

The Concorde, as we know, was an exciting new technology that attracted many advanced orders that were subsquently cancelled as various drawbacks became apparent. In the end, a small number were built, and they had a long and reasonably successful operational career, mostly with the United Kingdom's flag or semi-flag airline. 

To this point, the story is all-too familiar. It is basically the same career as the de Havilland Comet or the VC10.

For some reason Wikipedia doesn't insist on attribution, even though the photo is c.'d Adrian Pingstone.
Not every new plane can be a Vickers Viscount, and while the British aviation writer sighs and casts a half-jealous, half-angry eye across the Atlantic, where are the Martin, Convair or Curtiss-Wright airliners? Far gone, our airfleets melt away. . . 

All the same, the 250 Viscounts sold have to count for something in the days of "export or die," and one has to wonder if the world would not be a very different place today if de Havilland had sold 250 Comets. It seems as though de Havilland was much bolder in the 1950s with the use of alternate materials in the manufacture of civil aircraft than the mainstream industry allowed itself to be before the Dreamliner, but that's a pretty trivial observation compared with the trajectory I started out to trace here. 

Which is this: the basic reason that the Concorde won so many orders was that the airline industry expected the 747 and its contemporaries to be the end of the subsonic era. Looking ahead, the B-70 and the TSR-2 represented the military cutting edge of sustained supersonic flight that would lead to supersonic airliners, with the Dyna-Soar

or SR-71 or what-have-you leading to the next generation of hypersonic, ramjet airliners that would be, per schedule, taking off from YVR right now to make a breakfast date in Hong Kong.

It didn't happen, of course. Instead of ramjets, Boeing is just now winding up 747 production. What happened? Well, a lot of things happened, obviously, but one thing that happened was that the highly thermodynamically-efficient Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 wasn't succeeded by a next iteration of the Olympus design that might have addressed the basic Concorde problems of range, cabin size and fuel economy. 

There was a way forward: it was decided not to take it. Would the Olympus have evolved in the direction of the J-58 under the impetus of an extended TSR-2 programme? God knows. I don't. What I do know is that the Olympus went on to make money for Rolls-Royce as a generator for offshore oil platforms, and isn't that the world we live in? 

Bitter reflections on our over-carbonised world aside, I want to meditate on the declining labour inputs of long production lines, and, yes, the declining consumption of whatever-it-is-we-decide-technology-is across the last 50 years or so. We may only have woken up to the fact that productivity is stagnating in the last half-decade or so, but between 1933 and 1973, we went from thinking that commercial jet airliners crossing the Atlantic was impossible science fiction; to thinking that ramjet airliners crossing the Pacific was impossible science fiction. 

I can't help thinking that "impossible science fiction" is doing a lot of work here.  We're never afraid to invoke it to close off the future (usually by announcing that unemployment is about to go to 100% because of automation --and this is as true of 1933 as it is of 2016). O, it is an excuse to lie back and chill, abandoning half-completed projects because they're "too expensive") and wait for technology to swoop in from that exogenous thought-world of "culture" to save us.  

Because you know what? I see no evidence that innovation arrives from outside, and a lot that it comes from being willing to actually go ahead and spend the money to build things like the TSR-2. Something about the perfect being the enemy of the good? 

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