Tag Archive: History

Jan 20 2019

Book review: Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes

Back to some history of technology with hedys_follyHedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes. This book concerns the patent granted to Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood actress, and George Antheil, experimental musician, for the frequency hopping radio communications system. Originally it was intended to allow secure, jamming resistant communications between torpedoes and their control aircraft or ships, nowadays it is most notably the basis for Bluetooth and WiFi communications.

I’ve previously read Richard Rhodes “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, which is a massive tome, Hedy’s Folly is a rather more modest affair. It provides some biographical material on Lamarr (born Hedwig Kiesler) and Antheil but only in as much as it leads to the patent of the title.

Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914, to a wealthy family – her father was banker who clearly cultivated her interest in how things worked. Following a brief career in European theatre and film she married Fritz Mandl in 1933. He was an arms manufacturer and one of the richest men in Austria. He didn’t want to see his wife continue her acting career. On the death of her father Lamarr resolved to leave her husband but in the interim she paid close attention to the technical discussions on armaments which she was party to. In all likelihood she was doing this throughout her marriage, despite his controlling nature Mandl clearly valued her opinions (even if he didn’t like them). Lamarr then moved to the States with Louis Mayer of MGM for whom was to make a number of films. In this milieu she met George Antheil.

Antheil in Trenton, New Jersey in 1900. He travelled to Europe in 1921 where he composed the Ballet Mécanique, originally intended as the score to a film it ended up twice the length of the film. As originally envisaged Ballet Mécanique required 16 player pianos and an aeroplane propeller – amongst many other sound making devices. Essentially Antheil vision was much in advance of what technology in the twenties and thirties could deliver. The player piano plays a part in the story. Player pianos were briefly popular as a way for everyone (who could afford one) to make music, they were automated pianos programmed using a paper roll with holes directing the music. The operator simply had to provide power and rhythm. They were supplanted by radio. The important feature was the ability to control sound automatically.

Antheil returned to the US, to Hollywood, in 1936 where he turned to writing film scores, his experimental music proving rather unpopular. It was here he met Hedy Lamarr.

The spirit of the Second World War in the US was that everyone would do what they could to help. Antheil had a sideline in writing about endocrinology, and made suggests on how to defeat the Nazis by this approach. Later in the war Hedy Lamarr was to do considerable work in encouraging Americans to buy government bonds to support the war effort, as well as volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen – entertainment for servicemen.

Lamarr was an inventor in her spare time, her background meant she knew the problems faced with torpedo guidance. So it was not unsurprising for her to work with Antheil on a frequency hopping patent for torpedo guidance. The central idea of the frequency hopping patent was to transmit radio instructions between controller and torpedo over a series of radio channels at different frequencies switching synchronously between channels. In the original patent the number of channels used is relatively small (less than 10), hops are relatively slow – of order minutes and were controlled by a player piano style roll.

The US Navy chose not to develop the patent, stating that the apparatus was too bulky. This seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding – the player piano inspiration was indeed quite bulky but could easily reduced in size using current technology. More likely was the fact that US torpedo performance at the beginning of the war was abysmal – 60% of torpedos experienced technical failure, so it was likely they had other priorities. 

Lamarr and Antheil’s patent on frequency hopping expired in 1959, the US military implemented several frequency hopping systems from the beginning of the sixties. As technology improved it evolved to so-called spread spectrum techniques. The difference between frequency hopping and spread spectrum is really just one of scale. These techniques finally became public in 1976.

Spread spectrum techniques eventually found important applications in Bluetooth and WiFi. Originally designed to be resistant to jamming – the deliberate use of noise to block signals – it is also resistant to unintentional noise. Furthermore it can be used with very low power transmissions so it can cohabit with other signals used for longer range applications and parts of the electromagnetic spectrum where there is a lot of noise.

Hedy Lamarr’s part in the development of frequency hopping is finally being recognised, and George Antheil’s more experimental music is finally being recognised too – technology has now reached the point where his original vision can finally be realised.

