Posts Tagged ‘Railways’

A Real ‘Steampunk’ Toy: Pre-World War I Clockwork Monorail Train

August 13, 2017

A little while ago I put up a series of posts about real, 19th century inventions, which now seem like the weird machines of Steampunk Science Fiction. This is a subgenre, which imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had invented spacecraft, time travel, interdimensional travel and other elements of Science Fiction, or had completed and fully developed real inventions like Babbage’s mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, steam carriages and dirigible aircraft, like that flown by the French aviator Giffard in 1854.

One of these real Steampunk inventions was the monorail. A steam-driven monorail system was designed by an American inventor and entrepreneur. This astonished me, as I always associated the monorail train with the technological optimism of the 1960s and ’70s. It was an invention for a technological age that never happened. After writing the article, a reader posted a comment on the piece kindly pointing out that a steam monorail system had been built in Eire. the track and its train have been restored, and are now a tourist attraction. The commenter included a link, and if you go to that website, you’ll see the train in question. It is very definitely an Irish train, as its been decorated very patriotically in green.

This hasn’t been the only example of such trains I’ve found. They even existed as miniature toys. Looking through the book Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work by Athelstan and Kathleen Silhaus, with photos by Nelson McClary (New York: Crown Publishers 1989) I came across the illustration below of a toy monorail train, stabilized with a gyroscope and powered by a single wheel. It was produced by the Ely Cycle Co., of Britain, in 1912. It was first patented in Britain in 1908, and then in Germany in 1911, where it was also manufactured by Suskind. The text notes that it was stabilized by a gyroscope long before Sperry used it in aircraft and ocean liners.

The use of a single wheel is also like the various Science Fictional vehicles that similarly have only one of these, like the monocycles in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat. This toy, and others like it, show a whole world of Victorian and Edwardian invention that seemed to anticipate a technological future that never quite happened, as well as the immense inventiveness of the manufacturers.

A Real Steampunk Monorail Train

July 5, 2017

This is another piece of real steampunk technology I’ve found in yet another book on the weird inventions of 19th century, Victorian Inventions by Leonard de Vries, trans. by Barthold Suermondt (London: John Murray 1973). Along with illustrations and contemporary depictions of dirigible balloons and other flying machines, submarines, ships, steampunk carriages and electric trams, bizarre prototypes and version of the telephone and typewriters and other strange devices, there’s also series of very unusual trains and railways. One of these was a proposed monorail, which was the idea of the American investor, E.S. Watson.

The piece of text for the pic reads

Mr E.S. Watson of Water Valley, Mississippi, has been granted a patent for an elevated railway with only one rail. This rail may consist of normal T-Section and is supported at regular intervals by wooden poles or concrete columns. Figure 2 shows how the locomotive and coaches rest on the rail. The major part of their weight, and hence their centre of gravity, are at a lower level than the rail. Consequently, the train can never be derailed or overturn. Another advantage of this method is that road traffic can pass below the rail and no level-crossings are required.

(p. 33)

I can remember when waaay back in the 70s the monorail was being described in books on popular science as the railway of the future. Now it’s clear that it’s another invention that the Victorians produced, or at least thought of, long before. Despite being hailed as the future of rail transport, it has never really caught on, except in one or two particular attempts to create the town or urban environment of the future. It’s thus very ‘steampunk’ in that it’s a vision of an alternative future that never happened.

Cartoons of Cameron, Osborne, Peter Lilley, Milton Friedman and Paul Dacre

July 2, 2017

Hi, and welcome to another cartoon I drew a few years ago of the Conservatives and their supporters in the press and leading ideologues.

These are more or less straight drawings of five of the men responsible for the present nightmare that is Theresa May’s Britain. A Britain where a hundred thousand people are using food banks to stop themselves from starving. A Britain where a further seven million people live in households where they’re eating today, but don’t know if they’ll eat tomorrow. This is the Britain where the NHS is being gradually privatised behind the public’s back, so that the Tories don’t lose the next election. A Britain where the majority of the public would like the railways and utility industries renationalised, but the Tories want to keep them in private hands so that they provide substandard services at high prices for the profits of their managers and shareholders.

This is a Britain where the press screams hatred at ‘foreigners’ – meaning not just recent immigrants and asylum-seekers, but also EU citizens, who came here to work, but also second- or third-generation Black and Asian British. A press that demonises and vilifies Muslims, no matter how often they march against terrorist monsters like those of ISIS and their ulema – the Islamic clergy – denounce hatred and mass murder.

