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 Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Inside the Animal Mind; Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure; Royal Cousins at War; The Great British Year

Inside the Animal Mind is a three part series presented by Chris Packham that looks at what we know about how animals think and what that tells us about our own thinking. The first episode covered animal senses, the second looked at how intelligent animals are and the third investigated the effects of being social on animal intelligence. In each episode Packham showed us the sorts of experiments currently being done to extend our knowledge of animal minds. For instance one of the questions he looked at in the first episode is how do dogs seem to know when their owners are due home from work? It’s not like they can tell the time after all. It turns out that this may have something to do with scent levels in the house – if you bring into the house something smelling of the owner earlier in the day, which increases the scent levels, then the dog doesn’t react at the normal time.

The first episode was mostly setting the scene for the meat of the series – making sure we knew a bit about how information gets into the animal brain. The next two episodes were mostly concerned with the overall question of how unique are humans. What, if anything, sets us apart from the other animals. So the second episode concentrated on some of the most intelligent animals – primarily a variety of crow species. These birds solve can solve complex puzzles, use tools and even plan for the future. That last was illustrated by an experiment where a couple of crows were kept in a large cage that could be partitioned into three – overnight they were kept in one end or the other, during the day they had free range of the whole cage (and were given plenty of food). They weren’t given a choice about which end of the cage they spent the night. If it was one end they would get breakfast in the morning before the partitions were removed, if it was the other they wouldn’t. So after that pattern had been established they were given places to hide food (little sandtrays) in each end of the cage. During the day they’d hide some of the food they were given, and they’d hide a significantly higher proportion in the “no breakfast” end – knowing that if that was where they ended up then they’d want more food in the morning than if they ended up in the breakfast room.

The last episode concentrated mostly on dolphins (tho also other intelligent social animals, like chimps). The idea is that being social helps to drive the development of intelligence and in particular intelligence to do with communication and recognition of others (and oneself) as individuals. Things we think of as human traits, and some of these traits take a while to develop in young children too – a child won’t recognise his or herself in the mirror until the age of 2, and the ability to realise that other people have other perspectives takes longer than that. Dolphins are one of the few animals to recognise themselves in a mirror – they had footage of a dolphin very clearly admiring himself in a mirror in the water. They also had some footage of how this was first observed – the biologists were observing dolphin mating via a one-way mirror, and when the dolphins realised there was a mirror there they oriented themselves so they could watch themselves while they were mating.

The series didn’t try to provide an answer to what sets us apart from animals – just pointing out that many of the things we think make us special have been found in at least one other species. And yet, there must still be something that means we are the ones with civilisation and advanced technology not the others, but we don’t yet know what that is.

I’d been expecting something a lot more shallow, so this series was a rather nice surprise. Worth watching.

We’ve started watching some of the World War I related programmes that the BBC are broadcasting at the moment. The first three that we’ve watched were sort of prequels to the war. The first was a biography of Edward VII (Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure), and the others were a two part series about the descendants of Queen Victoria who were ruling England, Germany and Russia by the outbreak of the war (Royal Cousins at War). I’m lumping these together to talk about because they had clearly been made by the same team, and had the same format and aesthetic. Each one had a (faceless) narrator, as well as a selection of experts on the subject, and they were very focussed on the biography of the individuals and how that intersected with the politics. At times that did make us feel they overstated the importance of (for instance) the English King in the politics of the day but mostly it stayed on the right side of the line.

The mission of all three programmes seemed to be to humanise the people they were talking about, and one of the tricks they used to do this was by colourising black and white photographs of them which suddenly makes them seem more real. In the two Royal Cousins at War programmes they also had video footage taken by the royals on their holidays – so all messing about a bit and hamming it up for the camera. And of course there’s a soap opera quality to the dysfunctionalness of Queen Victoria’s family. The Edward VII programme spent a lot of time looking at the way the relationship between Victoria and Edward was a vicious circle – she felt he was useless and shouldn’t be trusted with responsibility. So he frittered away his time on women and parties, and whenever he did get given something to do he’d end up doing daft stuff like showing official documents round to his friends to get opinions. Which then meant Victoria had proof he was useless. So that meant by the time he came to the throne no-one, not even himself, thought he was going to be any good at being King. As it turned out, he was good at the job – he was charismatic and much better than his mother at the public performance side of royal duties.

This is also the last hurrah of powerful monarchs in Europe. While Edward VII and his son George V didn’t have much overt power, as constitutional monarchs, they had even less after WWI was over. Their role was still important in terms of diplomacy, however. Edward’s ability to get on with people helped to sweeten relationships with countries such as France – a visit from Edward helped get public opinion onside before the “real diplomats” sat down at the negotiating table to discuss what became the Entente Cordiale. And George’s lifelong friendship with his cousin Tsar Nicholas helped shape the alliance between Russia and England.

At the other end of the spectrum Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas were still autocratic rulers and so their personal qualities and opinions did have a large part to play in politics and foreign policy. They weren’t entirely free to do what they wished – public opinion and the opinions of their politicians did matter, but they had more genuine power than the British monarchy. And sadly neither were particularly competent. Tsar Nicholas seems to’ve epitomised “nice but dim” and combined this with a strong sense of his duty to preserve the authority of his throne. Which doesn’t end well.

The story of Wilhelm is the sort of thing that if you wrote it as fiction people wouldn’t believe it. He was the son of Victoria’s eldest daughter and she had been married off to the Kaiser Wilhelm I’s eldest son with a mission to liberalise Germany. Her husband (heir to the throne) is more liberal than his father and than Wilhelm II would turn out to be – so if only he’d lived to rule longer than a few months then history might’ve gone very differently. Wilhelm II had a very troubled relationship with his mother – he had had a difficult birth, and his left arm was damaged in the process. His mother couldn’t bear the fact that she had a crippled child, and Wilhelm himself felt inadequate – which only got worse as he got older and bought into the militaristic culture of Germany at the time. As future Kaiser he should be the epitome of perfection, and yet he was physically crippled. This sense of humiliation isn’t helped along by relations with his extended family. Edward VII was married to a Danish princess, whose sister was married to Tsar Alexander. Prussia had invaded Denmark, and defeated the Danes, in the 1860s and the Danish royal family had never forgiven them. So the two sisters would organise jolly family holidays … to which Wilhelm was not invited. He seemed to go through most of his life overcompensating for his disability and for his perceived lack of friends. He also seems to’ve been a rather nasty piece of work, too – so even tho some of it was out of his control, he did make his own problems worse.

These programmes were an interestingly different perspective on the run-up to World War I, and I realised how little I know about Germany of that era & Kaiser Wilhelm in particular.

We also finished off watching The Great British Year. This was a nature series, about the wildlife of Britain across the year. I don’t really have much to say about it – the point was very much the visuals, and they did have some spectacular footage 🙂 And there were red squirrels, but not enough of them for J’s tastes 😉

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Episode 1 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.