Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Technological Preface to Postblogging Technology, August 1948, I: Certain Grand Schemes of Improvement

For reasons having to do with layout and marketing, customers have difficulty finding the "breakfast aisle" at the store at which I usually work. The particular arrangement means that this aisle, adjacent to the bakery at one end of an irregular lozenge, actually contains pancake mix, pancake syrup, diabetic candy (no, I don't know, either), and pretty much every kind of spread. But as far as it goes, when I am working in the high traffic central aisles, I might as well wear a t-shirt that reads, "The peanut butter is in Aisle 13." No other item is so often sought for, and so hard to discover. I have no idea what that says, but I do know that the 3 August, 1948 Engineering covered the same talk on the theme of "How We Are Overcoming the Unexpected Difficulties of the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme" as did The Engineer, along with several other subjects that, it seems to me, deepen and enrich our understanding of the absolutely bonkers issue of Fortune that  I cannot talk about this week for the usual reasons of schedules-altered-on-the-fly. (And, to be fair, my failure to think through the implications of a day-to-night swing that has essentially cost me a weekend day this week, and given me an extra one next week.)

I hope I'm building up anticipation for the August, 1940 issue of Fortune. Bonkers. I promise you. In the mean time, this is pretty much a peanut-butter-and-jelly technological appendix, except it comes before the subject. 

It's also a little timely, given that I am talking about the Tanganyika Groundnuts Scheme, which we're going to need in the next few years as the Tanzania Biofuels Scheme, if we're serious about long term survival as a species.
The peanut, Arachis hypogaea, is a legume with an edible oilseed. It is acclimated to semi-arid tropical regions, of which there are no shortage in the world, and as a nitrogen-fixing plant with significant manure matter (the shells), it is beloved by agronomists the world over. Presuming we actually fix this whole global warming thing, we will hear more about it. With a yield of 890kg oil/hectare, it is only slightly behind canola as the most productive field crop for biofuel production.

In 1946, the focus at Unilever was on soap and margarine rather than diesel substitutes. "Edible fats" were in chronically short supply, the world was starving, and the whole food balance of the Indian Ocean basin had been broken by the wartime halt in Burmese rice exports, which looked increasingly unlikely to resume. As we've seen in one or two Fortune bumpf articles about Unilever, the company specialised in tropical fats on the one hand, and vast tropical fiefdoms, on the other. 
Time for some mid-century graphics!

Peanuts were a bit of a departure from its normal business in that they were not produced on plantations, but by smallholders in west Africa, where it had had some bruising battles with the small producers who supplied the company with peanuts (groundnuts), the company was naturally inclined to lend an ear on the subject of east African peanut plantations to John Wakefield, the former Director of Agriculture in  the Mandate of Tanganyika. Britain owed a special duty of care to the territory, not that you could tell from its actual policy on the ground; Wakefield was concerned that a lack of agricultural development in the provinces was leading to rural depopulation and the growth of slum populations around the major cities; and, of course, the proposed scheme for vast peanut plantations would allow Unilever to gain some leverage over the small, West African producers.

Florida's winter cabbage crop was a thing in 1948. The point, here, is that vast, semi-tropical, machine-tended fields of produce are by no means impossible. Or maybe it's just that I think that the fact that there used to be a "Florida winter cabbage" crop is fascinating. Either way. 

After some dilly-dallying about, the responsible authorities nominated what is now the Kongwa District of the Dodoma Region of Tanzania for their grand project. This allows people to shake their heads learnedly and lament that the starry-eyed dreamers of Labour had no idea that they were about to try to farm the desert, where, obviously, peanuts would not grow.

This is not, as it happens, particularly charitable to either peanuts or the area. Dodoma is at 1120m elevation, on the old caravan trail between Lake Tanganyika and the coast at Dar es Salaam. It was designated as Tanzania's future political capital in 1973, and a cruise through its streets fails to detect even a single camel, palm tree or even a horse with no name. 

The Britannica article, rather fuller than the Wikipedia one, notes that it is the centre of a sparsely-populated agricultural region, and that peanuts are one of its major crops. Hipper and still more up-to-date, the ever-hopeful local tourist authority's web page notes a flourishing wine industry, complete with at least one winery tour destination, but I did persuade Wikipedia to yield the annual precipitation figure of 570mm, more than enough for peanut cultivation (surprise!), albeit falling mostly from November to April. The writeup in Engineering describes the Scheme's attempts to build small water tanks to support the plantations, but ideally one would want a nice, big dam and a reservoir to go with it, to provide water in the dry season.

Like this one.
Mtera dam and reservoir, just upstream of Dodoma. Part of the Great Rueha Power Project, it was built in  phases from 1970-88, and has an installed capacity of 80 mW/hr. It is intended to store rainy season water and irrigate during the dry season. What will engineers think of next? Source.

