I’m pleased to be able to share my paper on British imperial airshipping, which is now out in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. The paper develops some of my earlier thinking about how airships can help us think in new ways about historical attitudes to both the atmosphere and to the technological future
Abstract. This article explores the elemental encounters and imaginative geographies of empire to develop a new means of engaging with the historical geographies of the future. Futures have recently become an important topic of historical and cultural inquiry, and historical geographers have an important role to play in understanding the place of the future in the past and in interrogating the role of posited futures in shaping action in historical presents. Drawing on literature from science and technology studies, a framework is developed for engaging with the material and imaginative geographies that coalesce around practices of imagination, expectation, and prediction. This framework is then used to reconstruct efforts to develop airship travel in the British Empire in the 1920s and 1930s. At a moment of imperial anxiety, airships were hoped to tie the empire together by conveying bodies, capital, and military capacity between its furthest points. Confident projections of the colonization of global airspace were nonetheless undermined by material encounters with a vibrant, often unpredictable atmospheric environment. The article aims to spur renewed work on the historical geographies of the future, while also contributing to debates on the cultural and political geographies of the atmosphere and of atmospheric knowledge making.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve given two seminars on my airships work, which has been a great opportunity to push forward my thinking a little bit with a view to getting some more writing done on the topic over the summer. Thanks to the good people of QUB Geography and the IHR Transport and Mobility History seminar for their kind hospitality!
In thinking about what the story of British imperial airshipping can tell us about the process of sociotechnical change, I’ve found myself drawn to the idea of ‘hopeful monstrosities’. Frank Geels and Wim Smit take the idea from Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches, and use it to describe technologies which can demonstrably fulfil some social function, but which continually come up short somehow. Nonetheless, they continue to exercise a powerful hold over shared expectations of technological futures.
We can certainly detect this in the case of airships – despite numerous disasters, mishaps and near misses, they retained a powerful hold over those who wanted to re-make the world with new technologies of mobility. Arguably, they retain something of that hold to this day, whether in ideas about new kinds of sustainable aviation or in the retrofuturism of steampunk.
However, there are other senses in which we can think of airships – and specifically Britain’s imperial craft – as ‘monstrous’.
One is a straightforward notion of size. The two new ships, R.100 and R.101, were spectacularly big compared to their predecessors. For their designers, this was a point of pride – old and new engineering scaled up to previously unimaginable magnitudes; ships fit for the world’s biggest empire, and able to easily carry dozens of passengers in the utmost luxury.
Others were sceptical of this ballooning of airship proportions. For the Air Ministry’s chief critic E.F. Spanner, the size and shape of the new craft could only mean structural and aerodynamic instability. The massive areas which the outer fabric would have to cover unsupported made the whole thing liable to damage, and thus to upsetting the aerodynamics (with potentially fatal consequences). Furthermore, German designers had insisted on relatively narrower, more sausage-like shapes; their British counterparts had moved to a fatter profile – a decision which critics like Spanner feared could only create problems for flight in choppy atmospheric conditions.
When R.100 made it across the Atlantic to Canada it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the public of Montreal. Three hundred thousand came to see the ship at the mast. However, the airship was decried as “the monster” in the French-Canadian press. Here, it’s size, as well as the pomp and ceremony which greeted its visit, was taken as symbolic of Britain’s continued imperial hold over Canada, and its suppression of other claims to sovereignty. The press had it quite right – this was a technology quite openly designed to knit together the ‘Anglosphere’ into closer union, and to secure British hegemony in a world where geopolitical plates were shifting.
But there’s another sense in which these ships were ‘monstrous’ – one that touches on recent debates in science studies about hybridity, assemblage, and relationality.
We can take the term ‘monster’ to refer to entities which transcend or disrespect conventional distinctions between nature/culture, human/nonhuman, technology/environment. One of the things that initially drew me to the histories and geographies of imperial airshipping was the fact that this is an aircraft that achieves lift by becoming part of the atmosphere – by enveloping a quantity of gas and then, by regulating the temperature and pressure of that gas in relation to the air outside, entering into a relationship of balanced equilibrium. An airship stays afloat in changing conditions by actively changing the material constitution of itself – venting gas, dropping ballast, seeking or avoiding warm sunshine.
An airship is thus a weirdly hybrid thing – like a balloon, as Derek McCormack describes them, its envelopment of gas sets it apart from the atmosphere, but rather like a cloud, it is never entirely discontinuous with the atmosphere. It is both of and apart from the sky, maintaining flight by adjusting itself – automatically or through the actions of its pilot – to changes in the weather around it. It’s a monstrous hybrid of technology and environment, inside and outside; a hybridity which was rendered by some contemporary critics into a language of fragility and vulnerability. If an airship in flight was such a part of the atmosphere, it was thus acutely vulnerable to the atmosphere’s violent forces, in a way which an aeroplane wasn’t. The record of airships crashing in bad weather would appear to bear out some of these fears.
