Search results for: wolmar

Jun 24 2014

Book review: Fire & Steam by Christian Wolmar

FireAndSteamI’ve long been a bit of a train enthusiast, reflected in my reading of biographies of Brunel and Stephenson, and more recently Christian Wolmar’s The Subterranean Railway about the London Underground. This last one is my inspiration for reading Wolmar’s Fire & Steam: How the railways transformed Britain which is a more general history of railways in Britain.

Fire & Steam follows the arc of the development of the railways from the the earliest signs: the development of railed ways to carry minerals from mine to water, with carriages powered by horses or men.

The railways appeared at a happy confluence of partly developed technologies. In the later half of the 18th century the turnpike road system and canal systems were taking shape but were both limited in their capabilities. However, they demonstrated the feasibility of large civil engineering projects. Steam engines were becoming commonplace but were too heavy and cumbersome for the road system and the associated technologies: steering, braking, suspension and so forth were not yet ready. From a financial point of view, the railways were the first organisations to benefit from limited liability partnerships of more than six partners.

Wolmar starts his main story with the Liverpool & Manchester (L&M) line, completed in 1830, arguing that the earlier Stockton & Darlington line (1825) was not the real deal. It was much in the spirit of the earlier mine railways and passenger transport was a surprising success. The L&M was a twin-track line between two large urban centres, with trains pulled by steam engines. Although it was intended as a freight route passenger transport was built in from the start.

After a period of slow growth, limited by politics and economics, the 1840s saw an explosion in the growth of the railway system. The scale of this growth was staggering. In 1845 240 bills were put to parliament representing approximately £100million of work, at the time this was 150% of Gross National Product (GNP). Currently GNP is approximately £400billion, and HS2 is expected to cost approximately £43billion – so about 10% of GNP. Wolmar reports the opposition to the original London & Birmingham line in 1832, it sounds quite familiar. Opposition came from several directions, some from the owners of canals and turnpike roads, some from landowners unwilling to give up any of their land, some from opportunists.

The railways utterly changed life in Britain. At the beginning of the century travel beyond your neighbouring villages was hard but by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, a third of the population was able to get themselves to London, mostly by train. This was simply a part of the excursion culture, trains had been whizzing people off to the seaside, the races, and other events in great numbers from almost the beginning of the railway network. No longer were cows kept in central London in order to ensure a supply of fresh milk

In the 19th century, financing and building railways was left to private enterprise. The government’s role was in approving new schemes, controlling fares and conditions of carriage, and largely preventing amalgamations. There was no guiding mind at work designing the rail network. Companies built what they could and competed with their neighbours. This led to a network which was in some senses excessive, giving multiple routes between population centres but this gave it resilience.

The construction of the core network took the remainder of the 19th century, no major routes were built in the 20th century and we have only seen HS1, the fast line running from London to Dover completed in this century.

The 20th century saw the decline of the railways, commencing after the First World War when the motor car and the lorry started to take over, relatively uninhibited by regulation and benefitting from state funding for infrastructure. The railways were requisitioned for war use during both world wars, and were hard used by it – suffering a great deal of wear and tear for relatively little compensation. War seems also to have given governments a taste for control, after the First World War the government forced a rationalisation of the many railway companies to the “Big Four”. After the Second World War the railway was fully nationalised. For much of the next 25 years it suffered considerable decline, a combination of a lack of investment, a reluctance to move away from steam power to much cheaper diesel and electric propulsion, culminating in the Beeching “rationalisation” of the network in the 1960s.

The railways picked up during the latter half of the seventies with electrification, new high speed trains and the InterCity branding. Wolmar finishes with the rail privatisation of the late 1990s, of which he has a rather negative view.

Fire & Steam feels a more well-rounded book than Subterranean Railway which to my mind became a somewhat claustrophobic litany of lines and stations in places. Fire & Steam  focuses on the bigger picture and there is grander sweep to it.

Jul 25 2013

Book review: The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar

large-the-subterranean-railwayTo me the London underground is an almost magically teleportation system which brings order to the chaos of London. This is because I rarely visit London and know it only via Harry Beck’s circuit diagram map of the underground. To find out more about the teleporter, I have read The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar.

London’s underground system was the first in the world, it predated any others by nearly 40 years. This had some drawbacks, for the first 30 years of its existence it ran exclusively using steam engines which are not good in an enclosed, underground environment. In fact travel in the early years of the Underground sounds really rather grim, despite its success.

The context for the foundation of the Underground was the burgeoning British rail network, it had started with one line between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830 by 1850 the country had a system spanning the country. The network did not penetrate to the heart of London, it had been stopped by a combination of landowner interests and expense. This exclusion was enshrined in the report of the 1846 Royal Commission on Metropolis Railway Termini. This left London with an ever-growing transport problem, now increased by the railway’s ability to get people to the perimeter of the city but no further.