This is a fascinating little book, focused on one small invention with huge consequences. It isn’t a biography of Hedy Lamarr, and it isn’t a biography of her co-inventor George Antheil.   

Nov 02 2018

Book review: Milk of Paradise by Lucy Inglis

My next review is of milk_of_paradiseMilk of Paradise by Lucy Inglis. I’ve been following Lucy Inglis on twitter since before she was writing books, so you can’t treat this as an unbiased report.

Milk of Paradise is the story of opium. It is divided into three parts, covering opium itself, morphine and heroin. Morphine and heroin are derivatives of opium so this collective biography makes sense.

The first part takes us back to prehistoric times and the origins of the poppy from which opium is extracted. The opium poppies grown today are domesticated, there is no wild opium poppy. The ancestral flower comes from Turkey where cultivation started in about 10,000BC. Traces of poppy mixed with henbane, another imported plant used to counteract the side-effects of opium, have been found in Britain dating back to 4000BC, where it could have only appeared through long distance trade. It always surprises me how far goods were traded across the prehistoric world.

The chapter moves on through opium in Roman and Greek times where descriptions are somewhat vague, to the Arab physicians of the 12th and 13th century who were clearly using it for anaesthesia for quite complex surgery. Similar preparations were used in medieval Britain, such as dwale – a mixture of hemlock, opium and henbane in wine. These appear to have gone out of usage.

The next section covers the the global trade in opium, particularly into the Far East. This picks up on some of the themes of The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. Opium had been introduced to China by Arab traders in the 10th century. As ocean going ships come into widespread use in the 15th century trade increased with tea, coffee and spices coming to Europe in the early years of the 17th century. By the 18th century half the Batavian (modern day Jakarta) spice trade was actually in opium.

The second part of the book, notionally on morphine a derivative of opium, covers the medical uses of opium preparations and addiction. Growing wealth in the 18th century in Britain led to people with sufficient money to abuse alcohol – the Gin Craze. This was paralleled with increasing signs of addictive behaviour in the use of opium. It was a problem in China too which the Chinese authorities tried to address in the face of military action by the British to maintain their trade in opium. Something of a theme in the book is the shameful behaviour of the British over selling opium to China, much of the 20th century has been spent on battling the “illegal” drugs industry. The 19th century was just as bad but the illegal drugs industry was replaced by the “legal” British trade of opium to China, something China tried to stop repeatedly.

The final part of the book covers the 20th century, prohibition and the rise of organised crime and gangs in the supply of drugs. Prohibition of narcotics is a relatively recent innovation in the West, it arose during the early years of the 20th century driven by the US who convened the 1912 International Opium Convention from which international prohibition legislation is derived. One gets the feeling the addiction starts to be seen as a problem when it effects women. Opium and its derivatives had long been used in medicine but the second half of the 19th century saw the growth of the pharmaceutical company who saw benefits in new formulations of existing drugs, the invention of new drugs and the promotion in treating all manner of ailments.

The rise of morphine and heroin was facilitated by the introduction of the hypodermic needle which provided rapid action, and convenience. The downside of this was the increased risk of infection, and addiction.

Also in the 20th century we see how war drives medical innovation, such as ambulances to recover casualties in the First World War, new surgical techniques, new anaesthetic methodologies, new antibiotics and new facilities for delivering medical care as close to the “front line” as possible (like the MASH units of the Korean War. Prohibition and the involvement of Germany as the opposition led to supply problems in the First World War.

In the period between the wars Germany expended considerable effort in innovating new drugs, one gets the impression that both the Allied and Axis forces were fuelled by amphetamines and other stimulants. In fact, more generally, one gets the impression that a large chunk of humanity has got through life in a drug-induced haze from time immemorial.

The book finishes with chapters on Afghanistan and “heroin chic”, the use of narcotics in popular and artistic culture.

