In Our Time: Brunel

The name Isambard Kingdom Brunel conjures up thoughts of the Great Western Railway, and other successful engineering projects that are still well regarded today. But on the the In Our Time episode about him Julia Elton (former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology), Ben Marsden (University of Aberdeen) and Crosbie Smith (University of Kent) explained that this is not all there was to Brunel, and he wasn’t always as successful as his modern reputation suggests. His reputation during his lifetime was mixed – he was an innovator, but also prone to over-reach.

They started the programme by briefly discussing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Isambard Brunel, who was born in France before the French Revolution. He fled to the US as a refugee during the Revolution, and subsequently moved to England. He married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman who he’d met in France during the Revolution. He was a highly successful engineer, and he educated his son to follow in his footsteps.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England, and his early education was biased towards science, maths & engineering and came from his father. He was then sent to school to get a proper gentleman’s education to complement this (Greek, Latin and so on). Afterwards he spent some time abroad before returning to England to work as an engineer with his father. The big project that they were working on was a tunnel under the Thames river. This didn’t go as well as was initially hoped, although it was ultimately successful. The ground under the river is not very good for tunnelling through – instead of the clay they hoped for it was gravel. This meant that the progress of tunnelling operations was slow and also dangerous.

Brunel chafed at working in his father’s shadow and was very keen to make a name for himself independently. While he was in Bristol convalescing from an accident during work on the Thames Tunnel he got involved in a project to build a bridge there. This was funded by money left in someone’s will which had been invested until the interest earnt meant that it was enough to cover the project, and then there was a competition for the design of the bridge. Brunel put his own design in, and won – although the bridge that was built was a slight redesign of his idea, because a Grand Old Man of engineering (whose name I forget :/) said that Brunel’s design wouldn’t work. I’m not quite clear if this expert was right or not – bucking the conventional wisdom was to be a noticeable Brunel trait, and often he was right. His approach to engineering was a scientific one – to work from first principles, to experiment and to keep meticulous records. This could be a double edged sword, “the way things have always been done” is not necessarily wrong. This project also highlighted another of Brunel’s key traits – his showmanship. Despite the project running out of money before the bridge was finished, the grand opening still went ahead as Brunel planned.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Great Western Railway is what I particularly remember Brunel for, and this was his next big project. Unsurprisingly, his winning bid flung out all the precedents for railway design and started over from scratch – much to Stephenson’s disgust. Brunel was aiming for the luxury end of the railway market and so ended up with a design incompatible with other parts of the evolving rail network – his track was a wider guage and his trains were larger than those in the rest of the country. Brunel was initially in charge not only of the engineering of the railway but also of the locomotives, and once again he started over from first principles. Sadly this was not a success, and an inquiry set up to investigate his failures ended by taking control of locomotive design away from him.

Having had overall success in his foray into railway engineering Brunel moved into ship building. This was a natural extension of the Great Western Railway – the idea being you’d travel from London to Bristol by GWR train and thence to the USA by a GWS ship. This project started out as a very nice example of the good in Brunel’s approach to engineering. Here conventional wisdom said that if you built a bigger steam ship it would sink, for what are in retrospect silly reasons. Brunel’s start from scratch approach meant that he challenged that assumption and discovered that big ships will float. This meant that Brunel’s ships could carry more fuel, and so weren’t cutting it quite so fine when crossing the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

But then he gets carried away and keeps increasing the size of the ships – not all of these larger ones were successful. Although I’m not sure if this was all down to bad design, or if bad luck also played a part – because once he had some bad luck then his mixed reputation would lead to people assuming it was obviously his fault. When his designs and business ventures worked, they worked pretty well, but as soon as something stopped working public confidence in his abilities dropped. And even when things did work there were always niggles and things that might’ve been better designed differently – like the railway that wasn’t compatible with the other networks. His reputation during his lifetime and immediately after his death was decidedly mixed.

One of the experts on the programme, Julia Elton, summed up Brunel’s modern reputation as fitting into a narrative we like – the lone heroic figure taking on the establishment and succeeding when they said he’d fail. She thinks that Stephenson was a much better engineer – but Brunel was a better showman. Brunel also kept diaries throughout his life – one set of personal ones, one set of engineering “lab books” – which meant that when his descendants wanted to promote his memory they had ample material to work with.

In Our Time: The Invention of Radio

Sunday morning we listened to the In Our Time episode about the invention of radio, which we’ve had sitting on the ipod for a while – it’s not a subject that caught either of our imaginations in advance. It did turn out to be interesting, but it also felt like a series of vignettes – this person, this date, this advance, now move on to the next – so I’m approaching writing it up with some trepidation! The three experts on the programme were Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Bruton (University of Leeds) and John Liffen (Science Museum, London).