The railways were the largest human endeavours since Roman times, as well as the engineering challenges there were significant financial challenges in raising capital and political challenges in getting approval. This despite the fact the the railway projectors were exempted from the restrictions on raising capital from groups of more than five people introduced after the South Seas Bubble.

The first underground line, the Metropolitan, opened in 1863 it ran from Paddington to Farringdon – it had been 20 years in the making, although construction only took 3 years. The tunnels were made by the cut-and-cover method, which works as described – a large trench is dug, the railway built in the bottom and then covered over. This meant the tunnels were relatively shallow, mainly followed the line of existing roads and involved immense disruption on the surface.

In 1868 the first section of the District line opened, this was always to be the Metropolitan’s poorer relative but would form part of the Circle line, finally completed in 1884 despite the animosity between James Staats Forbes and Edward Watkin – the heads of the respective companies at the time. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t until 1908 that the first London Underground maps were published; in its early days the underground “system” was the work of disparate private companies who were frequently at loggerheads and certainly not focussed on cooperating to the benefit of their passengers.

The underground railways rarely provided the returns their investors were looking for but they had an enormous social impact, for the first time poorer workers in the city could live out of town in relatively cheap areas and commute in, the railway companies positively encouraged this. The Metropolitan also invested in property in what are now the suburbs of London, areas such as Golders Green were open fields before the underground came. This also reflects the expansion of the underground into the surrounding country.

The first deep line, the City and South London was opened in 1890, it was also the first electric underground line. The deep lines were tunnelled beneath the city using the tunnelling shield developed by Marc Brunel, earlier in the 19th century. Following the first electrification the District and Metropolitan lines eventually electrified their lines, although it took some time (and a lot of money). The finance for the District line came via the American Charles Tyson Yerkes, who would generously be described as a colourful character, engaging in financial engineering which we likely imagine is a recent invention.

Following the First World War the underground was tending towards a private monopoly, government was looking to invest to make work and ultimately the underground was nationalised, at arms length, to form London Transport in 1933, led by the same men (Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick) who had run the private monopoly.

The London underground reached its zenith in the years leading up to the Second World War, gaining its identity (roundel, font and iconic map) and forming a coherent, widespread network. After the war it was starved of funds, declining – overtaken by the private car. Further lines were added such as the Victoria and Jubilee lines but activity was much reduced from the early years.

More recently it has seen something of a revival with the ill-fated Public-Private Partnership running into the ground, but not before huge amounts of money had been spent, substantially on improvements. As I write, the tunnelling machines are building Crossrail.

I felt the book could have done with a construction timeline, something like this on wikipedia (link), early on there seems to be a barrage of new line openings, sometimes not in strictly chronological order and to someone like me, unfamiliar with London it is all a bit puzzling. Despite this The Subterranean Railway is an enjoyable read.

Aug 05 2016

Book review: The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

the_companyThe Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is indirectly related to my reading of the history of science and technology. The commercial world impinges on stories such as that of the development of the railways, the story of Mauve and Lord Kelvin’s work on telegraphy. Scientific expeditions were motivated, in part, and supported logistically by merchant interests. The “search for the longitude” was driven by needs of merchants and navies. 

The Company is particularly concerned with the limited liability joint-stock company, created in approximately its current form by the 1862 Companies Act in the UK but repeated across the world. In this system, the owners only risk the money they put into a venture (rather than all their worldly possessions), and shares in that company can be traded on the stockmarket.

The book starts with some prehistory, there is some evidence in Mesopotamia as back as far as 3000 BC for arrangements which went beyond simple barter. And by Roman times there were various forms of company used for collecting tax, for example. The Romans also had a developed legal system. These arrangements tended to be relatively short lived and in the form of partnerships, where the owners were the managers and if things went wrong they could lose the toga off their backs.

The Middle Ages saw the rise of “corporate persons” in Western Europe which included guilds, monasteries and corporations. The Aberdeen Harbour Board, founded in 1136 can lay claim to be the oldest still existing. In China there was a tendency towards large, long-lived state corporations. Italy had compagnie literally “breaking bread together” with shared total liability, and thus requiring high levels of trust. Banchi were the campagnies banking equivalents, often built around family ties. The relationship between banks and companies is a theme throughout the book.

England and France were scarred, separately, by the collapse of the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company in the early 18th century. Created in the spirit of the East India Companies, monopoly corporations with a Royal Charter, they came to grief through rampant speculation and dubious government decisions on debt.

The railways provided the impetuous for the reform of company law. They required substantial investment, once formed they needed substantial workforces and management structures. In the early days each railway company had to make its case in parliament to gain its charter, this was a costly, slow undertaking. And so there were reforms culminating in the 1862 act.