I found Milk of Paradise very readable, the division into parts is not strong, much of the second part continues to talk about opium whilst notionally the chapter is about morphine. It is opinionated to a degree, which is no bad thing.

Oct 14 2018

Book review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

the_silk_roadThe Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. A panic buy for holiday which I have only just gotten around to reading, it was recommended by a colleague after we’d talked a little about the East India Companies and the development of trade.

Frankopan’s twist is to consider the history of the world focussing on the Silk Road routes which run from Europe though to China. The centre of this route is the Middle East rather than Western Europe where histories more traditionally focus. In the early years trade didn’t run continuously from Western Europe to China, it met somewhere near the centre with merchants trading between their home countries and the centre, somewhere close to Baghdad.

The book is arranged chronologically in chapters with the geographic focus allowed to drift as the events dictate. Each chapter describes a set of related events, and feels free-standing. The emphasis is very much on the flow of trade, people and invasion. It feels like we rarely sit in one place and allow events to unfold there.

Somewhat to my surprise the book covers pretty much all of human history from the time of Alexander the Great to the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The coverage is very big picture, it isn’t too interested in individuals, battles or places but the broad sweep.

The story starts with the rise of the Roman Empire, followed by the influx of Christian thinking in the later Roman period, then comes Islam, rising up from the south. Next come the Vikings, and the fur trade from northern Europe into Baghdad driven by the wealth in the region. The Vikings were to become the Russians (from Rus for red). The Vikings were keen slave owners which led to a trade in slaves (Slavs is derived from slave). The Italian greeting Ciao is a contraction of “I am your slave”. At its peak the Roman empire was taking 250,000-400,000 slaves per year and the Middle East took more than that.

Trade with the Middle East meant that Arabic coinage was found throughout Europe in the latter part of the first millenium. King Offa (fairly local to me in Chester with Offas’s Dyke just down the road) made coinage with (bad) Arabic on its reverse.

The Christian empire began a revival in the 10th century, leading to the Crusades. Italian city states (Venice, Genoa) were vying for supremacy in the region at the time. Their trade deals are reminiscent of those struck by the East India Company much later.

They were stopped by the rise of the Mongol Empire, which only narrowly failed to invade Western Europe. The Mongols, despite their reputation, were highly organised and implemented low taxation on goods passing through their Black Sea ports. The long distance sea routes were important because they enabled goods to travel untaxed but for their origin and destination, rather than at each country on the way. There then followed the black death, which killed upwards of 75% of the population in some cities. It led to rises in the wages of the surviving workforce.

At this point, in the late 15th century Western Europe finally came to the fore, with the Portuguese and Spanish conquest of the New World and Vasco de Gamas sea route to India bringing in huge wealth in the form of gold and silver (and decimating the American people with violence and disease in the process). By the 17th century the focus in Europe had shifted to the northern countries like the Netherlands and Britain and their trading activities in the Middle East and India.

Moving into the 19th century, Britain started to see Russia as a threat to its Indian Empire. The First World War comes as the Ottoman Empire falls and Britain finds itself siding with Russia against the Germans, somewhat surprisingly given the historic good relationship with Germany. Oil starts to become important, Britain gains oil concessions in Persia in the run up to the First World War. The increased usability and efficiency it brings to the navy is seen as critical to holding the Empire together. After the First World War the French and British divide up the Middle East in the (secret) Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Part of the expansion of the Roman Empire was access to the grain reserves of Egypt, echoed in the 20th century by the (failed) German invasion of Russia. The German aim was to take the grain belt of southern Russia to provide desperately needed food for the fatherland. Chillingly they realised this meant the death of millions, and they were determined it would be Russian millions. As it turned out they ended up killing the Jews in the Holocaust, prefigured by their long persecution of them.

