Saturday, June 25, 2022

I Would Run Away to the Air: The British Economy, Montgolfier to 727, II


How about that sport history? Guys, and I do mean "guys," some of us, maybe most of us, are here for the cultural history, for which purposes we're more interested in dates than the areas of early polo grounds. 

Anyway,  it turns out that Major General Joseph Ford Sherer (1829--1901) is the "father of modern polo," which I will take as proxy for a stronger claim about how polo as a social phenomena of the high Victorian period. There's a website associated with the Polo Hall of Fame, but I decline to explore it further, even though, I notice, it has a brief and actually pretty relevant discussion of the history of polo ponies;. My excuse is that equestrian history is even more inaccessible than sport history. In truth, I want to gesture at the evolution of the wealthy British male consumer's "need for speed" through various horse breeds strictly as a prologue to machines, and facts would just get in my way.

It turns out, and here I am just showing my lack of culture, and specifically the fact that I didn't read or have Wind in the Willows read to me, that Mr. Toad follows exactly this path. Beginning with a horse caravan (a Victorian fad I completely missed above), he moves on to his notorious automobile-born adventures. Finally, the questionable "Scouring of the Shire" conclusion in which the "Wild Wood" hoi polloi are expelled from the family seat. A perfectly understandable plot point in a child's novel, it becomes questionable when seen as a political allegory, and it might reflect the kind of anxieties which Joseph Chamberlain set out to embody.

Kenneth Grahame would have written a much more useful book for my purposes had Mr. Toad escalated from row boat to yacht and through a bicycle to an aeroplane, but that's a bit much to ask of a book published in 1908. Plenty of people have carried Toad's adventures on into the air, and the Amazon entry opposite even credits Kenneth Grahame as author, but that seems to be some kind of automation error.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Evangelists and Politicians: the Fall of Rome, IV: With Bonus Sacred Spring Engagement (Edited)


So I understand that the way to get ahead in this blogging game is to go after the big guns and Brett Devereaux, of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, did a three-parter on the fall of Rome back during the winter. Well, I did a three parter back in 2013, and I could easily do a fourth, and I have some things to say about the things that Devereaux says about the fall of Rome!

Which, big deal. Everyone talks about the fall of Rome. People were talking about it before Edward Gibbon decided it would be a good idea for a big book that would make him famous and offer a sly commentary on the whole thing with America, which everyone was on about back in the day. The idea for the series was foisted on Devereaux by his Patreon patrons, and I am only talking about it because it is a way to focus on the throughline from the Early Iron Age Revival of the State. Also, apart from some minor errors in the ongoing archaeological-reconstruction-of-the-Roman-economy thing, Devereaux mainly put me out by trash-talking Gibbon. Which, the thing about Gibbon is that it is easy to trash talk the man; the writing finger moves on, and all that. But what we know about ancient Rome is still dominated by what ancient Romans said about Ancient Rome, and Gibbon lived in a milieu in which everyone read the ancient Romans in the original, and talked about them. We don't do that today, and it is easy to see how Gibbon might have had a fingertip feel for the way that Romans thought and lived their lives that even a modern archaeologist might lack. 

Also, and most importantly to get at the throughline from Revival to Decline we go by the most prolific literature of ancient Rome, ancient Christian apologetics. and while I am not going to make a point from this literature that Gibbon knew so well, I am going to make a point about it.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Postblogging Technology, March 1952, I: Man Mountain

British Pathe covered this? Past, another country, etc. 

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

If  you detect a certain brevity in my treatment of Aviation Week this time around, it is because my subscription was held up by troubles at the office, and I had to use the public library copies, which, being current, I had to keep to an hour. I hope things are back to normal next week, but it sometimes seems like these things always get worse.

On the bright side, Man Mountain Dean is running for a Congressional seat as a Republican on a platform of "making Communism a national crime!" Given the possibilities, (and you'll see The Economist go  nuts below as it weighs a contest between Richard Russell and General MacArthur), I'll settle for Kefauver. At least he's got a wife, Governor Stevenson!

Your Loving Daughter,


Sunday, June 5, 2022

I Would Run Away to the Air: The British Economy, Montgolfier to 727, Part 1


So I thought that scenes of anachronistic hot-air balloons were a B-movie/animation trope. And they probably are, but thanks to the publicists for The Aeronauts, actually finding one turned into a fifteen minute hunt. On the one hand, thanks to Andrei Tarkovsky for putting a balloon into the prologue to Andrei Rublev and Youtube user Eagle Burger for putting it up. On the other, thanks a bunch to the producers of The Aeronauts for spending all that money on spamming the Internet instead of making a good movie.  

The question that I meant to foreground with that interpretation is, "Is there a history of technology answer to the question, Why did the Montgolfiers come when they did?" It's sort of a science fiction question that took me back to the afore-mentioned hunt around the Internet that failed to turn up any cavemen in balloons, an answer, which appears to be taffeta --and not an economically endogenous "free lunch" of pure innovation arising from the-superiority-of-the-White-race-Shit-I-can't-say-that-"culture," as the neolibs would have it. (In an unarticulated way.) Fuckers just won't go away. 

So we can all agree that by 1783, the Industrial Revolution was well along. The steam engine is thoroughly invented, we've had the flying shuttle, we've got the exciting part of the history of railroading in Britain where there aren't any railroads yet. Or if you don't want to riff on a half-remembered joke that you can't even reference, the "Age of Navigations." The authors of the Wikipedia article drag the Montgolfier brothers into the story via the family paper manufacturing business, which seems appropriately modern and innovative. But they made their hot air balloons out of taffeta. The Wiki says that taffeta has been made in France and Italy since at least, well, the Montgolfiers, and that the word itself is from Persian. Fashion history adds the detail that it was first woven in the Attabiya of Baghdad sometime in the 1100s, which seems like it is going to introduce us to a lost history of fabric making, since surely medieval Baghdad had a flourishing rags district and trade, and it sounds like this UNESCO explainer is going there. Unfortunately, it turns out to be purely etymological, going vial Seventeenth Century London swells dressed in "tabby," to slang for the prostitutes they habituated, to the modern "tabby cat." 

This sounds like the kind of anecdote that old time OED editors would enjoy too much to fact check, and is as dead-endy as dead-ends get. Taffeta is a twisted, woven (originally) silk cloth. It looks nice, has as close to zero permeability as you can get with animal fibre, and was still being used for parachute silk in WWII. Like all the other fabrics made in England proper (no Scottish jute mills or Belfast linen makers need apply), it is by definition not of the slightest interest to industrial history. A "quilted taffeta bedspread" turns up in the story of Darnley's 1567 death, at which point the narrative of taffeta as an exotic Middle Eastern import will serve as well as the Queen's Consort being "alive in South America somewhere." By the Montgolfiers' time it had gone native in the silk-producing countries of Italy and France, and I am willing to bet that they had improved the finish in such a way as to make it a better aerodynamic cloth. Could be right about that, could be wrong. It's not like anyone is investigating trivial questions like "who innovated what, where" before launching into Big History projects. 

. . . Which brings us to "Victorian Britain, workshop to the world."