A quote attributed to Edward Turlow in 1844: “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned, they therefore do as they like”, encapsulates an ongoing concern about companies. This from a lawmaker but a similar concern was echoed by economists of the time, they thought that a partner or manager/owner was going to do better job of running a company than a servant of shareholders.

The Company compares developments in the US, UK, Germany and Japan in the latter half of the 19th century. The US forte was in professionalising management, enabling them to build ever bigger companies. The UK had a more developed stockmarket but positively spurned professional management (a blight that has afflicted it since then). Germany had strong oversight boards from the beginning, complementing the management board. These included workforce representation, and companies were seen as a social enterprise.

This is the second tension in the company: whether it is solely interested in its shareholders or whether it is responsible to a wider group of stakeholders which might include its employees, the local community, environment and so forth.

The book continues with developments in the latter half of the 20th century, closing in 2002. These include the wave of privatisations across Europe (the French keeping substantial government control), and the decline of many big companies. In the case of Enron and WorldCom these were precipitous declines in disgrace but there were also leveraged buyouts and subsequent dismantlings. Another theme here is the balance between transaction costs and hierarchy costs. Companies succeed when the cost of running a hierarchy is lower than the savings made by carrying out transactions in aggregate. These costs and savings change over time, transaction costs have recently been much reduced by technology.

I was surprised by the recency of the commercial world we see today. The modern company and the stockmarket only really came into being in the final quarter of the 19th century with the great corporations rising to dominance in the first quarter of the 20th century. Harvard’s business school was only founded at the beginning of the 20th century. This is little more than a lifetime ago.

The same is true of trade tariffs, they were initially introduced by the US and Germany in the 1880s with Britain and the Netherlands holding out as “free-traders” until 1932. One wonders whether this is the origin of Anglo-Dutch conglomerates such as Unilever and Shell. The book is not explicit on the differences between tariffs and customs duties and taxes – a clarification which I would have found useful.    

The authors are clearly enthusiasts for capitalism in the form of the company. The book is short and readable, and I felt enlightened for having read it. The bibliography has some good pointers for further reading.

Dec 31 2014

Review of the year: 2014

Once again I look back on a year of blogging. You can see what I’ve been up to on the index page of this blog.

I get the feeling that my blog is just for me and a few students trying to fake having done their set reading. I regularly use my blog to remember how to fix my Ubuntu installation, and to help me remember what I’ve read.

A couple of posts this year broke that pattern.

Of Matlab and Python compared the older, proprietary way of doing scientific computing with Matlab to the rapidly growing, now mature, alternative of the Python ecosystem. I’ve used Matlab for 15 years or so as a scientist. At my new job, which is more open source and software developer oriented, I use Python. My blog post struck a cord with those burnt by licensing issues with Matlab. Basically, with Matlab you pay for a core license and then pay for toolboxes which add functionality (and sometimes you only use a small part of that functionality). It’s even more painful if you are managing networked licenses serving users across the world.

My second blog post with a larger readership was Feminism. This started with the unprofessional attire choice of a scientist on the Rosetta/Philae comet landing mission but turned into a wider, somewhat confessional post on feminism. In a nutshell: women routinely experience abuse and threat of which I believe men are almost entirely oblivious. 

As before my blogging energies have been split between my own blog here, and the ScraperWiki blog. My personal blogging is dominated by book reviews these days as, to be honest, is my blogging at ScraperWiki. I blog about data science books on the ScraperWiki blog  – typically books about software – and anything else on this blog. “Anything else” is usually broadly related to the history of science and technology.

This year has been quite eclectic. I read about the precursors to Darwin and his theory of evolution, macroeconomics, the Bell Laboratories, railways, parenthood, technology in society, finding the longitude (twice), Lord Kelvin, ballooning, Pompeii and I’ve just finished a book on Nevil Maskelyne – Astronomer Royal in the second half of the 18th century. I think my favourite of these was Finding Longitude by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt not only is the content well written but it is beautifully presented.

Over on the ScraperWiki blog I reviewed a further 12 books, bingeing on graph theory and data mining. My favourites from the "work" set were Matthew A. Russell’s Mining the Social Web and Seven Databases in Seven Weeks. Mining the Social Web because it introduces a bunch of machine learning algorithms around interesting social data, and the examples are supplied as IPython notebooks run in a virtual machine. Seven Databases is different – it gives a whistle stop tour of various types of database but manages to give deep coverage quite quickly.

I continue to read a lot whilst not doing a huge amount of programming – as I observed last year. I did write a large chunk of the API to the EU NewsReader project we’re working on which involved me learning SPARQL – a query language for the semantic web. Obviously to learn SPARQL I read a book, Learning SPARQL, I also had some help from colleagues on the project.

