Tag Archive: technology

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.

Feb 09 2015

Book review: Remote Pairing by Joe Kutner


jkrp_xlargecoverThis review was first published at ScraperWiki.

Pair programming is an important part of the Agile process but sometimes the programmers are not physically co-located. At ScraperWiki we have staff who do both scheduled and ad hoc remote working therefore methods for working together remotely are important to us. A result of a casual comment on Twitter, I picked up “Remote Pairing” by Joe Kutner which covers just this subject.

Remote Pairing is a short volume, less than 100 pages. It starts for a motivation for pair programming with some presentation of the evidence for its effectiveness. It then goes on to cover some of the more social aspects of pairing – how do you tell your partner you need a “comfort break”? This theme makes a slight reprise in the final chapter with some case studies of remote pairing. And then into technical aspects.

The first systems mentioned are straightforward audio/visual packages including Skype and Google Hangouts. I’d not seen ScreenHero previously but it looks like it wouldn’t be an option for ScraperWiki since our developers work primarily in Ubuntu; ScreenHero only supports Windows and OS X currently. We use Skype regularly for customer calls, and Google Hangouts for our daily standup. For pairing we typically use appear.in which provides audio/visual connections and screensharing without the complexities of wrangling Google’s social ecosystem which come into play when we try to use Google Hangouts.

But these packages are not about shared interaction, for this Kutner starts with the vim/tmux combination. This is venerable technology built into Linux systems, or at least easily installable. Vim is the well-known editor, tmux allows a user to access multiple terminal sessions inside one terminal window. The combination allows programmers to work fully collaboratively on code, both partners can type into the same workspace. You might even want to use vim and tmux when you are standing next to one another. The next chapter covers proxy servers and tmate (a fork of tmux) which make the process of sharing a session easier by providing tunnels through the Cloud.

Remote Pairing then goes on to cover interactive screensharing using vnc and NoMachine, these look like pretty portable systems. Along with the chapter on collaborating using plugins for IDEs this is something we have not used at ScraperWiki. Around the office none of us currently make use of full blown IDEs despite having used them in the past. Several of us use Sublime Text for which there is a commercial sharing product (floobits) but we don’t feel sufficiently motivated to try this out.

The chapter on “building a pairing server” seems a bit out of place to me, the content is quite generic. Perhaps because at ScraperWiki we have always written code in the Cloud we take it for granted. The scheme Kutner follows uses vagrant and Puppet to configure servers in the Cloud. This is a fairly effective scheme. We have been using Docker extensively which is a slightly different thing, since a Docker container is not a virtual machine.

Are we doing anything different in the office as a result of this book? Yes – we’ve got a good quality external microphone (a Blue Snowball), and it’s so good I’ve got one for myself. Managing audio is still something that seems a challenge for modern operating systems. To a human it seems obvious that if we’ve plugged in a headset and opened up Google Hangouts then we might want to talk to someone and that we might want to hear their voice too. To a computer this seems unimaginable. I’m looking to try out NoMachine when a suitable occasion arises.

Remote Pairing is a handy guide for those getting started with remote working, and it’s a useful summary for those wanting to see if they are missing any tricks.

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.

Jun 18 2014

Book Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

The_Idea_Factory Cover

I’ve read about technology and innovation in post-war Britain, in the form of Empire of the Clouds, A Computer called Leo and Backroom Boys. Now I turn to American technology, in the form of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner.

Bell Laboratories was the research and development arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) which held a monopoly position in the US telephone market for over half a century. Bell Labs still exists today as a subsidiary of Alcatel-Lucent but it is much reduced from its former glory.

What did they invent at Bell Laboratories?

An embarrassment of things: the transistor, the charge-couple device, photovoltaic solar cells, the UNIX operating system, C and C++ programming languages. And they also discovered the cosmic microwave background. They were the main contractor for some of the earliest passive and active communications satellites and the earliest cell phone systems. Claude Shannon worked at Bell Laboratories where he published his paper on information theory, in computing Shannon is pretty much the equal of Turing in terms of influence on the field. If statistics is more your thing, then John Tukey is a Bell Labs alumnus.

This is a seriously impressive track record: Bell Laboratories boast 7 Nobel prizes for work done at the laboratory. To get an idea of the scale of this achievement the equivalent figure for Cambridge University is 17, Oxford University 8 and MIT 18. IBM has 5. See for yourself here.

I was semi-aware of all of these inventions but hadn’t really absorbed that they were all from Bell Labs.

For something over 50 years Bell Laboratories benefitted from a state-mandated monopoly which only came to an end in the mid-eighties. They had argued in the 1920s that they needed a monopoly to build the required infrastructure to connect a (large) nation. In the early days that infrastructure was a system of wires and poles, spanning the country, then cables crossing the ocean, then automatic telephone exchanges first valve based then solid-state. They developed a habit of in depth research, in the early days into improving the longevity of telegraph poles, and the leather belts of line engineers, moving on to solid-state physics after the war. In exchange for their monopoly they were restricted in the areas of business they could enter and obliged to license their patents on generous terms.

It’s interesting to compare the development of the vacuum tube as an electronic device with that of the transistor. In both cases the early versions were temperamental, expensive and bulky but through a process of development over many years they became commodity devices. Bell pushed ahead with the development of the solid-state transistor with their optimisation of vacuum tubes as a guide to what was possible.