Immigrants and foreign workers are net contributors to the British economy. They are less likely to be unemployed and rely on the welfare state, so that their taxes are supporting the rest of us. Many of them have come here to fill very specific jobs. But they are still reviled for taking jobs from Brits, and for being scrounging layabouts, preventing true, hardworking Brits from getting the benefits they need.

This is a press that also denigrates and vilifies the very poorest in society – the unemployed, the disabled, unmarried mothers and others on welfare, so that the Tories can have the support of the public when they cut benefits to these groups yet again.

This is a Britain were the majority of people in benefits are working, but they’re stuck in low-paid jobs, often part-time, or zero hours contracts. Many of them are on short-term contracts, which means that, while they have a job today, they may not in a few months time. Nevertheless, even though these people do still work hard, the Tories have decided that the jobcentres and outsourcing companies should also pester and harangue them to get off benefits, because it’s their fault they’ve got a low-paid job. And this is despite the fact that it has been nearly four decades of Thatcherite doctrines about maintaining a fluid labour market, and a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ to keep wages down.

The Tories are a party that yell passionately and incessantly about how they are ‘patriotic’, while the others were the ‘coalition of chaos’, but who have done so much to break up the United Kingdom into its separate kingdoms and provinces. Cameron called the ‘Leave’ referendum, hoping it would draw the venom from the Tory right. England voted for Brexit, but the rest of the UK voted to Remain. With the result that there is a real constitutional crisis about whether the UK can leave the EU and still remain intact.

It also threatens to renew the Nationalist/Loyalist conflict in Northern Ireland. Part of the Ulster peace process was that there would be an open border with Eire. The majority of people in the Six Counties, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, wish to retain the open border. But if Britain does leave the EU, then there’s a possibility that border will have to be closed.

The Tories have also endangered the fragile peace in Ulster in other ways. Having lost their majority in parliament, they’ve gone into an alliance with the DUP, a group of highly sectarian Loyalists, who condemn evolution, abortion, homosexuality and bitterly hate Roman Catholics and Gaelic Irish. They’re the same people, who demand the right to march through Roman Catholic areas screaming hatred at the residents. A party, whose links with Loyalist terrorists are so strong they’ve been dubbed ‘the Loyalist Sinn Fein’.

This is the party, that tries to present itself as for ‘hard-working’ ordinary people, while its dominated by elite aristocratic, old Etonians toffs like David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Conservatives have also been trying to present themselves as female-friendly and pro-women, as shown by their selection of Theresa May to lead them. But the people worst hit by austerity have been women, who make up the majority of low-paid workers, particularly in the service industries, like care workers and nurses. Some of the latter are so poorly paid, they’ve had to use food banks. When asked about this, all that brilliant intellectual Theresa May could do was to mumble something about how there were ‘complex reasons’ for it. No, there’s a very simple reason: you’ve paid them starvation wages.

This is a Britain where, according to Oxford University, 30,000 people were killed by the Tories’ austerity policy – introduced by Dodgy Dave Cameron – in 2015 alone. A policy which has dictated that people on benefits should be thrown off them apparently at the whim of a jobcentre clerk, and that terminally ill or seriously injured citizens should have their benefits withdrawn, ’cause they’re ‘fit to work’. Such poor souls have included cancer patients in comas.

Here’s a selection of some of those responsible for this squalid carnage.

At the bottom left is David Cameron. Bottom centre is George Osborne, and on his right is Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail. This is the Tory rag that has done so much to spread hatred against immigrants, ethnic minorities, the EU, the working class, the trade unions and which has been consistently anti-feminist. This last has been quite bizarre, considering that it was a founded as the newspaper to be read by the wives of the city financiers, who read the Torygraph.

On the right, above Dacre and Osborne, is Peter Lilley, from a decades old issue of Private Eye.

Lilley’s there because of his role in destroying the welfare state and privatising the NHS. It was Lilley, who pranced across the stage at a Tory conference in the 1990s reciting a stupid song he’d written about having a little list, in imitation of The Mikado. This was a list of everyone he hated, including single mothers and other benefit scroungers.

Lilley was also responsible for the PFI scheme, in which the government goes into partnership with private contractors to build and run public services, such as bridges and hospitals. These schemes are always more expensive, and deliver poorer service than if the bridge, hospital or whatever had been constructed using purely public funds. Hospitals built under PFI are smaller, and have to be financed partly through the closure of existing hospitals. See George Monbiot’s book, Captive State, about the way Britain has been sold off to the big corporations. But governments like it, because the technicalities of these contracts means that the costs are kept off the public balance sheet, even though the British taxpayer is still paying for them. And at a much higher rate, and for much longer, than if they had been built through conventional state funding.