To be fair as one possibly can be, the vision behind the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme didn't really have the time for anything so grand. The area was ostensibly chosen for its proximity to the one existing railway, which naturally followed the old caravan trail, which was presumably the centre of economic gravity of the highlands, which, in my opinion, throws some doubt on the idea that the area was chosen for purely technocratic reasons. Or, rather, that is a chicken-and-egg thing. 

That being said, the choice was immediately made to provide the groundnut scheme with its own railway, a narrow gauge. Running a  railway down from an 1100m altitude to the coast in a distance of only 300km is a pretty serious challenge for a railway builder, and while one might think that that would be a reason to develop the existing infrastructure, it was not. Instead, the new railway was switched back down to the coast at the now "somewhat neglected," but then newly-constructed deep-sea port of Mtwara, historic Montewara, at the southern limit of Tanzania. The people of Mtwara wish to remind everyone that they have 385m of quay wall, and can take a 209m (formerly 175m) deep sea freighter. They would very much like to ship something besides the local cashew crop, and are eager to point out the possibilities for iron and coal production in their immediate hinterland. (Steel being self-evidently too much to hope for.)

All in all, a bold experiment in nation-building, somewhat undermined by the near complete uselessness of narrow-gauge railways in general.

This takes us back up the hill to the planting grounds, where 4000t of seed peanut has been laid in to plant 20,000; or  perhaps 150,000; or possibly 3.25 million acres in peanuts --one or the other. It remained only to clear the impenetrable stubble, a job for brute force, rather than finesse.

Apparently. Converting a Sherman tank into a tractor and just scraping the land down to the soil would seem to be the way to go, because Sherman tanks are big and powerful, and tractors are big and powerful. The Shervicks, to be fair, according to this lucid account, were a desperate measure after the first batch of Army surplus tractors turned up lame. Unfortunately, lucidity has its limits. This Sherman tractor

Robert Crawford and unidentified co-driver, picture courtesy of Peter Longfoot (asserted C. Peter Longfoot 2018). 

works fine, but it is one of the variants equipped with twin GM 6-71 diesels giving 375hp, which seems like it would ask less out of the poor gears in low-speed, high-torque situations. Not that this is in any way an appropriate use of a transmission geared to give a road speed of up to 30mph. The sequel, of burned out transmissions and blighted hopes seems foreordained, but the European school in Kongwa only closed in 1958, so the Groundnut Scheme didn't fade away overnight. Bogged-down tractors are still being found in the countryside, abandoned by their enthusiastic but unskilled "native" drivers back in the day. 

Which brings me to "The Performance of German 'Giant Hobs' (Engineering, 6 August 1948: 128). At some point, the long series of BIOS reports on German wartime industry covered a line of giant gear-cutting hobs, made by Pfauter. Excited engineers at David Brown and Sons of Huddersfield, best known for either tractors or tank transmissions, depending on which circles you run in, but, in fact, generalised gear specialists in gears. The upshot was somewhat disappointing. The giant hobs did not prove to be that much better than regular hobs, run at higher speeds; although a special set up might make car gears better than existing machinery. In particular, although the giant hobs needed to be resharpened less often than regular hobs, they lost more accuracy with each resharpening.

This has been your regular reminder that when machine tools get old

. . . they get less accurate. While I have a great deal of difficulty imagining this series going on past 24 July 1969, the day your humble correspondent turns 75, this is something I'd be returning to in 1972ish. when all the wartime gears failed at once. And, just coincidentally, the Damn Unions ruined British and American industry with their laziness. 

Gears have their limits, whether on the machine tools that make tractor transmissions, or in the transmissions themselves. 

That would be, or will be, or might will have been(?) a story of deindustrialising in the First World, just as the Groundnuts scheme is a story of failing-to-industrialise in the Third World. While it is far from the most interesting article in this month's Fortune, an interesting bit about failures of industrialisation Iran up to 1948 will feature next week. 

Now I want to turn to another article from the 6 August Engineering, Engineer Rear-Admiral A. B. Doyle's "Naval Engineering and Construction in Australia." 

The Royal Australian Navy started out in the big leagues, receiving a battlecruiser of its very own, the HMAS Australia, in 1913, along with some destroyers and submarines to go with, and later two cruisers. A make-and-mend facility was needed, at Cockatoo Island, Sydney, employing 4000 "workmen" in 1914--18. Postwar, the facility got stuck in with a novel ship, the Albatross seaplane carrier, allowing Australia the opportunity to proceed from basic plans to working drawings. Although the machinery and auxiliaries were manufactured in Britain, the machine drawings were also produced in Australia. Construction at Cockatoo Island was resumed in 1934 with two ASW sloops, and the postwar 8" Australia cruiser was rebuilt there, preparing the way for the first wartime construction effort, a small fleet of corvettes that nevertheless required the roping in of seven commercial dockyards and numerous subcontractors, notably the Midland Junction Railway Workshops in Perth, which made the boilers. This led on to frigates, boom defence vessels, a floating dock, mine-layers and sweepers, and forty transports. A somewhat more ambitious engineering project was the construction of 3 "Tribal" class destroyers, masterworks of advanced, semi-automated machinery by the standards of the day. 