At the beginning of the show Bragg introduced the subject by talking about Marconi and the patents he filed in the early 20th Century that mean he is often credited as the father of radio. When they discussed him, towards the end of the programme, they talked about how he liked to present himself as coming up with the whole thing himself. He didn’t give many (if any) of the people who’d previously worked in the field credit for their achievements. But as the programme had just demonstrated, radio wasn’t invented in a single flash of genius but was instead the result of an accumulation of nearly a century of small advances.

Before the 19th Century if you wanted to send a complex message a long way, then it could only travel as fast as you could transport a person carrying it. Experiments with electromagnetism in the early 19th Century started to change this, and by the 1830s a system of transmitting messages along a wire had been developed – the telegraph. At first the pioneers of this technology had envisioned something that would twist a needle to point at the required letter of the alphabet, but the work of Morse & others established a technically easier method involving a simple code. The telegraph took off pretty rapidly, but developing a wireless method would take much longer.

James Clerk Maxwell came up with a theory of electromagnetism that predicted electromagnetic waves. At first this was purely in the realm of theory, and proving it experimentally posed a variety of technical problems. You have to design and build apparatus to emit these waves, which was eventually done in the form of a spark-gap transmitter – I don’t think they explained how this worked on the programme. And then having done this you need to reliably detect the resulting waves. They talked about a few of the ways that were developed, but I didn’t really follow any of them and so have forgotten the details :/ Over a period of several years successive scientists and engineers made their own contributions to the field, but the definitive experimental proof came from the work of Hertz in the late 1880s.

This is still science rather than technology – none of the people involved so far in the story were thinking in terms of commercial applications, it was just an interesting phenomenon to investigate and try to explain. The Post Office, in Britain, oversaw the domestic telegraph network and was beginning to be interested in possible applications of wireless technology. However there was some pushback because the telegraph system worked so well, so why develop something new? There was a similar thought process at work in the early days of the telephone system too – the postal system worked so well, why would anyone need a phone?

Even once it was known to be theoretically possible to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves wirelessly there were still several practical obstacles that needed to be overcome. For instance at first transmitters transmitted across a wide range of frequencies – so if there were two transmitters relatively close together then their signals would overlap and a receiver wouldn’t be able to pick out the message from one or the other. So one of the advances that had to be made was in the concept of tuning – restricting the transmitter to a particular subset of frequencies and then only listening to one of these bands. Another obstacle to be overcome was in the sensitivity of detectors. This was done in part by a man called Bose, who was working in Calcutta. The detectors used didn’t operate as well in the humid environment of India, and so Bose had to develop a modification of the design – which was then better in other environments too.

And we’re back to where Marconi enters the story. He was a young man from a wealthy Italian family, and despite his protestations otherwise what he did was to put together all the various prior work on wireless technology and figure out a commercial product. He’s helped in this by the fact that he’s rich, well connected and good at publicity. He also came up with a niche for the technology – ships! Obviously it’s not practical to trail a telegraph wire after a ship that’s sailing across the Atlantic, so this is an application where wireless has obvious answers to the “why bother?” question. Most people at that time (including people like Tesla) thought that electromagnetic waves would move in straight lines, so this is a case where Marconi not really understanding the science worked out in his favour – he just set up trials at doing a transatlantic transmission from Cornwall to the US. This was a success and he was then able to market his devices for use in shipping.

These radios were still transmitting code rather than sound. The programme didn’t spend much time covering the next stage because it was getting towards the end of the time they had available. But basically instead of transmitting bursts of waves, instead this built on the work of Tesla (I think) and transmitted a continuous radio signal. The modulations of this signal were then used to carry information that could be decoded into the original soundwaves recorded by the microphone.

I’m not sure I’ve done the programme justice with this write-up – in particular there were a lot of little biographical snippets for the various figures involved in the story that made them come alive as people, and I haven’t conveyed that at all.

This Week’s TV including Games, Antigua, Vikings, Ottomans, and Iron Age & 20th Century Britons

Games Britannia

This is a three part series about the history of games in Britain, presented by Benjamin Woolley – we only recorded the first one which was the earlier history. Just as well, I think as he got closer to the modern day I’d’ve got more irritated with him (a throwaway remark in his intro to the theme of the series about how “these days teenage boys play video games” put my hackles up …). Other infelicities included showing a picture from an Egyptian relief of a game of senet and talking about it as if it was an ancestor of chess (unlikely, I think it’s believed to be more like a race game than a war game). And an assumption that an Iron Age game board must’ve been for divination purposes and meant this burial was of a druid … which, er, why does everything “primitive people” do have to have deep religious significance? Can’t a game be a game?