Lilley’s PFI was the basis for New Labour’s ‘third way’ nonsense about running the economy. It has also been a major plank in the ongoing Thatcherite project of selling off the NHS. A few years ago, Private Eye published an article showing that Lilley developed the scheme, because he wanted to open the NHS up to private investment. And now, nearly two decades and more on, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries are being run by private healthcare companies, and the majority of NHS operations are actually being commissioned from private healthcare providers. The Tories hotly deny that they are privatising the NHS, but Jeremy Hunt has written a book in which he stated that he loathed state medicine, and Theresa May has kept him on Health Secretary, despite the bankruptcy of an increasing number of NHS Trusts, this shows that the reality is very much the complete opposite of their loud denials.

And the person on the left of Lilley is the American economist, Milton Friedman. Friedman was one of the great, free market advocates in the Chicago school of economists, demanding that the welfare state should be rolled back and everything privatised. He was the inventor of Monetarism, which was roundly embraced by Enoch Powell and then Maggie Thatcher. This was to replace the Keynsianism that had formed the cornerstone of the post-War consensus, and which stated that state expenditure would stimulate the economy and so prevent recessions. One of the other world leaders, who embraced Monetarism as his country’s official economics policy was the Chilean Fascist dictator and friend of Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet. Friedman regularly used to take jaunts down to Chile to see how the old thug was implementing his policies. When Pinochet was not imprisoning, torturing and raping people, that is.

One of Friedman’s other brilliant ideas was that education too should be privatised. Instead of the government directly funding education, parents should be given vouchers, which they could spend either on a state education, or to pay the fees for their children to be educated privately. This idea was also adopted by Pinochet, and there’s a very good article over at Guy Debord Cat’s on how it’s wrecked the Chilean educational system. Just as New Labour’s and the Tories privatisation of British universities and the establishment of privately run ‘academies’ are destroying education in Britain. It was also Maggie Thatcher, who began the trend towards removing the payment of tuition fees by the state, and replacing the student grant with student loans. The result has been that young people are now graduating owing tens of thousands in debt.

Robin Ramsay, the editor of Lobster, said that when he was studying economics at Uni in the 1970s, Monetarism was considered so daft by his lecturers that no-one actually bothered to defend it. He suggested in an article that it was adopted by the Tories for other reasons – that it gave them an excuse to privatise the utility industries, destroy the welfare state and privatise the NHS. Even so, eventually it became too glaringly obvious to too many people that Monetarism was a massive failure. Not least because Friedman himself said so. This sent the Daily Heil into something of a tizzy. So they devoted a two-page spread to the issue. On one side was the argument that it was a failure, while on the other one of the hacks was arguing that it was all fine.

In fact, it’s become very, very obvious to many economists and particularly young people that the neoliberalism promoted by the Tories, New Labour, Friedman and the other free market ideologues is absolute rubbish, and is doing nothing but press more and more people into grinding poverty while denying them affordable housing, proper wages, welfare support and state medicine. But the elites are still promoting it, even though these ideas should have been put in the grave years ago. It’s the reason why one American economist called neoliberalism and similar free market theories ‘Zombie Economics’ in his book on them.

May’s government looks increasingly precarious, and it may be that before too long there’ll be another general election. In which case, I urge everyone to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, as he’s promised to revive the welfare state, renationalise the NHS and parts of the energy industry, and the rail network.

They’re policies Britain desperately needs. Unlike the poverty, misery and death created by the above politicos.

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

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.

Bristol’s Real Steampunk Car: The 1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

May 26, 2017

And now, a bit of fun before I return to hammering the Theresa May and the Tories for their seven years of misgovernment, malice, and general misery.

Steampunk is the subspecies of Science Fiction, which wonders what would have happened if the Victorians had invented computers, flying machines, space travel and so on. One of the founding texts of the genre is William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (London: Victor Gollancz 1990), which imagines what Britain might have looked like if Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, had actually been built and use by the British government. It’s set in an alternative history in which the Duke of Wellington and the Tory government of 1829 have been overthrown by a party of Industrial Radicals, led by Lord Byron. Instead of government by the landed aristocracy, the country is instead ruled by a scientific elite. Foremost of these is Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme for the machine. Apart from the Difference Engine itself, which is used by various government departments to solve not only statistical and technical problems, but which also records images and information like a modern computer, the streets are packed with steam carriages, and the British army also uses steam driven armoured cars to carry troops to suppress industrial unrest.

