Posts Tagged ‘Fritz Lang’

‘I’ Newspaper: NASA Planning Permanent Return to the Moon

February 12, 2019

Before the deep political stuff, a piece of space news. According to yesterday’s I for 11th February 2019, NASA is planning to go back to the Moon and found permanently manned bases. The article by Clark Mindock, ‘NASA wants to station humans on the Moon’ on page 23 ran

NASA is planning to send astronauts to the Moon again, but this time it wants to keep them there.

The US space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, called yesterday for “the best and brightest of American industry to help design and develop human lunar landers”, in response to what he said was a clear mandate from President Donald Trump and Congress to once again get astronauts out of Earth’s orbit.

In a post detailing Nasa’s lofty goals – to return astronauts to the Moon, and one day send them to Mars for the first time in human history – Mr Bridenstine said that the US was playing for keeps this time.

“I am thrilled to be talking once more about landing humans on the Moon,” he wrote on the Ozy website.

“To some, saying that we are returning to the Moon implies that we will be doing the same as we did 50 years ago. I want to be clear – that is not our vision.

“We are going to the Moon with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than we ever thought possible. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay.”

Mr Bridenstine said that the ambitious plans would begin later this week, with partners from private industry and elsewhere invited to NASA headquarters in Washington DC to discuss the next generation of lunar landers.

So far, Nasa has already co-operated with nine companies to send cargo tot he Moon, with the ultimate goal being to develop landers that can take astronauts back there.

As a space fan, all I can say is that it’s about time. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s space experts and commenters, like Sir Patrick Moore, the presenter of the Sky At Night, were predicting that we’d have bases on the Moon and elsewhere in solar system by now. But that was before space budgets were drastically cut and NASA instead concentrated on the Space Shuttle. This was supposed to open space up to just about anybody who could afford the cost of a ticket and was in reasonable health. Its crews experienced 3Gs at lift-off, but this was considered to be so low that a 70-year old man could tolerate it. Unfortunately the Shuttle was massively overengineered and the Challenger disaster put the programme on hold while its causes were investigated and corrected. Even then its use remained risky, as we saw a few years ago when one disintegrated during re-entry over America and the programme was subsequently cancelled.

There were plans in the 1990s for a private, commercial return to the Moon, according to Focus Magazine, but that didn’t seem to get anywhere.

My guess is that NASA is finally getting round to putting a permanent human presence on the Moon not just because Trump fancies going back to the glory days of the Cold War space race, but because the EU and the Chinese are also planning the serious exploration of the Moon. A little while ago ESA – the European Space Agency – announced they were planning to put people on the Moon, while last week the Chinese successfully landed a probe on the Moon’s far side. The Chinese are putting such effort into their space programme that the quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, predicted back in the 1990s that the first person on Mars would probably be Chinese sometime in the next decade. Under Reagan, one of the big aerospace conglomerations and think tanks published a report arguing that America needed to develop its space technologies and industries, and move out onto the High Frontier, in order to secure its place as world leader. It’s likely that this is the same thinking behind this announcement by NASA.

As for exploring the next generation of lunar landers, I wonder if they’ll be able to use any data or blueprints remaining from the original lunar modules that landed Armstrong, Aldrin and co all those years ago. After the Apollo programme was cancelled, the massive Saturn 5 rockets were broken up, with the exception of those on display at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the plans destroyed. This has outraged many space scientists like John S. Lewis, the author of Mining the Sky, who compared it to the destruction of Chung He’s fleet by the Chinese eunuchs in the 14th century. Chung He was a Chinese admiral, who led a fleet of ships on an exploratory mission to the outside world, going as far as the Bight of Benin in West Africa. However, when he returned the eunuchs at the imperial court had his fleet destroyed and further exploration banned because they feared that opening the country up to foreign contact would have a destabilizing effect on its society. The result of this was that the country remained isolated and stagnated until it fell prey to foreign colonialism in the 19th century, most famously through the Opium Wars.

Hopefully NASA’s announcement will mark the beginning of a new, serious wave of interplanetary exploration which aims to put people on the Moon and other planets, as space scientists, engineers and SF fans and writers have been dreaming about and working towards since before the great German director Fritz Lang made his epic movie Die Frau im Mond (‘The Woman in the Moon’) about a German moon landing back in the 1920s.

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H.G. Wells’ Prediction of Workfare

October 6, 2018

I’ve just finished reading H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, now re-published in Penguin Classics, edited and with an introduction by Patrick Parrinder and with notes by Andy Sawyer. The novel is Wells’ 1924 revised version of his earlier When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1899. It’s the tale of Graham, an overworked insomniac, who falls into a deathlike trance in 1898 and remains sleeping in a state of suspended animation for over 200 years. When he finally awakes, in a transparent glass case constructed to show him to the masses, he finds himself at the centre of revolutionary ferment.