Otherwise it was an interesting survey of games from Iron Age Britain to late Victorian times. The earlier periods are represented by a small handful of games we don’t really know the rules for any more, except Nine Men’s Morris – which you find boards for scratched into the stonework in cathedral cloisters & so on, and it’s a game that is found in some variant form or another right across the world. The games we’d recognise today start to come in after contact with the east – some brought back by crusaders etc and later from India. I didn’t know that Snakes & Ladders derived from a Hindu game that was more of a teaching tool about the Hindu religion that a game per se. Odd to note that this game was altered to remove the message behind it during the same time period that teaching games were being churned out by Victorian moralists – lots of games where the point was to race to the end and there’d be various moral snares along the way (“You landed in a tavern, miss two goes”).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered

A hurricane in 2010 uncovered 18th Century bones on a beach in Antigua – a place that Horatio Nelson once referred to as a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole”. In this programme Sam Willis followed the (fairly short) archaeological excavation that followed the discovery & told us a bit about the history of Antigua and why it was such an appalling place in the 18th Century. Antigua was important to the British Empire – both strategically and because it, in common with the other Caribbean islands, was where sugar was produced. The beach where the bones were found is in a place now called English Harbour – a natural harbour surrounded by hills where ships could shelter from the hurricanes. An obvious place to make your main base for the area – a couple of forts near the entrance & you can make the whole thing a safe place for your fleet. But the lack of wind & currents causes other problems – anything flung in the water just stays there. Parts of the seabed in the harbour today are feet thick in rubbish, industrial waste from the dockyards went in, any waste from the ships moored there including sewage. So instead of the pretty & clean beach of today the harbour would’ve been a stinking miasma of polluted water & air. Then you add in all the tropical diseases the sailors were exposed to, and the high mortality rate starts to seem reasonable. But then Willis talked to several archaeologists who have an additional theory about what was killing the sailors – lead poisoning from rum. Part of the sugar cane harvest was made into rum, and this was a staple drink for the sailors – they’d have a pint a day as part of their rations. But the rum was made in lead piping and lead distillation tanks, and the people Willis spoke to said the rum would’ve been contaminated. Perhaps not a problem if you had a bit now & again, but for the sailors it would’ve built up quickly.

The archaeological side of the programme was well covered, but was made at an early stage of the investigation – they had a few days of excavation but obviously hadn’t done any further analysis by the time the programme was made. But in that 5 days or so they got half a dozen skeletons from one small trench in the beach – the thought is that if a sailor died on board a ship in the harbour then he’d be hurriedly buried on the beach.

The Viking Sagas

This programme about the Viking Sagas wasn’t one of Janina Ramirez’s better programmes – somewhat padded out with lots of gushing about how wonderful the sagas were (rather than more discussion of the things themselves) at the start and some odd choices for imagery. It did get better as the programme went on, however, as we moved from generic “ooh this is wonderful” to a discussion of one saga in particular. The saga she chose was the Laxdæla saga, a story of lust, love & revenge. The point Ramirez was drawing out was that the Viking sagas were much more realistic than contemporary European literature which was heavy on tales of courtly love, and virtue being rewarded. The sagas are based on real events (in real places) with only a thin veneer of Christian moralising added at a later stage (like Guðrún, one of the protagonists, withdrawing to a nunnery at the end of her life in repentance). Ramirez also made a point of how British people were among those who settled Iceland (mostly women brought as concubines, i.e. sex slaves). And the sagas also influenced more modern British writers – Blake and Tolkein were the examples used.

Worth watching for the scenery & to hear bits of the saga read aloud (in Icelandic, with subtitles) in said scenery. But the In Our Time we listened to earlier in the year on the same subject was more informative (post).

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

In the second episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire, Rageh Omaar covers the second half of the empire from Suleiman the Magnificent (or Suleiman the Lawgiver) in the 16th Century through to Abdul Hamid II and the “Sick Old Man of Europe” (nickname for the empire) in the 19th Century. Omaar continues to be more of an apologist for the Ottoman Empire than I’d like (lots of “it was a tolerant place” while glossing over second class citizenship for non-Muslims & children of non-Muslims being taken to be slaves). It was during Suleiman’s time that the Mamluk Empire was conquered – bringing the heartlands of Islam under Ottoman control. Prior to this the Ottomans were only really nominally Muslim, and ruled over a predominantly Christian territory, afterwards they moved more towards embracing their Islamic faith as a mark of their legitimacy as rulers. The Sultan was now also the Caliph, and they imposed a hierarchy on the Islamic clergy where there was previously no such thing. Under Suleiman and his immediate successors the Ottoman Empire pushed its expansion westward – ending up at the gates of Vienna, where they were only defeated by all of Christendom coming together (in effect) to drive them back. The Turks were feared across Europe & from the perspective of Europeans it was very much a Holy War (but not so from the Ottoman perspective, that was about territory). Omaar pointed out that this historical legacy influences the way the more eastern countries of Europe see the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union to this day.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was at its peak, after him & his immediate successors their technological advantage started to be outstripped by a Europe undergoing the Industrial Revolution and entering the Enlightenment era. When Napoleon took his army to Egypt the initial Ottoman reaction was an assumption they were clearly the superior civilisation so their rout by the French & the loss of Egypt was a complete shock. It’s all downhill from there – the Ottomans end up referred to as the Sick Old Man of Europe, and rising nationalist feelings start to tear apart the cohesion of the Empire. The Ottoman dynasty is also seen by parts of the Empire as not Muslim enough – a fundamentalist Muslim group rising in what’s now Saudi Arabia took control of Mecca & Medina for a while, and whilst their rebellion was put down by the Ottomans it was a sign of what was to come.