In fact, as I’ve blogged about previously, a number of steam carriages and cars were built throughout the 19th century before the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the modern car.

R.N. Grenville in the steam carriage with his family and servants outside Butleigh Court c. 1895.

One of these vehicles, the Grenville Steam Carriage, was designed in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville of Glastonbury in Somerset. He was aided by George Churchward, who later became the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway. After taking part in the 1946 London Jubilee Cavalcade in Regent’s Park, it was presented the following year to the City Museum in Bristol by Grenville’s nephew, Captain P.L. Neville. Over twenty years later the Museum’s Technology Conservator, F.J. Lester, carried out an overhaul of the vehicle with the ship repairers, Messrs Jefferies Ltd. of Avonmouth. It took part in the Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession in Bristol in 1977, before being displayed in the Industrial Museum in Bristol.

The City Museum published a leaflet about the vehicle, written by the director of the Industrial Museum, Andy King, the Curator of Technology, P. Elkin, and with a drawing of the carriage by F.J. Lester.

The leaflet states that Grenville and Churchward had been engineering pupils together at the workshops of the South Devon Railway in Newton Abbott, and remained friends throughout their lives. Most of the carriage was probably built at Grenville’s home in Butleigh Court in Glastonbury, where he had an extensive workshop. Some parts of it, such as the wheels, may have been made under Churchward’s supervision at the G.W.R.’s workshops in Swindon. Although the vehicle was designed in 1875, it was actually built over a period of 15 years, as components were adapted and altered according to a lengthy process of trial and error.

The carriage itself was more similar to the railway engines of the time than horse-drawn carriages. The boiler, engine, shaft-bearings, rear spring brackets and front suspension were supported by a frame of 4″ x 2″ girders. It had three wheels, composed of sixteen section of teak banded with an iron tyre. This was the same as the ‘Mansell’ wheel used in railway carriages from 1860 to 1910.

It possessed the same type of vertical boiler used in the steam fire engines of the time. It was believed that this was made by one of the companies that made them, Shand Mason & Co. The steam carriage also had one of these boilers after it was renovated. The boiler was supplied with water from a tank slung underneath the carriage by an injector.

The carriage was originally powered by a single cylinder engine mounted on the boiler. This was later replaced by a twin-cylinder engine.

Photo from The Garage & Motor Agent showing the steam carriage and an 1898 Benz in the 1946 Jubilee Cavalcade of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The carriage was operated by a crew of three – the driver, brakeman and a fireman, and there were also seats for four passengers. The driver steered the vehicle using a tiller system, as on ships; he also controlled the throttle, cut off levers and a whistle, which he worked with a pedal. The law stipulated that vehicles like the steam carriage had to carry a brakeman, who sat on the right-hand side of the driver and controlled the brakes, which were wooden blocks. The fireman also had his own small seat in the engine compartment.

The car consumed five gallons of water and 6 pounds of coal per mile, and on the flat could reach the astonishing speed of just under 20 miles an hour on the flat.

Grenville probably lost interest in the steam carriage just to its poor performance. It appeared at the same time as more efficient steam cars were being built in America, and the modern cars, driven by petrol and the internal combustion engine also appeared.

Before it was acquired by the City Museum, the carriage was used from 1898 to 1902 as a stationery engine to drive a cider mill at Butleigh Court. It was lent after Grenville’s death in 1936 to John Allen & Sons of Cowley in Oxfordshire, who rebuilt it, replacing the boiler and rear axle.

Next week on Radio 4 there’s a programme discussing the lack of people studying engineering, and asking what could be done to inspire more students to take up the subject.

I wondered if part of the solution might be to harness the immense interest the public has in cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles as well as steam punk enthusiasts. Many proud owners of cars and bikes spend hours caring for and repairing their vehicles as a hobby, quite apart on the volunteers who give their labour and support to organisations like the former Industrial Museum helping to restore historic vehicles and other machines. There’s quite a large community of people, who design and make their own steampunk SF costumes and machines. And some of them have already built their alternative steam punk cars as a hobby. It might be possible to encourage more budding engineers and inventors of the future by showing some of the amazing machines built by the Victorians, which have formed the basis for this genre of Science Fiction and the worlds of wonder its writers have imagined.

