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!
s I returned from my trip to Malaysia last week, complete with a suitcase full of print-outs from the archives and a head full of ideas about how the development of meteorology in British Malaya fits into the wider story I want to tell with this project.
Most of my time in Malaysia was spent in the Arkib Negara (national archives), which holds a surprising amount of documentation relating to the establishment and operation of meteorological services in the Malaysian Peninsular. My expectations of what I might find in the archives had been lowered by people who’ve worked on other topics there, and who have often had quite a frustrating time. But with the help of Fiona Williamson, who’s also working on the history of meteorology in the region (see this paper for example), I was able to find my way to a few really useful collections.
As Fiona’s argued, there really wasn’t a whole lot of meteorology done in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, when the UK Meteorological Office and the Air Ministry were trying to accelerate the roll-out of a meteorological infrastructure to support imperial aviation, Malaya was described by the head of the Indian service as a “non-meteorological country”. It was considered the one ‘weak link’ in the meteorological chain which was to render the skies above the England-Australia air route safe for navigation. C.D. Stewart was therefore dispatched from the Met Office to coordinate a new service which would greatly expand existing observational efforts, while also hastening the circulation of data so that synoptic charts could be developed daily, and forecasts issued to aviators.
Who was meteorology for?
This moment in the late 1920s, with the rise of transcontinental aviation, saw new debates about what – and crucially who – meteorology was for. If expensive meteorological infrastructure was merely required to make the skies above Britain’s territories safe for planes flying overhead, was it really the business of those territorial governments to foot the bill? In East Africa, the roll-out of a regional British met service to facilitate flight on the Cape-Cairo routes was joined by promises of more local benefits, including new knowledge to apply to agriculture in climatically diverse colonies. In Malaya, there was very little talk of agricultural meteorology as a salve to colonial support for what was essentially and imperial project of inter-dominion aviation. That may have been to do with the combination of what was seen as an essentially ‘monotonous’ climate, and the firm establishment by then of agricultural monocultures. Things like rubber were being grown on large estates quite successfully by then, and there wasn’t much sense that meteorology had anything to offer the growers. Others who saw greater variation in the Malayan climate nonetheless saw the weather as essentially unpredictable, and held out little hope for reliable weather forecasts.
So meteorology developed in British Malaya as essentially a form of ‘infrastructural science‘ – a combination of applied theoretical knowledge and environmental observation, essentially operating invisibly, not for the purpose of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to support the establishment of a much wider socio-technical infrastructure (international aviation). How to pay for such a science was a frequent sore point, with the states disagreeing over whether contributions to the overall budget should be allotted based on how many observation stations each state had, or according to how many flights landed in each territory. Singapore, for example, had few met stations but lots of landings, whereas the large rural states further north had a growing number of met stations, but weren’t exactly key stops on the emerging trunk air routes. This uncertainty about whether the air above Britain’s territories was a colonial or an imperial matter points to wider debates about the constitutional operation of Britain’s patchwork empire, about the relationship between colonial autonomy and joint imperial effort, and to different assumptions about the place of science in making such spaces governable. In the correspondence at this time, one can read lots of interesting efforts to convince others, including the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States, of how the expectation of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ states was the production of reliable meteorological information, and the free provision of such information to anyone who might like to use it.
Who did the meteorology?
Unlike some of the other meteorological services I’ve been studying, it was possible in Malaysia to get a bit of insight into the staff who made it all happen, beyond the conventional European at the top. Within the Arkib Negara you can find service records of some of the staff who were recruited locally – their progression up salary scales, their performance in technical exams, and the fines and sanctions they were subject too when their observations weren’t deemed up to scratch. Often these were men who would spend some time at HQ in Singapore helping to compile, tabulate and compute the numbers, but for most of the time they were out in the countryside, running isolated meteorological stations in far flung corners of the territories. Tensions frequently arose around their working conditions – their accommodation, the long hours, access to schools for their children, their subjection to a disciplinary regime which was often seen as unsympathetic to the difficult conditions in which meteorological work was done. Being able to unearth some of this stuff has been really enlightening, as it enables me to say something about the everyday lived realities of meteorology in colonial settings – to go beyond the writings of the directors and the managers and the ideals of smoothly running systems of weather observation and computation, to get to the voices of the people putting in the hard, repetitive, often maddeningly dull work of making colonial skies legible and predictable.
Meteorology at war
One of the threads I’m keen to follow through the Malayan story is the relationship between meteorology and the military. Of course the rise of civil aviation coincided with the further development of military flying, and the Malayan meteorological service always had a close relationship with the Royal Air Force. During the occupation of British Malaya by Japan in World War II, it seems that the observational infrastructure was kept ticking, even if most of the records from this period were apparently destroyed. Many of the observation staff worked 7-day weeks throughout the occupation, leading to some serious health problems and a backlog of leave allowances after the war which drastically undermined the ability of the service to meet all its obligations. The ambition to run a 24-hour forecast service had to be abandoned, as worn-out staff took long stretches of leave – often in India – to recuperate.
Forecasting activities at Kuala Lumpur aerodrome were particularly hard hit by the staff shortages, but the office there was seemingly still able to prepare a daily stream-line analysis for the RAF to inform its bombing campaigns against the communist insurgents as the Emergency took hold. Confident claims were made about how meteorology would facilitate efficient air strikes against the rebels in forested hills, although it seems I may have to do some more digging in UK-based archives to get at the details.
So there are lots of things to process and ideas to develop over the coming weeks and months, and a few follow-up visits to more local archives to be made in order to finesse a few points.
I should say thanks to all the staff at the Arkib Negara, who dealt incredibly patiently with my requests, and tolerated my dodgy Malay with great generosity!