All the democratic hopes and aspirations of the 19th century have passed, and the new world in which he now finds himself is one immediately recognizable to SF fans and cinema buffs, who’ve seen Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. This is a world of vast, hive-like cities of soaring tower blocks. London now has a population of 30 million, and has sucked in the population of the other cities in the UK. Where they remain, they are themselves vast tower blocks. The metropolis is covered by a glass dome. The private house has all but vanished, and people eat as well as work in public, so that the cities resembled vast hotels rather than aggregates of homes. In this vast hive, babies and children are reared away from their parents in vast nurseries, creches and kindergartens, attended by mechanical wetnurses. People move to and fro around the city on moving walkways, bridges across the gulfs between blocks, as well as funicular railways and abseiling on thin wires. Ultra-tough Eadhamite roads have replaced the railways linking city to city. The aeroplane has finally been developed – Wells wrote it before the Wright Brothers finally showed heavier than air flight was possible – and there are regular passenger flights across the world. The world has been united, and there is a global government. News and entertainment is provided not only by the theatre, but also by television, including a form of video recording. Instead of newspapers, there are the babble machines installed in public places around London, which mechanically announce the news conveyed by the various news agencies.

It is also a ruthlessly capitalist society. In the centuries while he slept, the trust set up to provide for Graham’s support during his slumber has expanded massively, buying up every other company on the face of the Earth, absorbing governments and subverting religion. The ruling council are its directors. Adverts are ubiquitous, even on the faces of the mechanical wetnurses attending the babies in the nurseries. The ruling elite regards democracy as discredited and outmoded. The commercial ethos has affected established religion, so that the Christian churches off access to the quickest and best bishops around, and conversion without upsetting your job and place in the social structure. All this is shocking enough to Graham, but he is really shaken by the condition of the toiling masses at the bottom of the social hierarchy. One third of the population wear the blue canvas of the Labour Department. This has superseded the old workhouse, and is partly based on the Salvation Army, which the Trust bought out and then subverted. Its workers are treated as serfs, toiling underground in vast, dirty factories, for a pittance. It is the refuge of the poor, the homeless and the destitute, whom it ruthlessly exploits.

This is explained to Graham by Helen Wotton, one of the rebels.

‘Workhouse! Yes – there was something. In our history lessons. I remember now. The Labour Department ousted the workhouse. It grew – partly – out of something – you, perhaps, may remember it – an emotional religious organization called the Salvation army – that became a business company. In the first place it was almost a charity. To save people from workhouse rigours. There had been great agitation against the workhouse. Now I come to think of it, it was one of the earliest properties your Trustees acquired. They bought the Salvation Army and reconstructed it as this. The idea in the first place was to organize the Labour of starving homeless people.’

‘Yes.’

‘Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Department. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Department in the end – or seek some way of death. the Euthanasy is beyond their means – for the poor there is no easy death. And at any hour in the day or night there is food, shelter and a blue uniform for all comers – that is the first condition of the Department’s incorporation – and in return for a day’s shelter the Department extracts a day’s work, and then returns the visitor’s proper clothing and sends him or her out again.’

‘Yes?’

‘Perhaps that does not seem so terrible to you. In your time men starved in your streets. That was bad. But they died – men. These people in blue – The proverb runs: “Blue canvas once and ever.” The Department trades in their labour, and it has taken care to assure itself of the supply. People come to it starving and helpless – they eat and sleep for a night and day, they work for a day, and at the end of the day they go out again. If they have worked well they have a penny or so – enough for a theatre or a cheap dancing place, or a kinematograph story, or a dinner or a bet. They wander about after that is spent. Begging is prevented by the police of the ways. Besides, no one gives. They come back again the next day or the day after – brought back again by the same incapacity that brought them first. At last their proper clothing wears out, or their rags get so shabby that they are ashamed. Then they must work for months to get fresh. If they want fresh. A great number of children are born under the Department’s care. The mother owes them a month thereafter – the children they cherish and educated until they are fourteen, and they pay two years’ service. You may be sure these children are educated for the blue canvas. And so it is the Department works.’ (pp. 161-2).

Okay, so it’s not quite like the Tories’ wretched welfare to work industry, in that the DWP doesn’t provide housing for the destitute. And the Tories’, and Blairites’, for that matter, prefer throwing people off benefit or finding ways to stop them getting it in the first place, than actually giving anyone work and support. But it does have many of the characteristics of workfare.