The Industrial Museum was closed long ago, and its site is now that of Bristol’s M Shed, which has many of the old exhibits from its predecessor. I don’t know if the Grenville Steam Carriage is one of them, but it may well be, either on display or in storage.

Weak and Wobbly Theresa May’s Contradictory and Crap Housing Policy

May 15, 2017

The leak last Thursday of the Labour party manifesto, with its promise to nationalise the railways and parts of the energy network, clearly has rattled the Tory party. Mike over at Vox Political remarked that leak was probably intended to discredit these policies, but instead they have proved massively popular.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/05/11/labours-manifesto-approved-unanimously-by-nec-and-shadow-cabinet-after-leaked-version-wins-huge-public-support/

I’m not surprised. The Tory party, of course, started shrieking that this would drag us all back to the 1970s – actually not a bad thing, as Mike has also pointed out, considering that the gulf between rich and poor was at its lowest during that decade. The Torygraph also went berserk, and plastered all over the front page of its Friday edition a headline claiming that Labour MPs were ‘disowning’ it. I don’t know how true this was. It could be the Blairites trying their best to undermine their own party again, in order to shore up virtuous neoliberalism. Or it could be just more rumour and scaremongering put out, as usual, by the rag and its owners, the weirdo Barclay twins. The Telegraph has been in the forefront of the newspapers attacking Corbyn since he was elected to the Labour leadership. So many of its stories are just scaremongering or, at best, the fevered imaginings of a frightened capitalist class, that you can’t really believe anything the newspaper actually writes about the Labour party or its leader. Ken Surin, in an article for Counterpunch, quoted statistics by media analysts that said that only 11 per cent of reports about the party presented the facts accurately.

But the fact that the railways do need to be renationalised was ironically shown again that day, as a train I wanted to catch was delayed by 15 minutes. Because a train had broken down. The British taxpayer now pays far more subsidies to the private rail companies for a worse train service than in the 1970s. So once again, we’re back to showing that rather than being a decade of uniform disaster and imminent social collapse, it was better in some ways than the present.

So May has decided to unveil a few radical policies of her own. In order to counter Labour’s promise to build a million new homes, half of which will be social housing, in the next five years, May has announced that her government will boost the number of social housing being built, and included a special right to buy clause. Which sounds good, until you realise that they’re not going to release any more money for it.

Without that extra money, the promise is meaningless.
It’s more Tory lies.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/05/14/theresa-may-has-actually-announced-a-policy-and-its-rubbish/

The Tory party has absolutely no intention of building any more social housing. Mike has put up in his article a table of the Tories’ abysmal record on housing. These include a 43 per cent increase in homelessness, a 166 per cent jump in the number of people sleeping rough, private rents have gone up by over £1,700 since 2010, and the cost of owning a home for first-time buyers has risen by £65,000. But this won’t worry the Tory party, as 1/3 of them are private landlords. And I distinctly remember Johnny Void posting a number of articles about they sought to profit by the dearth of housing in London.

And this is quite apart from the fact that the Tory press, such as the Daily Mail, is aimed very much at the kind of people, who buy to rent, and endlessly applauds high house prices even though they make homes unaffordable to an increasing number of people in 21st century England. Of course they see such prices as a good thing, as it means even greater profits for them.

So they won’t want to undermine the housing bubble they’ve created, and cause prices to fall by building any more.

But they can’t be seen to be doing that, with Corbyn and Labour hot on this issue.

So they’ve concocted this rubbish, self-contradictory policy, hoping that people will be deceived by the meaningless promise. They hope people will remember the first part, and forget that without any more money, it won’t happen.

Don’t let them fool you.
Vote Labour for a decent housing solution on June 8th.

Vox Political: Eoin Clarke Shows How Labour Will Pay for Its Policies

April 24, 2017

Mike over at Vox Political has reblogged a piece by Eoin Clarke, who’s on Twitter as @LabourEoin, showing how Labour will pay for their reforms. It’s to counter all the critics, who complain that Labour haven’t shown where they’re going to get the money from.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/04/23/sick-of-people-telling-you-the-uk-cant-afford-labours-plans-show-them-this/ and follow the links to Eoin’s original article.