During the Second World War, Bell Laboratories and its staff were heavily involved in the war effort. In particular the development of radar, which to my surprise was a programme 50% larger than the Manhattan Project in cost terms. Bell Laboratories most expensive project was the first electronic switching station, first deployed in 1964. This is a company that strung cables across continents and oceans, launched satellites and the most expensive thing it ever did was build a blockhouse full of electronics!

Ultimately the AT&T monopoly gave it huge and assured revenue for a long period, relatively free of government interference. The money flowed from captive telephone customers, not the government and the only requirement from AT&T’s point of view was to ensure government did not break its monopoly. In the UK the fledgling computer industry suffered from a lack of a large “home” market. Whilst the aircraft industry suffered from having an unreliable main market in the form of the UK government.

Despite my review which I see makes almost no mention of the people, The Idea Factory is written around people, both the managers and the scientists on the ground. Bell Labs was successful because of the quality of the people it attracted, it sought them out through a personal network spanning the universities of the US. It kept them because they saw they could work in a stimulating and well-funded environment which tolerated sometimes odd behaviour.

It does bring to mind the central research laboratories of some of the UK’s major companies with which I am familiar, including ICI, Unilever and Courtaulds. Of these only Unilever’s survives, and in much reduced form.

The Idea Factory is well-written and engaging, telling an interesting story. It lacks context in what was going on outside Bell Laboratories but then this is not an area it claims to cover.

Oct 05 2013

Book Review: Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

backroomboysElectronic books bring many advantages but for a lengthy journey to Trento a paper book seemed more convenient. So I returned to my shelves to pick up Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford.

I first read this book quite some time ago, it tells six short stories of British technical innovation. It is in the character of Empire of the Clouds and A computer called LEO.  Perhaps a little nationalistic and regretful of opportunities lost.

The first of the stories is of the British space programme after the war, it starts with the disturbing picture of members of the British Interplanetary Society celebrating the fall of a V2 rocket in London. This leads on to a brief discussion of Blue Streak – Britain’s ICBM, scrapped in favour of the American Polaris missile system. As part of the Blue Streak programme a rocket named Black Knight was developed to test re-entry technology from this grew the Black Arrow – a rocket to put satellites into space.

In some ways Black Arrow was a small, white elephant from the start. The US had offered the British free satellite launches. Black Arrow was run on a shoestring budget, kept strictly as an extension of the Black Knight rocket and hence rather small. The motivation for this was nominally that it could be used to gain experience for the UK satellite industry and provide an independent launch system for the UK government, perhaps for things they wished to keep quiet. Ultimately it launched a single test satellite into space, still orbiting the earth now. However, it was too small to launch the useful satellites of the day and growing it would require complete redevelopment. The programme was cancelled in 1971.

Next up is Concorde, which could probably be better described as a large, white elephant. Developed in a joint Anglo-French programme into which the participants were mutually locked it burned money for nearly two decades before the British part was taken on by British Airways who used it to enhance the prestige of their brand. As a workhorse, commercial jet, it was poor choice: too small, too thirsty, and too loud.

But now for something more successful! Long ago there existed a home computer market in the UK, populated by many and various computers. First amongst these early machines was the BBC Micro. For which the first blockbuster game, Elite, was written by two Cambridge undergraduates (David Braben and Ian Bell). I played Elite in one of its later incarnations – on an Amstrad CPC464. Elite was a space trading and fighting game with revolutionary 3D wireframe graphics and complex gameplay. And it all fitted into 22kb – the absolute maximum memory available on the BBC Micro. The cunning required to build multiple universes in such a small space, and the battles to gain a byte here and a byte there to add another feature are alien to the modern programmers eyes. At the time Acornsoft were publishing quite a few games but Elite was something different: they’d paid for the development which took an unimaginable 18 months or so and when it was released there was a launch event at Alton Towers and the game came out in a large box stuffed with supporting material. All of this was a substantial break with the past. Ultimately the number of copies of Elite sold for the BBC Micro approximately matched the number of BBC Micros sold – an apparent market saturation.

Success continues with the story of Vodaphone – one of the first two players in the UK mobile phone market. The science here is in radio planning – choosing where to place your masts for optimal coverage, Vodaphone bought handsets from Panasonic and base stations from Ericsson. Interestingly Europe and the UK had a lead over the US in digital mobile networks – they agreed the GSM standard which gave instant access to a huge market. Whilst in the US 722 franchises were awarded with no common digital standard.

Moving out of the backroom a little is the story of the Human Genome Project, principally the period after Craig Venter announced he was going to sequence the human genome faster than the public effort then sell it! This effort was stymied by the Wellcome Trust who put a great deal further money into the public effort. Genetic research has a long history in the UK but the story here is one of industrial scale sequencing, quite different from conventional lab research and the power of the world’s second largest private research funder (the largest is currently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

The final chapter of the book is on the Beagle 2 Mars lander, built quickly, cheaply and with the huge enthusiasm and (unlikely) fund raising abilities of Colin Pillinger. Sadly, as the Epilogue records the lander became a high velocity impactor – nothing was heard from it after it left the Mars orbiter which had brought it from the Earth.

The theme for the book is the innate cunning of the British, but if there’s a lesson to be learnt it seems to be that thinking big is a benefit. Elite, the mobile phone network, the Human Genome Project were the successes from this book. Concorde was a technical wonder but an economic disaster. Black Arrow and Beagle 2 suffered from being done on a shoestring budget.

Overall I enjoyed the Backroom Boys, it reminded me of my childhood with Elite and the coming of the mobile phones. It’s more a celebration than a dispassionate view but there’s no harm in that.

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