The remainder of the book covers the post-World War Two period and revolves around oil, the decline of British power, the rise of Russia, the US, and the Arab states – finally benefiting from their oil wealth in the 1970s. This comes into my living memory so I tend not to consider it history. It is salutary to be reminded how the events we see unfolding today have very deep roots in history.

I found The Silk Roads fairly readable although a bit of a slog until I realised that the main text finished about two thirds of the way through the book to make room for the extensive notes. I would have welcomed a big pull-out map to locate the many cities mentioned, and a timeline.

Feb 10 2018

Book review: William Armstrong–Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald

A return to industrial history with armstrongWilliam Armstrong: Magician of the North by Henrietta Armstrong. Armstrong was a 19th century industrialist who spent his life in the north-east of England around Newcastle. His great industrial innovation was the introduction of hydraulic power to cranes and the like. His great wealth, and honours (a knighthood and then a baronetcy) derived from his work in the invention and sale of armaments principally artillery and ships. His home, Cragside near Rothbury some 30 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, was the first to feature electric lighting amongst many other technical innovations.

Armstrong was a contemporary of Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Whitworth – they were all born near the beginning of the 19th century, Armstrong dying in 1900 outlasted them all with Brunel and Robert Stephenson dying in 1859.

Armstrong was born in 1910 his parents started him on a career in the law. However, he had always been fascinated by water. This led to his realisation that the power that could be extracted from a head of water in a sealed system. A water wheel extracts energy from water falling the height of the wheel, a matter of a few metres. A sealed iron pipe, such as could now be manufactured allowed you to capture the energy from a fall of tens of metres or more. In Newcastle upon Tyne the local landscape could provide this head of pressure but with a little ingenuity the head of pressure could be created with a steam engine or other mechanical means. This energy could be used to drive all manner of machinery, Armstrong initially used it to power cranes, and lock gates, to be used in docks and the many factories springing up around the country. Ultimately his hydraulic mechanisms drove London’s Tower Bridge.

In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Armstrong switched his attention to building artillery. During the Crimean War the British artillery was found wanting in terms of accuracy, destructive power and firing rate. His innovations were to move from cannonballs to shells (shaped like bullets), and from muzzle loading to breech loading. He gave up the patents for his artillery pieces to the government but made a fair business on them. His activities with ordnance led to his knighthood and baronetcy although ultimately he withdraw from the close relationship with the British government in armaments as a result of political manoeuvrings by competitors.

The manufacture of artillery led to the manufacture of warships, which incidentally also carried the artillery. The Japanese Navy were particularly important.

He was a leading light of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne (Lit & Phil), and contributed to founding what is now Newcastle University. Late in his life, in 1897, he published Electric movement in air and water based on his experiments and featuring cutting-edge photographs of the phenomena he described. From a scientific point of view, Armstrong is not a name you will hear in physics classrooms (at any level) today – I don’t know if the same holds for his engineering innovations. Also late in his life he bought Bamburgh Castle, and spent a fair amount of money refurbishing it.

Magician of the North is a somewhat sympathetic view of Armstrong, along the lines of Man of Iron by Julian Glover about Thomas Telford. This contrasts with Samuel Smiles biography of George Stephenson and Rolt’s of Brunel which are much more effusive about their subjects. The Armstrong’s arms trading is discussed in some detail, it seems the company sailed somewhat close to the wind legally in supplying both sides in the American Civil War. A second blemish on Armstrong’s reputation came from industrial disputes with his, and other workers on the Tyne, asking for shorting working hours. That said, he was clearly a pillar of the Newcastle and north eastern community and highly regarded by most of the people most of the time. Many buildings in Newcastle bore his name as a result of his donations both whilst he was a live and after he died.

As usual the author of this biography bemoans the limited attention their subject has received. In the case of Armstrong they put this down to his extensive involvement in the arms trade which, never the most popular, was to fall further out of favour following the Great War. I’ve never seen a quantitative analysis of what makes the right amount of attention for figures in the history of science and technology.