This also answers, in part, a deeper object that you’ll always hear from the Tories: That the country can’t afford Labour’s welfare policies. Of course it can. As Mike has shown ad infinitum, Labour kept well in budget during its time in power. The only period of massive overspending was when Gordon Brown had to pump money into the global economy after the banking crash. This wasn’t Labour’s fault. Labour had contributed to it by following the same ‘light touch’ regulation – in fact continuing the Tories’ deregulation of the financial sector – but the direct cause was the massive speculation and bizarre financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs et al in Wall Street. I’m not a fan of Gordon Brown. Despite claims that he was ‘Old Labour’, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that he did not share Blair’s neoliberalism. But Brown did keep us out of the Euro, and he did save the global economy.

What is clear that is the country and its people definitely can’t afford another five years of the Tories.

Thanks to the Tories’ privatisation of essential services, we are paying more for a worse service for everything from the NHS to the railways. We are paying more in subsidies for the rail network than we were when it was nationalised. And contrary to Tory claims, during the last years of British Rail when the network was operating under Operating For Quality, the company offered better value for service than any time since nationalisation or after privatisation. Since then, fares have been raised and services cut.

The same is true of the Tories’ privatisation of the NHS. Private healthcare is actually far more bureaucratic than socialised medicine, as the private healthcare companies charge for advertising and their legal department as well as administration. They also must show a profit for their shareholders. Thus, as the Tories have outsourced NHS services, a process that began with Peter Lilley and the PFI, costs have actually gone up due to the inclusion of private industry.

Not Forgetting the millions of low and unwaged workers, and the unemployed, Cameron and May have created.

There are 8 million people in ‘food insecure’ households, according to the UN. This is because Cameron and May have deliberately kept wages low, and introduced zero hours contracts, among other tricks, in order to keep labour costs down and the workforce frightened. As a result, we’ve seen millions of people forced to rely on food banks for their next meal. These are hardworking people, who have been denied a living wage, all for the profit of big corporations like Sports Direct.

Then there are the millions of unemployed and disabled, who have been thrown off benefits under the absolute flimsiest of pretexts. This has been covered by left-wing bloggers again and again. And tens of thousands have died from poverty and starvation. See the stats and biographies of some of those, who have been murdered by these policies, collected by Stilloaks, Johnny Void, Mike over at Vox Political, Another Angry Voice and so on.

It isn’t a case of Britain being unable to afford Labour. The country cannot afford not to have Labour in power.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics

April 5, 2017

by Richard Seymour (London: Verso 2016).

I bought this last Friday, as I wanted something that would help me refute the continuing lies about the Labour leader: that he is a Trotskyite, his supporters have infiltrated the party, and that he is too left-wing to lead the Labour party to victory in 2020. The book does indeed provide plenty of information to refute these accusations, though I’m not convinced of its over all thesis. The book’s blurb states that Corbyn’s election as leader is just the latest phase in the party’s degeneration. Flicking through the book, it appears that his main point is that the Labour party has never really been a Socialist party, and that apart from the great victories of Clement Atlee’s administration, it’s record has been largely one of failure as it compromised its radical programme and adopted conventional, right-wing policies once in office. At one point Seymour describes the idea of Labour as a Socialist party as a ‘myth’.

I was taught by historians, who did believe, as Seymour does, that the British Labour party was influenced far more by 19th century Nonconformist Liberalism than by continental Socialism. And certainly when Labour took power in the 1930s, it did disappoint many of its voters by following the-then economic orthodoxy. There is a difference between Labourism and Socialism. However, the party included amongst its constituent groups both trade unions and Socialists, and stated so. However, I haven’t read the sections of the book where Seymour lays out the arguments for his view that the Labour party is degenerating – along with, he says, western democracy. But he does have some very interesting things to say about Corbyn’s supposedly ‘Trotskyite’ views, and the whole nonsense about Far Left infiltration of the party.

Corbyn’s parents were middle class radicals, who met when they were campaigning for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Growing up in rural Shropshire, he worked on farms. He was radicalised while working as a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas in Jamaica, where he became aware and appalled by ‘imperialist attitudes, social division, and economic exploitation.’ He was a trade union organisers for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and then the National Union of Public Employees. He’s teetotal, and did not take part in the ‘hedonistic pleasures of the counterculture’. He is a member of the Bennite wing of the Labour party, the Socialist Campaign Group, which Seymour states has consistently opposed the government regardless of whichever party is in office.

His former partner Jane Chapman states that he is ‘very principled, very honest … a genuinely nice guy.’ Since 1983 he has been the MP for Islington North. Seymour notes that even his most ‘sceptical’ biographer, the Torygraph’s Rosa Prince, acknowledges that he ‘is known as a “good constituency MP”‘. He takes great pains to help his constituents, and is ‘universally considered to do an exemplary job’.