Which is presumably the subject of the next episode.

Metal: How it Works

Metal: How it Works is the first of a three part series (all called X: How it Works) presented by Mark Miodownik which look at the materials our civilisation is based on. It was a combination of history, engineering & metallurgy, and while it could’ve been quite dry it was saved by the fact that Miodownik is engagingly enthusiastic about the subject. Miodownik took us through the history of metal-working from the early discovery of copper, and then bronze, through iron-working to steel and more modern metals. Along the way he talked about what it is about the atomic structure of metals that makes them behave the way they do (atoms in a crystal lattice, but one where the atoms can slide along and bunch up). As well as the enthusiastic bits about what metal working has let us do there were also a couple of segments about times when our ambition outreached our knowledge & skills. The first of these was about the railway bridge across the Tay, which collapsed under a train during a storm killing everyone on board. Which was the impetus for figuring out steel production – because it was the first indication for Victorian engineers that iron alone wasn’t necessarily the answer to all the world’s engineering problems. And the second was the first passenger planes, where tragically the stresses that repeated pressurisation & depressurisation put on the metal fuselages of planes was only worked out after several catastrophic mid-air failures.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The third episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was a very padded hour about two Iron Age burials. Very very padded. Bourton-on-the-Water is a village in the Cotswolds that I’ve been to several times as a child, and apparently underneath its primary school there is a fairly large Iron Age site. As the school has expanded they’ve had archaeologists come in and excavate before they put new buildings up, so much has been unearthed. The original burial (a girl in a rubbish pit) was thought to be singular and perhaps a sign of human sacrifice – so the updated info was first debunking that theory and then discussing the other burials they found in the area. All were of women or girls who were in some way diseased or disabled – they speculate that this may’ve been what set these women apart so that they were buried rather than excarnated (left to decompose before burying the bones). One of the bodies was of an older woman who had clearly been paralysed below the waist for several years (her leg bones were withered) but was otherwise in good health (as far as they could detect) which is an indication that these women were well looked after.

The other burial was a chariot burial found in Yorkshire in a village called Wetwang. Subsequent to the original excavation they’ve found evidence that the chariot was in use before death – ie it wasn’t just for burying the woman with, it was her vehicle in life. The woman in the grave was also disfigured, her skull was lopsided – probably pushed that way by a fairly large hemangioma on one of her cheeks. (Wikipedia says haemangiomas disappear over time mostly going by age 10, so perhaps I misremember what they said on the programme as they seemed to be saying it would still be visible in her later years.) She was buried with a mirror, which they’ve now discovered may’ve been kept in an otter fur bag – which may have symbolic status.

We’ll have a gap before we can watch the fourth episode, for some reason it didn’t record last time it aired so I need to wait till it airs again (soon, I think). In it, I suspect he’ll tell us several hundred times how it’s been “over N years since” the original excavations 😉

A Hundred Years of Us

The third episode of A Hundred Years of Us was more of the same mixture as the other two. Phil Tufnell was irritating as a butler this time (but the butler teaching him was too polite to outright laugh). More interesting was the segment on motorways – brand shiny new in the 1950s and requiring informational films about how you shouldn’t do a U-turn if you missed your exit nor have a picnic on the hard shoulder. And they were empty! There was also an interview with a man who’d moved from Jamaica to England in the early 60s (not on the Windrush, his parents moved over on the Windrush). He talked about both the culture shock and the racism he faced – like how he’d corresponded with an agricultural college when he was still in Jamaica to organise becoming a student once he moved to England. But once he turned up (and turned out black) there was magically no space in any of the classes. He ended up having to get a job as a bus conductor in Birmingham. He was keen to stress how much England has changed for the better since he arrived (although this segment also covered how much it got worse before it got better).