Finally, interwar airships were odd hybrids of the mechanical and the organic. There was perhaps a bit of bio-mimicry going on, with the automatic gas valve system talked about in the press as an “ingenious adaptation” of fish gills. R.101 was “bristling” with new technologies, itself a monstrous assemblage of innovations and experiments, perhaps without sufficient testing of how all these new things would work together. R.100, in contrast, has been viewed retrospectively as a more ‘elegant’ design, simple and efficient, and not relying too heavily on the new and the untried.
In both ships though the gas bags were made of goldbeater’s skin, a material manufactured from the intestines of oxen and cows, paired with cotton for strength. Hundreds of thousands of separate skins, sourced from the meat industries of North and South America, would be pieced together – apparently the fact that the membranes were in one sense still ‘alive’ helped with the creation of sealed seams; the pieces would adhere together into a larger whole. Prized for its impermeability, goldbeater’s skin had earlier made appearances in oboe reeds and condoms. It has also been used in hygrometers, where its sensitivity to changes in humidity is prized. However, this sensitivity also posed problems when ships would be flying through variably moist and dry air, and the different responses of the skin and the cotton to drying could lead to the whole structure becoming dangerously misshapen and distorted. This was a particular worry for journeys into tropical atmospheres – different versions of the gas bag fabric were left out in the Egyptian sun to figure out the best way to assemble a gas bag which would stand up to a tropical climate.
Some involved in the design of the ships worried about the “natural imperfections” of an animal substance like ox intestine, and about the impossibility – given the quantities involved (several hundred-thousand cow’s worth) – of checking for consistency. Patents were filed for artificial replacements, but these weren’t developed in time for the first flights of Britain’s imperial airships, which took to the air with their ox-guts, ‘hopeful monstrosities’ in a variety of senses, with one of them, of course, never to return.
Reading the critics of the airship scheme, particularly Spanner, there is one final, more moralistic version of monstrosity at play – the apparent inattention of designers, or perhaps their paymasters, to adequate safety testing of these new technological assemblages, and the underestimation of the risks being taken by passengers of the first flights. Here was a monstrous disregard for the lives of those onboard, which was perhaps a direct consequence of the widespread hopes and expectations for a future remade by airships. Hopeful monstrosities, indeed.
 E.F. Spanner, This Airship Business! and Gentlemen Prefer Aeroplanes!
Last week I was delighted to join a workshop at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on the history of weather science and weather extremes in the region. The workshop brought together historians of science with atmospheric scientists interested in using historical observations to reconstruct past weather and climate. It was a great day of cross-disciplinary exchange and learning, and I was able to make some really useful connections with people working on similar times and places as me.
Discussions ranged from the way 19th century sailors dealt with typhoons, through the imperial networks of weather observation that sprung up around the China coast, to the use of historical weather data from the region in challenging climate models to ‘hindcast’ known weather events. Interestingly, the skill of models to spontaneously generate known weather events – like typhoons for example – is such that they can now venture to be used to predict events which might not be known in the historical record, allowing historians to then go and search for what might be forgotten extreme events.
Following the workshop, I’d been generously invited to give a public keynote on my ‘imperial weather’ project, so I took the opportunity to give another airing to some of my airship material, which connected with a lot of the recurring themes of the workshop: empire, extreme weather, the history of prediction, and, of course, disasters.
The following day I ambled over to the Hong Kong Public Record Office, which holds archival records from Hong Kong Observatory and various other institutions, stretching back into the early days of the colonial era. The Hong Kong Observatory is probably the most well-documented of all the British colonial observatories, and it was keep overwhelming to encounter the wealth of material available. That means, of course, that there is a uniquely large secondary literature on the history of meteorology in Hong Kong, which is also motivated of course by the significance of typhoons for life and fortunes in the region. For some examples, see here and here.
I tried to follow a few significant threads into the archives, including the move of T.F. Claxton from Mauritius to Hong Kong, and the spatial politics of the observatory itself – the defence of the site against various encroachments, and its functioning as a mini scientific world set apart from the growing city; a space not just for meteorology and astronomy, but for natural history and botany too. I also took the chance to take a look at some of the observations which were made by meteorologists interred in Japanese prison camps during the WWII occupation. Many of these were made on whatever scraps of paper were available – cigarette packets, match boxes, animal cracker cards, some of them with remarkable levels of precision, even extending to the plotting of monthly averages on tiny graphs. One example of the observations can be seen here.
In a few weeks’ time I’ll be heading over to Malaysia to spend some time in the archives there, as well as to visit the University of Nottingham’s campus (UNMC) just outside Kuala Lumpur.