Apart from being anti-austerity, he has also actively campaigned against attempts to limit immigration, and rejects the New Labour tactic of trying to take on board some of UKIP’s militant nationalism. His first move as the new Labour leader was to attend a pro-refugee rally in London.

His other policies are left-wing, but not extreme Left by a very long way. Seymour writes

The agenda on which Corbyn was elected is not, however, the stuff of which revolutions are made. he has pledged to end austerity, and in its stead implement a People’s Quantitative Easing programme, with money invested in infrastructural development, job-creation and high-technology industries. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won office on an agenda like this. Even the OECD is anti-austerity these days. He promises to address the housing crisis through extensive home-building, to fully nationalise the railways, and to bring all academies back under local democratic control. These objectives are to be funded, not so much by squeezing the rich like a sponge to water the gardens of the poor, as by closing tax loopholes, stimulating growth, and spending less on controversial programmes like Trident.

This is in most ways a classic social-democratic remedy, which could easily have come with some Wilsonian vocables about ‘the white heat of technological revolution’. The problem for the establishment is not necessarily Corbyn’s agenda. It may be too radical for today’s Labour party, today’s media and today’s parliamentary spectrum, but business could live with it, and the consensus would shift if Corbyn gained popular support. (pp. 8-9)

So where did this bilge that he was a Trot come from? Some of it came from the fact that his rallies were partly organised an attended by ‘accredited helpers’, people who were not Labour members, but who gave their time and effort alongside those who were. The only evidence that there was a ‘far left plot’ was the call by a tiny Marxist grouplet, the Communist Party of Great Britain. This has only 24 members, at the most, and whose weekly news-sheet is regarded as the Heat magazine of the Far Left. (P. 30).

So where do the new members comes? Many of them are simply Labour members, who drifted away or became inactive thanks to the managerial, autocratic attitude of the New Labour leadership. They were tired of being ignored, and regarded only as useful for leafletting and so on. And what really annoyed many grassroots members was the scripts the leadership insisted that canvassers should follow when talking to people on doorsteps. A significant number are also young people, who have joined the Labour party because for the first in a very long time there is actually a leader, who means what he says and talks straight in language ordinary people can understand, rather than the waffle and management-speak that constitutes the rhetoric of his right-wing opponents.

Much of the hostility against him in the press and the New Labour coterie comes from his support from two of the largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, which has had the Sunday Times and other rags screaming hysterically about the threat of renewed union militancy.

But what really terrifies the Right – including the Blairites – and the media-industrial complex, is his style of campaigning. Blair and the other parties adopted a style of government based on industrial management, using focus groups, and with news and the party’s statements all carefully marketised and timed according to the news cycles. Corbyn doesn’t do this. He actually turns up at rallies and events up and down the country, and speaks to the people. Corbyn himself said that he went to 100 meetings during his leadership campaign, and by the end of that year would have gone to 400-500. (P. 7). Seymour states that on one Saturday in August, Corbyn spoke to 1,800 people in Manchester, 1,000 people in Derby, 1,700 in Sheffield’s Crucible and a further 800 outside. By the end of the month 13,000 people had signed to volunteer for his campaign. 100,000 people signed up as registered supporters, and 183,658 as active members of the Labour party.

Like his American counterpart, Bernie Sanders, Corbyn is also massively popular on social media. Marsha-Jane Thompson states that within four weeks of setting up his Facebook page, they went to 2.5 million people. The page reached 11 million people every day. As a result of this, when they announced a meeting in Colchester on Facebook, all the thousand tickets were gone within 45 minutes. Seymour also notes the deference given to the traditional media has broken. over half of Corbyn’s supporters received most their information about his leadership campaign from social media. And the attacks on him in the mainstream press and news have compounded a sense among his supporters that not only is Corbyn genuine, but the traditional media is untrustworthy. (p.23).

This is important. It isn’t just that Corbyn and his supporters represent a challenge to the neoliberal consensus that private industry is automatically good, and those on welfare have to be ground into the dirt, starved and humiliated in order to please bilious Thatcherites and their vile rags like the Scum, Mail, Express, Torygraph and Times. It’s because he’s actually going back to doing the traditional hard work of political oratory and speaking to crowds. Not just relying on his spin doctors to produce nicely crafted, bland statements which the party masses are expected to follow uncritically.