To accommodate all of this work, Cockatoo Island expanded to Garden Island. (Another island, so I'm assuming that that's a lot.) Employment rose to 3000, still under the WWI total at the dockyards, but I am guessing that total employment in the sector was well above the previous war, subcontractors and other dockyards included. A bigger dock was built for the British Pacific Fleet, expected imminently from the United Kingdom at the end of the war. And while that didn't occur, the RAN could look forward confidently to a bright future of straining to complete very large naval construction programmes. 

So what's the point of all of this? I actually went into the Groundnut Scheme expecting a James Scott-like lesson in the failure of grand schemes. The key absurdity, per most writers on the subject, was the decision to plant peanuts where peanuts cannot grow. What a lesson in "seeing like a state!" But, on closer inspection, this just dissolves. Peanuts were chosen because they were already one of the main local crops. The problem simply was that the fields weren't properly prepared and manured, something that you really wouldn't think would be a problem in a livestock-raising district; but here we come to Unilever's unspoken and scarcely utopianly Socialistic project of plantation peanuts. Had it really been the intention of the Scheme's devisers to grow peanuts, as opposed to leveraging West African peasants, they would have replicated what was already working in West Africa. 

Of course, they would also have invested in a proper railway down the coastal scarp, and a hydroelectric project upstream of Dodoma, and roads and schools and all the other appurtenances of modern civilisation in the peanut-growing districts, and that would have been expensive. Whether the scheme would have turned a profit is one thing. The problem here is pretty clearly one of thinking on too small a scale. A failure of nerve, as it were: just like the GCA controller at Templehof who let three C-54s crash, one after the other, on 13 August 1948. I don't know whether the different experience in Australia shows the superiority of self-government to colonial paternalism, or the benefits of taking things in small increments. Or possibly it is another reminder of the power of war and national defence to mobilise resources. Either way, one is nation building that worked; the other is nation building that failed. The "gears" bit in the middle, just to review, is about how states can fail, or seem to fail, for quotidian reasons that we're a bit inclined to overdetermine.If that doesn't make sense this week, hopefully it will be clearer after next.


  1. While I have a great deal of difficulty imagining this series going on past 24 July 1969, the day your humble correspondent turns 75, this is something I'd be returning to in 1972ish. when all the wartime gears failed at once.

    This sounds interesting - is there something you're referring to beyond the obvious?

    1. Just the idea of a generalised decrepitude of precision machinery in the early 70s, which I've been on about before. It may all be eclipsed next week when I get into the British-American Council on Productivity. We'll see.

  2. A groundnut thing. Reading your links, the cutover from ministerial line-management to the OFC seems interesting. This fits with a big Labour movement debate about how to organize nationalized industries and new public services - essentially, what organizational form is appropriate for social democracy.

    You have Herbert Morrison on one side, who actually has experience! As mayor of London he controlled the Port of London Authority and the Metropolitan Water Board, and nationalized the London Underground. The two or three Tube companies were rolled into a single entity that was still organized as a firm, but only had one shareholder, the state. There's also the BBC, which was formally created under the much older model of the chartered company, but which functions in much the same way.

    But there is another model associated with the Labour Left, which is to incorporate new things directly into the state itself, like a Whitehall civil service department, a crown colony (albeit not one with a representative government!), or a military unit - albeit not a British police force, as those have a local police authority or city watch committee as oversight.

    The original criticism of the first is that it's not radical enough - Keynes thought it was grand, after all - and it just preserves the structure of a capitalist firm and the privileges of the directorate. The argument for it is that it gives the organization useful autonomy and keeps it closer to users and further from politicians. The original criticism of the second is that it's the sort of thing Soviets or Nazis get up to, sending nosey-parker inspectors to bother everyone. The original argument for the second is that it lets the elected power mobilize the full force of the state.

    Morrison eventually won and that became the dominant organizational form, and in the eyes of critics the distinction collapsed, so from the 70s on it's common to hear complaining about "Morrisonian line management". But this is really a contradiction in terms.

    That said, Strachey may not have won this one but Nye Bevan won his. The NHS was set up very much as an integral part of the core state without intermediary institutions. It's lasted, but then again so have the BBC and the Tube.

    1. And at the end of the day, so much of the story seems to be about Unilever, and not the state at all . . .

      I'm also thinking, again, about where the heck I encountered the French Belle Epoque scheme for a Trans-Saharan tropical fats-pipeline. . .

    2. That is a . . . colourful figure. (Also a bit later than I imagined.) I couldn't find direct evidence that his pipeline was meant to move palm oil, though.