The book’s also interesting as while Well’s depicts a Christianity infused with the commercial ethos, this is not an anti-religious, anti-Christian book. Graham is shocked by this new, capitalistic religion. And when he finally gives a speech to inspire the workers revolting against their exploitation, he urges them to give themselves, just as Christ gave Himself upon the cross.

It’s a fascinating book, which shows the influence it had on subsequent dystopian literature, from Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while a piece of early Science Fiction that didn’t get the future quite right, it still contains surprising lessons for our own time.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

Vox Political: Owen Smith Wants Momentum Banned because Has Same Initial Letter as ‘Militant’

September 16, 2016

I really couldn’t let this latest example of sheer lunacy from Smudger go. It just provides so much light on how he and the Blairites think, or at least, believe they can maker the rest of us think. It also makes you wonder how someone, who is so stupid or misinformed to believe that, can ever hope to present himself as political dynamo. As Kryten from Red Dwarf said of Arnold J. Rimmer, ‘Oh for a world class psychiatrist!’

Mike put up this evening a little piece reporting that Owen Smith, the Blairite challenger for the Labour leadership, told the world on Twitter that he thinks Momentum are a rebranding of the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyite group that infiltrated the Labour party in the 1980s. Why? Because Militant wasn’t subtle, and both Militant and Momentum begin with the same letter: ‘M’.

Mike sent up this piece of false logic by stating that his name also begins with ‘M’. How long before he too was rumbled? So he’s joked about changing it to Pharquar, with a ‘P’. That should appeal to Smudger as a Blairite. It begins with the same letter as the Blairite party-within-a-party, Progress. Oh yes, and Smudger’s old employers, Pfizer.

Owen Smith wants Momentum banned from Labour because the name starts with ‘M’ – like Militant

I’m left wondering if Smudger really is that thick, or whether it’s a lie to smear Corbyn in the minds of ordinary people, who are less well-informed politically. Militant Tendency aren’t Momentum. They’ve formed their own, separate party, called the Socialist Party. As for the similarity between the two names, because the share the same first letter, well, there are very many things that begin with ‘M’, as Mike himself points out. Like ‘M’, James Bond’s boss in the movies. Or child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s silent classic, M, from 1920s Germany, who was chillingly played by Peter Lorre. Perhaps Smudger also believes that Momentum is entirely made up of bug-eyed German serial killers, when not at their desks in their day job of ordering suave super-spies to combat villainous multi-millionaires trying to take over the world. Is this how the Blairites think of the Old Labour left? Do they think Corbyn, in private, takes off a mask to reveal himself as looking like Donald Pleasance or Charles Grey, wearing a Nehru-collared suit and stroking a white cat, as he giggles at his plan to incinerate the Earth from space-based lasers? Strange. Every time I’ve seen Corbyn on TV, he hasn’t been surrounded by goons in orange jump suits, and I’m fairly certain his constituency office isn’t located in a secret base inside an extinct Japanese volcano, or in an orbiting space station. Or in a secret laboratory under the Caribbean.

I do think I know where he got this bizarre idea, however. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s the other week, I found on the shelves a book about Militant Tendency. And on the back was a series of approving comments, including one which said it would help anyone now trying to understand Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour party. This is part of the general line being pushed by the Labour right and its cheerleaders in the media, that Corbyn is a Trot and an infiltrator. He’s no such thing, of course, but that isn’t stopping them from repeating this calumny.

It also shows how, despite any protests they might make to the contrary, they’re also following Hitler’s advice on propaganda. It’s ironic, considering the way John MacDonald has been suspended from the party, because he dared to repost a picture of Dave Cameron as Adolf Hitler, along with a quote from the Fuhrer about taking away people’s freedoms tiny piece by tiny piece, so that they don’t realise what’s going on and can’t protest. There’s another quote from Adolf, or Goebbels, I can’t remember which, about making people believe in the One Big Lie. This runs that it doesn’t matter how stupid or false the lie is, you stick to your guns and repeat it as loudly and often as possible, until the majority of people believe you.

And this is exactly what Smudger and the rest of the Blairites are doing, trying to link Momentum with Militant Tendency and Trotsky.

It’s disgraceful, but what can you expect from someone, who was a PR man working for one of the big drugs companies when they were very keen to have the NHS privatised.

Lookalikes: Peter Lorre and the Quiet Man

March 25, 2016

Private Eye has been running a regular feature for a couple of decades now, in which readers send in letters suggesting a particularly close resemblance between unconnected public figures. This week it’s the astonishing likeness between Jonathan Ross and the former dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha.