And the newspapers, TV and radio companies don’t like him, because his success challenges their status as the approved architects of consensus politics. When 57 per cent of his supporters get their information about him from social media, it means that the grip of the Beeb, ITV, Channel 4 and Murdoch to tell people what to believe, what to think and what counts as real news is loosening drastically. And if no one takes them seriously, then their ability to act as the spokesman for business and politics is severely damaged, as is the ability of the commercial companies to take money from advertising. What company is going to want to spend money on ads following ITV and Channel 4 news, if nobody’s watching. And the businesses spending so much on advertising to take over the functions of the welfare state, like private hospitals and health insurance, are going to demand lower rates for their custom if fewer people are watching them and the mood is turning away from the Thatcherite and Blairite programme of NHS privatisation.

Counterpunch on Washington’s Fear of a Russia-EU Superstate

March 23, 2017

There’s a very interesting article in today’s Counterpunch by Mike Whitney, which suggests that the current demonization of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin in the American media and the build up of troops and military installations on Russia’s borders – in Poland and Romania, for example – is to prevent Russia joining the EU. It begins with a speech by Putin, from February 2012, in which Putin declared that Russia was an inalienable part of greater Europe, its people think of themselves as Europeans, and that is why Russia is moving to create a greater economic space, a ‘union of Europe’, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The carefully orchestrated ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine, which saw the pro-Russian president ousted in favour of the current, pro-Western government, which includes unreconstructed Nazis, is part of Washington’s programme to prevent the emergence of this massive superstate.

The article revisits the Mackinder doctrine. This was the thesis, put forward by a geographer in the early 20th century, that the crux for global power is control of the Eurasian landmass. Mackinder believed that the powers that ruled it would become the dominant global power, while those on the Atlantic fringe of the landmass, such as Britain, would be doomed to decline. He notes that Russia is rich in supplies of oil and natural gas, which it can easily supply through the construction of projected pipelines, to Europe.

Whitney states that the Americans are also concerned at the way the Chinese are also increasing their economic connections across Eurasian through the construction of roads and railways allowing the rapid and efficient transhipment of their consumer goods. Hence the construction and reinforcement of American military bases in South Korea and in the Far East. The Americans hope to block China’s economic growth by dominating the sea lanes militarily.

Whitney also argues that the Russians and Chinese are emerging as the new, global economic powers against America because they are actually better at capitalism than the Americans are. They are building new infrastructure – roads, railways and pipelines, to allow them to exploit the markets in central Asia and Europe, while the Americans can only try to compete with them through threatening them with military force. Hence the continuation of the conflict in Syria with as a proxy war against Russia.

Whitney also makes the point that blocking the emergence of a single free trade block in Eurasia is vital for the survival of the American economy. The moment such a free trade zone stopped using the dollar it would knock one of the key financial supports out of the American economy, causing markets to collapse, the dollar to slump and the economy to fall into depression.

See: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/23/will-washington-risk-ww3-to-block-an-emerging-eu-russia-superstate/

This is very interesting, as it shows just how far current international tensions with Putin’s Russia are caused by America’s fears of a resurgent Russia and China, and its own looming economic irrelevance. The use of the dollar as the international currency is absolutely critical in this. One of the reasons why Colonel Gadaffy was overthrown was because the ‘mad dog of the Middle East’ wanted to create an Arab economic bloc like the EU, which would use the dinar rather than the dollar as its international currency. America’s economy is propped up to a very large degree through the use of the dollar as the international currency of the petrochemical industry. Once that goes, the American economy, and its status as the world’s only superpower, goes up. Hence the Americans determination to have him overthrown, even if that meant the collapse of Libya as a functioning state and the replacement of its secular welfare state by a hardline theocratic regime.

There’s a considerable amount wrong with the EU, but it also has enormous economic, legal and political benefits. In the 19th century, British companies played a large part in Russia’s industrialisation. Before the Revolution, one of the main Russian cities was called Yusovska, a name derived from ‘Hughes’, the surname of the British industrialist, who had set up a company there. By voting to leave the EU, we may also have missed the opportunity to benefit from closer economic contacts with Russia and China. Or rather, England has. Scotland voted to remain, and this may well begin the break-up of the United Kingdom. In which case, Scotland may well be in an economically stronger position than England. We English may well have consigned ourselves to increasing irrelevance and decline on the global stage, just to satisfy the xenophobic wishes of the Tory right.