I had a lot of fun visualising the traffic and history of the London Underground, I did a second visualisation post on whether to walk between Underground stations in London.

Back on this blog I did some writing about technology, talking about my favourite text editor (Sublime Text), my experiences with Apple, Ubuntu and Windows operating systems, the dinky Asus T100 Transformer laptop, and replacing my hard drive with an SSD (much easier than I thought it would be). The Asus is sadly unused it just doesn’t serve a useful purpose beside my tablet and ultrabook format laptop. The SSD drive is a revelation, it just makes everything feel quicker.

The telescope has been in the loft for much of the last year but I did a blog post on the Messier objects – nebulae and so forth, and I actually took an acceptable photo of the Orion nebula although this went unblogged.

Finally, the source of the photo at the top of the page, I visited San Sebastian for an EU project I’m working on. I only had my phone so the pictures aren’t that good.

Happy New Year!

Jul 29 2014

Book review: The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

shock_of_the_oldThe Shock of the Old by David Edgerton is a history of technology in the 20th century.

A central motivation of the book is that, according to the author, other histories of technology are wrong in that they focus overly on the dates and places of invention and pay little attention to the subsequent dissemination and use of technologies.

The book is divided thematically covering significance, time, production, maintenance, nations, war, killing and invention. Significance reports on the quantitative, economic significance of a technology, something on which there is surprisingly little data.

A recurring theme is the persistence of things we might consider to have been replaced by new technology, the horse, for example. It’s perhaps not surprising that a huge number of horses were used during the First World War but the German’s, the masters of the mechanised blitzkrieg, used 625,000 horses in 1941 when they invaded the Soviet Union. This isn’t the end of the story of animal power: Cuba, as a result of sanctions and the fall of the Soviet Union was using nearly 400,000 oxen by the end of the 1990s.

The same goes for battleships and military aircraft. When Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Belgrano, originally commissioned into the US Navy in 1939 was sunk by 21-inch MK8 torpedoes originally designed in 1927! The Falklands airstrips were bombed from Britain by Vulcan bombers refuelled by Victor in-flight tankers, originally built in the 1950s. The reason for this is that the persistent technology actually does it’s job pretty well, the cost of replacing it for marginal benefit is too high and maintenance and repair means that to a degree these technological artefacts have been almost entirely rebuilt.

The time chapter expands on the idea that the introduction of technologies to different places is not simply a case of timeshifting, it depends on the local context. We find, for example, that horse draw carts are constructed from the parts of cars. And that corrugated iron and asbestos-cement are the material of choice for construction in the new slums of the developing world. Edgerton refers to these as ‘creole’ technologies – old technologies which have been repurposed into a new life.

In terms of technology and economic growth, it has really been mass production which has lead directly and obviously to economic growth particularly in the 30 years after the Second World War, known as the ‘long boom’. And whilst there was a boom in new technologies, all around the world the oldest technology – agriculture was also experiencing a boom in productivity – overshadowed by the new things.

As usual with such a book I picked up some useful facts to deploy at the dinner table:

  • The German V-2 rocket killed more people in its production than it did in its use.
  • The inventor of the Aga cooking range was a Nobel prize winning physicist.

For a scientist this book makes for an uncomfortable read in places since we come to the topic with some preconceived ideas and position, which are not necessarily grounded in the best of historical methods. For instance, Edgerton highlights that R&D spend just doesn’t correlate with economic growth. And that to a large degree the nation of invention is not the nation which benefits from an invention.

Perhaps most damning in the eyes of scientists, their bête noire, Simon Jenkins has supplied a cover quote:

The Shock of the Old is a book I can use. I can take it in two hands and bash it over the heads of every techno-nerd, computer geek and neophiliac futurologist I meet!

It’s a mistake to think of all scientists and computer geeks as being neophiliac. One of my colleagues works using an IBM Model M keyboard which we recently established was older than our intern, he also prefers the VIM editor – based on technology born in the 1970s. In the laboratory, the favoured computer language for scientific computation is still often FORTRAN, invented in the 1950s.

Thinking back over the other books I’ve read on the history of technology, for example A Computer Called LEO, Fire & Steam, The Subterranean Railway, Empire of the Clouds, The Idea Factory and The Backroom Boys. It is true to say they have very much focussed on single technologies or places but to my mind they have generally been pragmatic about the impact on society of their chosen subject. The authors have each had a definite passion for their topic leading to regret for what might have been: a thriving British aircraft industry, computer industry and so forth. But they don’t seem to provide the litany of dates and inventions of which Edgerton accuses them.

Despite this The Shock of the Old is readable, the author knows his field and provides a different viewpoint on the history of technology, more overarching, not so besotted. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of his books.

Next page »