I’ve been struck recently by the astonishing physical similarity between the great German-American horror actor, Peter Lorre, and a certain former member of the cabinet. Lorre, you may remember, made a name for himself portraying weird, mad and depraved villains. He played a child killer in Fritz Lang’s 1930s classic, M. Here he is with a photo of his mysterious double.

IDS Lorre Pic

Lorre is on the left. The real mass murderer is on the right.

Lorre was, of course, a talented actor, whose films delighted millions and have become classics of their era. And the criminals and weirdoes he portrayed were entirely fictitious. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Ian Duncan Smith, whose incompetence and sheer malevolence is all too real, and has brought misery to untold millions as well as directly caused the deaths of 570 people, and worsened the mental health of a further quarter of a million plus.

One of the subtitles for Lang’s M was ‘The Murderer Is Amongst Us’. He is indeed. And so are his accomplices, Cameron and Osborne.

The Time Machines: Wells’ SF Warning about Tory Social Cleansing

November 1, 2015

Time Machine Cover

I’ve been reading H.G. Wells’ classic tale, The Time Machine, and was struck how the central message of the novel is now as acutely relevant as it was when the tale was originally published back in 1894. As you probably know, the story is about a scientist, who invents a time machine. Demonstrating it to his friends one evening, he travels 800,000 years into the future. There he finds human civilisation in ruins, and humanity itself has diverged into two separate species: the Eloi, who are beautiful, and live an indolent existence of contentment on the surface, and the Morlocks, a monstrous, subterranean race, tending the machines their ancestors had built underground. They provide the Eloi with their shoes and clothing. This is not out of altruism, or trade, but simply because the Morlocks are cannibals and the Eloi their food animals.

Wells had a degree in biology, and the Eloi and Morlocks were based on his ideas of the endpoints of human evolution according to current evolutionary theory at the time. The Eloi – short, nearly hairless, with little difference between the two genders, were inspired and informed by Victorian ideas of racial senescence. This forecast that over the millennia, humanity would lose much of its physical and mental powers, and the differences between the genders would dwindle, until humanity resembled something like them. Wells deliberately set his novel 800,000 years into the future as that was the time it was believed it would take for humanity to form separate evolutionary branches. The Eloi, as their name suggests, were the descendants of the human aristocracy. Freed from the need for labour, they lived in health and beauty, unchallenged by any dangers, until they atrophied and stagnated.

The Morlocks, on the other hand, were also short, but with hair down their backs. They had large eye and pale skin due to adaptation to their environment. They were also apelike, and Wells described them at one point as ‘like a human spider’. They were the descendants of the working class, who had been forced underground to work for their aristocratic and middle class masters. The brutal pressures of surviving in this environment had resulted in natural selection forcing them too to take on their degenerate, subhuman form.

Wells makes it very clear in his book that was extrapolating their evolution from current trends in his own time. He writes

‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed as clear as dayligh6t to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you – and wildly incredible! – and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilise underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilisation; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are noew electric railways, there are subways there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end – ! Even now, does not an East End worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the Earth?

‘Again, the exclusive tendency of the richer people – due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor – is already leading to the closing in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land. About London, for instance, perhaps half the prettier country is shut in against the intrusion. And this same widening gulf – which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich – will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.’

This is not such an incredible piece of forecasting, when you consider some of the plans made in the Victorian period for London’s built environment. About a year or so there was a series on BBC 4 on British architecture that never became a reality. In the Victorian period this included various tunnels under London designed for the working class, so that they should be kept out of the way and out of sight of their social superiors above ground. All you have to do is imagine what would have happened if these had been built, like the underground workers’ city in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, and suddenly Wells’ forecast seems not SF, but chillingly plausible.

The Time Machine has been filmed twice. The first was George Pal’s 1960 version, and then later by Wells’ great-grandson in the 1990s. In both versions, the origins of the Morlocks were changed. In the George Pal version the Morlocks are descended from those, who have retreated into the underground shelters to escape a nuclear war. In the 1997 version, the Morlocks are also descended from those, who have fled underground, but this time to escape the destruction caused by a mining accident that has broken up the Moon. Wells’ grandson stated he had changed it because the novel’s forecasts about social stratification was no longer relevant.

But it is relevant, now more than ever. Johnny Void in his blog has extensively covered issues of homelessness, social exclusion and the social cleansing of London, as local authorities clear the working and lower middle classes out of their homes in order to provide luxury housing for the rich. Readers of his blog will remember the ‘poor doors’ campaign against a block of flats in London, which had separate entrances for the poor and the rich the development was really aimed at.

This is exactly the process of social divergence Wells described, now returned despite the bland optimism and denials of previous decades. We’re just waiting for the invention of a time machine, so we can bring back a Morlock to eat Boris Johnson.