William Armstrong died in 1900, after his death his company went into a slow decline. The Great War led to a distaste for the arms trade, and then came the Great Depression. With Armstrong gone there was no strong, capable leader for the company. The Armstrong name lived on in various spin off companies such as Armstrong Siddeley and various amalgamations with Whitworths and Vickers.

Sep 03 2017

Book review: Chester AD400-1066 by David Mason

chester400-1066adI couldn’t resist more Chester history, so now I am reading Chester AD400-1066: From Roman Fortress to English Town by David Mason. I’ve just read Jane Laughton’s book on late medieval Chester covering the period 1275-1520 (review here), and read David Mason’s book on Roman Chester (review here) towards the end of last year. This book fills most of the gap between those two books, but not quite.

Evidence for the early part of the period is sparse, particularly in the earlier years between about 400AD and 600AD – it isn’t known as the “Dark Ages” for nothing. During this time, after the Roman withdrawal, no durable mass-produced items such as coins or pottery were being produced. Elsewhere, in nearby Wroxeter, archaeological evidence suggests that the early Britons built wattle-and-daub huts within substantial Roman buildings. In Chester there is little such evidence. The various Roman buildings in Chester would have decayed at different rates. The baths under the now Grosvenor Shopping Centre had metre thick walls and would have only fallen down slowly, whilst the barracks in the north east quarter of the city were less substantial. At the barracks there are black deposits, possibly pigeon droppings, deposited between Roman and later date-able layers. It would seem that for most of the period from 400AD to 900AD Chester was a Roman ruin with some desultory farming and living taking place within its walls.

A little after this earliest period to 600AD there are are some written records, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and Bede’s History which were written some time – dozens, even hundreds of years – after the event. There are songs and poems from Wales, transmitted orally, which refer to the period.

Chester enters the historical record of the period with the Battle of Chester in AD616, for which there is archaeological evidence in the form of a mass burial at Heronbridge, just south of the city. Here 120 skeletons were found dating to the same period as documentary evidence for the battle and with wounds consistent with dying in battle.

St John’s church, founded in 689AD sits next to the old Roman amphitheatre from whose remains it was built, although there is some suggestion that Christians were martyred at the amphitheatre, so it wasn’t simply a case of being unwilling to carry heavy stones further than necessary!

In common with the Roman period, and the later period covered by Laughton’s book Chester holds a key strategic position between Wales and Ireland on the one hand and the rest of England, variously inhabited by Dane’s and Anglo-Saxons on the other. I found some of the discussion here confusing with what I would refer to as “Celts” from Wales, the West Country, Scotland and Ireland described as “British” and those from Mercia and Wessex as “English”.

The final third or so of the book is devoted to Chester as a burh one of the network of fortified towns set up by King Alfred – Chester was established in 907AD. It’s at this point that Chester appears to turn into a proper town, and a moderately important one at that. In the years after its establishment as a burh Chester had “moneyers” – effectively a mint, twice the size of London. This is reflected in the discovery of coins minted in Chester being found in Ireland and around the Irish Sea. The establishment of the burh mandated taxation and physical labour to build its defences and bridges – it’s likely in this period that the modern circuit of the walls was constructed. There is more archaeological evidence from this period and the start of some form of systematic written records, rather than the non-contemporaneous writing alluding to previous periods.

It is during the period after the establishment of the burh that King Edgar holds his coronation in the city, in 973AD. By the time of the Norman conquest and subsequent Domesday census Chester had 431 houses and a further 56 belonging to the Bishop (presumably of St. Werburgh’s church which was founded by in Edgar in 758AD). It also had a system of laws and taxation detailed in the Domesday book.

The book ends with Chester suffering a setback in the years after the Norman conquest as a result of its part in rebellion against the incoming King William.

Chester AD400-1066 is a fairly slender volume but more readable than Roman Chester. As a result of the sparsity of the archaeological and written records for the period it is wider in its scope than books set before and after this period.

Older posts «