I’ve got a few speaking engagements lined up during my trip, which will give me the opportunity to present some of my work on airships and imperial meteorology, as well as to offer some reflections on recent debates around the concept of the Anthropocene:
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the airship as a speculative technology, particularly its history as an imagined agent of imperial connectivity in interwar Britain. More broadly I’m interested in how meteorology was used in this period to make the atmosphere legible and traversable, and a lot of the motivation for the development of wider meteorological infrastructures was the promised expansion of aviation following the technological advances of World War I.
The airship, however, makes different meteorological demands than the heavier-than-air aeroplane. Airships work through the dynamic relationships between the gases enveloped within the ship and the atmosphere outside the envelope, and its characteristics of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and so on. While aeroplanes use speed and aerodynamic design to produce lift, airships create lift through a set of more subtle relationships, which must be constantly monitored and tinkered with to ensure smooth flight. Changes in one relationship – relative temperature for example – imply and require compensatory changes in others – such as relative pressure. Although airshipping is predicated on sealing gases within, it also requires the constant venting and valving of gas, to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between enveloped and enveloping atmosphere.
Airships are examples of what Derek McCormack calls ‘aerostatic things’ – things which generate lift through these relational dynamics, the most obvious example being the humble balloon. McCormack’s done a lot of important work on the affective aspects of balloon flight, and on the relationships between affective and meteorological ‘atmospheres’. The reliance of balloons of these relational dynamics, and their capacity to be affected by changing conditions of their atmospheric surroundings, mean they have become a central tool in making atmospheric dynamics visible, as McCormack has pointed out (see his recent piece in Society & Space). But if balloons have made the atmosphere visible for meteorologists, what I’m interested in is how meteorologists likewise made the atmosphere visible for balloons or, more specifically, for airships, and their captains and navigators.
In the early 1920s the British Government resolved to develop an experimental imperial airship scheme, whereby two ships would be built to ply new routes between Britain, India and the Dominions. While the ships were being built, work was also carried out to develop a new meteorological infrastructure which would cross-cross the empire, making possible both the planning of routes, and the short-term prediction of weather conditions for a particular journey. In 1925, the meteorological division at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire produced the first synoptic chart showing the simultaneous weather conditions along the entire England-India route; a significant moment in British imperial meteorology:
Alongside these synoptic efforts sat a new set of practices of studying the atmosphere on a new, finer scale. The vertical structure of the atmosphere had been a growing object of meteorological concern since the late 19th century. But the particular characteristics of airships – their capacity to affected by the wind, to be destabilised by the subtlest changes in atmospheric conditions – meant that the atmosphere as a medium demanded new strategies of knowledge-making. The gustiness of wind was measured on new, finer timescales; the effects of relatively minor changes in topography on the structure of the overlying air were newly appraised.
The airship is therefore a propitious figure through which to think about the relationships between the gaseous materiality of the air and human action, and to examine how historical actors have sought to make these relationships visible, legible, predictable, and subject to what we might now call ‘risk management’. The relationship between airship and atmosphere became a site of epistemic controversy during the development of the imperial scheme, with a number of critics claiming the impossibility of stable flight, and challenging the widely propagandised claims of luxurious long-distance travel, and of ‘fox-trotting in the clouds’. When the flagship R101 crashed into a hillside in northern France on its maiden voyage to India, amid strong winds and driving rain, much of the subsequent inquests focused on the ship’s dynamic stability, on weather forecasts which underestimated the storm, and on the responsibility for the decision to fly in spite of forecasts which nonetheless suggested a difficult journey. The moral economy of the decision to dive into this violent atmospheric milieu that night in October 1930 was unpicked and debated in settings from the popular press, an official Court of Inquiry, and a series of extraordinary séances with deceased crew members. In the end, responsibility was not laid upon any individual but was, interestingly, given to what was described as an distinctive atmosphere of urgency, expectation and impatience which existed in-between the different groups of actors involved.
The airship, particularly the imperial airships of the 1920s and ‘30s, therefore provide an ideal figure through which to think through the intersections of material and affective atmospheres. But they also provide an opportunity to write the meteorologist into emerging literatures on the cultural and elemental geographies of air and atmosphere, and perhaps to re-consider the permeability of the boundary between matter and affect in the moral economy of weather knowledges and prediction.
I explored some of these ideas in a recent paper at the RGS-IBG annual conference and a subsequent seminar with the London Group of Historical Geographers. I plan to write it up into a full paper at some point next year, after a few more archival forays, particularly regarding the séances which, I suspect, may hold the key to understanding much of the story of this intersection of technology, atmosphere and risk. I’ll be penning a few more blog posts along the way, as my thinking develops.