Saturday, May 14, 2022

"I Would Run Away to the Air:" Industrial History of Strategy, Great Britain, and WWII: Preliminary Comments on a Projected Outline


Morbid thought for the day: No book is ever finished, except by the author's death. Not that I have that to worry about a posthumous edition, having failed to sire me a Brian Herbert or Christopher Tolkien. 

On the other hand, I don't think I've ever committed an outline of what "I Would Run Away to the Air:"  Industrial History of Strategy, Great Britain, and WWII would look like. Which is just as well, considering my early notion that it would include a comprehensive wiki of mid-century industrial technology, a project that, in draft, was spiraling into hundreds of pages while being blatantly, obviously incomplete. 

I mean, what are you going to do with a project that needs to take synthetic poop and the Unified Thread Standard into account? The whole project would be completely insane were it not a response to Correlli Barnett's Audit of War, which essentially achieves the same project by simply spamming "If it's British, it's crap" for every entry. Any reply to Barnett's thesis would then appear to require going through the complete list of mid-century made things and explaining why Barnett is wrong about it. (Except for coal mining, where he's got something of a point about the problems, if not solutions.) 

Correlli Barnett is going to live rent-free in my head for my whole entire life. I've made my peace with it. Basically, this is a project in opposing an "industrial history of strategy" to a "production history of strategy," which further reduces to the claim that 50 fighters of a new design are much more than 1% of the production cost of a run of 5000, but be a gain, in that 50 MiG-17s are more useful than 5000 F4Us. 

Also, maybe it matters to the way we live our lives today, what with the technological change and the tech bro billionaires and all. 

The MiG-17 versus F4U comparison is a currently relevant example from the techblogging front, but you can't refute Gish gallopers with examples. You just find yourself arguing about RAAF Meteors versus MiG-15s, instead. Which is fine, which is good. Not all arguments can be won by the Forces of Good. The "Gish Gallop" was invented by a creation scientist, and the sad fact is that we're never going to be shut of creation science. Knowledge is social production, and certain societies produce "knowledge" that resist the hegemonic narratives of the technocracy as a political act, even long after anyone can position "resistance" as a good thing. 

Here is the problem as I see it. Back in the day, the Anglo-American Council on Productivity spammed out Barrett-style reports until the sweet Marshall grant money dried up, and we're still talking about the downstream implications. Supposedly, we have a quantification of the component of productivity that differs from nation to nation in a way not accounted for by labour and capital investment, the "Total Factor Productivity." It is the difference between the American and British TFP that the AACP is busy identifying, and Barrett is just a popular and partisan essay into a more general project of identifying the reason for the low British TFP. If some societies just have lower TFP than others, the solution to painless economic growth, and all the good things that come with it (like fighting global warming), is to get under the hood and tinker with TFP. That, of course, was the second part of the AACP mandate, which notoriously devolved into "Manage harderer, Labour unionise less!"

The modern conversation about TFP focusses on the concern that it is lagging expected rates of growth based on historic experience, and has been for my entire life. We had an argument about how TFP might stagnate in a "mature economy," borrowing from Alvin Hansen's Depression-era "secular stagnation" a decade ago or so, but then we all did our part and bought (unread) copies of Piketty's book, so  you might assume that we've pretty much licked the problem and moved on to bigger things, like working from home (HAH!) while having COVID, and now of course with the inflation and the supply chain difficulties (let me tell you!) and the Slava Ukraina.

Well, it turns out that TFP growth is still stagnating. Here is Dylan Matthews, on the case for Vox, reporting on an NYU economist who has rediscovered Alvin Hansen. We've discovered all of the "Growth Producing Technologies," so growth is going to stagnate. Sure, between the double-dip American recessions of 1939 and 1946, something happened that seems to call Hansen into question, but now we've reached the point where there are no more growth-producing technologies to be  had. Something about war being the health of the state? 

All of that is an old story, only recently revisited because I follow Vox to keep up with the news. Let me turn to an introductory chapter that explains my title more than a gnomic photograph of Alliot Verdon Roe, before pivoting back to technology. 

Chapter I: The Brooklands Gang 

I borrow the phrase from a comment to a contributor to an early-Twenties Journal of the Aeronautical Society  symposium, who expressed his excitement at the coming air age by saying that,  "If I were young, I would run away to the air." To help suggest context, I have a half-complete prosopographic survey of members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that suggests that "running away to the sea" might be the most common origin story of a successful British industrial engineer of the mid-century period. I don't for a moment think that they actually ran away, but that is the experience that the speaker is calling upon to describe the potential of the air age. 

Among the individuals involved with the early air age, "the Brooklands gang," if you will, was a young Winston Churchill. The received wisdom around the joint was that good horsemen made good pilots, and Churchill had his start as a cavalry officer. Apart from morbid reflections, this series of posts takes its inspiration from Derek Leebaert's word portrait of Winston Churchill (in Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945--1957) as a "tech entrepeneur." As anachronistic as it is, hhis rings true for me! Churchill was not a good pilot, and did not earn an RAeC certificate, but he was very definitely plugged into the gang, and remained enthusiastic about technological progress for his whole life. 

This cultural stuff is more my Internet buddy, Brett Holman's gig, than mine. He has found "airmindedness" to be a big enough subject to mine for two specialised monographs, but culture and technology can only be kept so far apart, for so long. I, in contrast, have visualised an introductory chapter that would take things from the mid-Eighteenth Century stirrings of recognisable "tech bro" communities around consumer-market oriented horse breeds, down through bicycles, balloons, cars, yachts, motor boats, and heavier-than-aircraft, before switching over to a series of electronic hobbies. This has to be very, very brief, or a chapter turns into a book, but I think that the breadth of scope is necessary, and, in some ways, inevitable.

Consider the horseflesh part. Seems like a bit much, but "middle class" horse enthusiasts are a thing, starting in the post War of the Spanish Succession era, when "business travellers" became interested in horses suited for sales calls the length and breadth of the British Isles. From there one moves quickly to "hunters" and the rise of fox-hunting culture, a far later and more broadly based phenomena than I think people realise, replacing stag hunting because of a shortage of stags. We have an interruption for the Napoleonic era, and then a return to horse-related crazes with, on the one hand, polo; and, on the other, Volunteer Mounted Rifles, a phenomena that grows out of Volunteer Rifles, and reaches its peak in the South African war. It's not just a lonely obsession of Arthur Harris! (And here's someone working the field.) We have to go a long way back to find a period when rifles are a high technology product, but, when we do that, we arrive at the period when the traditional army combat arms are losing their ability to surveille the operational landscape, and balloons, gliders, or heavier-than-aircraft become inevitable as a replacement for (reconnaissance) cavalry --along with a whole set of technological missteps that you, or more likely, superfan Winston Churchill, could write out of the fiction of H. G. Wells.

Much of this material will be familiar from previous posts. With only one chapter to work with, I need to push ahead to the interwar period and the evolution of the Brooklands gang into the now Royal Aeronautical Society, as well as the  Royal Aeronautical Club. The RAeS is developing along the same lines as the (Royal) Institutions of Naval Architects, Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The singular difference is that the RAeS is associated with the Royal Aero Club, Flight, an Illife magazine in the same stable as Autocar in spite of being the "official magazine of the Royal Aero Club," and the King's Cup race. We can also discern connections with London's airports, with Flight taking us to Croydon each week for updates, while its unofficial (but more popular) competition, The Aeroplane, hangs out at Heston, to which, I again read the Wikipedia article in slack-jawed amazement, the "Household Brigade Flying Club" moved, from Brooklands in 1928. 

There's actually a great deal to be said about the role of the expansion of London in this story. There are aviation-related sites all around the outskirts of London. Brooklands continued as the Hawkers manufacturing centre through the war, while De Havilland rooted itself at Hatfield. I'm not sure how far one wants to get into New Towns and golf courses and the McAlpine/Lloyd George connection, but I do know that Lloyd George's latest biographer makes a great deal of it. Maybe there's a smoking gun there that will allow me to work in the idea that the Liberal Party was in cahoots with suburban real estate developers, some of whom went through a stage of running airfields and aircraft factories in the Great War before selling out, a claim that sticks in my mind from Harald Penrose's heavily anecdotal history of the early days of British aviation, and which may be worth pursuing. I think it might have been George Holt Thomas of Airco who was named in this connection?    

You can see why people would pursue the cultural history of aviation. The British airminded world is fascinating, jam-packed with upper class twits, Fascist adventurers, wildly racist magazine editors, and an exciting variety of scammers and crackpots. What makes it so different from the engineering institutions? 

The answer, it seems to me, is the link with the Royal Air Force. The ICE is named to distinguish the institution from the Royal Engineers, while even in the heat of war, the newly created REME ventured only very tentatively before the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to present themselves as a service "home" to the profession, which was already deeply rooted in the Artillery and the Logistics Corps (and its precursors.) The airminded community, in contrast, existed from the beginning at the juncture of particularly adventurous engineers, and flying cavalrymen. It is worth recalling here that the French were working all-out on heavier-than-aircraft on the grounds that they had to be able to exist, or Le revanche would be impossible. (I know that the modern tendency is to dismiss revanchism, but I am well past patience for the revisionists who undersell the bloody-minded belligerence of the Belle Epoque. They really were a bloodthirsty lot.) The same French war minister who oversaw the three-year service law and the Soixante-quinze, paid for Clement Ader's Avion III. Meanwhile in Britain we have the School of Ballooning, which moved its depot to Farnborough in 1904, and was followed by the  Air Battalion Royal Engineers. The story often told, of a technology being promptly put to military use seems to almost call for inversion, so that we can talk about a technology called into existence by military need. 

And so we come, stumbling along, to a thesis for the chapter: The social institution of the Air Force create itself out of nothing to go with an emergent military technology. Again, it is the military that has the primary role, war drives technological progress, health of the state, and, not to overdue the public engagement in this post, Slava Ukraina! 

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