What’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster?

British Mark IV Female Tank, taken during trai...

British Mark IV Female Tank, taken during training at Bovington Camp in 1917. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t imagine how terrifying they were as they relentlessly lumbered through the mud, the blood and the smoke towards the enemy. Larger than any such machine before, these riveted behemoths trundled towards the Germans. Traditional warfare in the trenches normally happened at a snail’s pace and the British secretly developed tanks as a means to break the deadlock. Not wanting to alert the enemy, they used the word “tank” in order to obscure their real purpose. I guess “armoured fighting vehicle” would be a give away.

They had high hopes for the new machine, but they were slow, unreliable and vulnerable to artillery. However, they were impervious to small arms fire and could ignore most trenches and barbed wire. Although there were serious shortcomings in the early models, they showed promise. I’ve always loved tanks. The ancient armies had their chariots and the knights had their horses, but for me, the tank is the most noble steed of all. After that first indecisive battle, the British persisted and just about everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The worst thing about trench warfare was the lack of movement, so what’s not to like about a moveable trench? Especially one bristling with guns?

By the time WW2 broke out, tanks were more reliable, much faster and they had turret mounted guns giving a 360 degree arc of fire. They also packed more of a punch. In response to bigger guns, tank armour became thicker but as in any arms race, there are always losers. Someone trundling round in an older tank facing an enemy in a brand new model could look forward to a short and very bad day. Tanks have their limitations. Cut off from infantry support, they are quickly overwhelmed. Their lack of manoeuvrability makes them vulnerable in an urban setting. However, on an open battlefield, they are masters of their craft.

Alas, I think the tank will soon go the way of the chariot and the knight. There are helicopters that can sneak over the horizon and nail a tank before the crew even know about it. Drones are in regular use and it won’t be long before there are swarms of them on every battlefield seeking out armoured vehicles. Infantry anti-tank weapons grow ever more sophisticated. There are only three conflicting ways to counter these threats; stealth, mobility and armour. A heavily armoured tank won’t be that mobile and will be easy to spot. A lighter tank, although fleet of foot and harder to spot will be easy pickings.

It may all be irrelevant, because future wars will probably be fought in cyberspace. Those that aren’t will probably be fought at a much smaller, possibly biological scale.

Maybe someone will develop a “nanotank”.


Lean on me

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. P...

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. Photo by G-Man * Oct 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As any pinball player knows, a bit of tilt can be a very good thing. Too much, and it’s game over. When it comes to Technology, getting that tilt right is even harder.

My mother suffers from terrible seasickness. When we used to get the ferry over to Ireland, she would start being sick as soon as we left the harbour wall and she wouldn’t stop again until we were firmly docked at the other end.

Sir Henry Bessemer was a man after her own heart. He recognised the problem of seasickness and tried to devise an ingenious solution. He understood that the cause of seasickness was all the rocking and rolling of the cabin. If one could eliminate that, the passengers could enjoy a smooth ride. His solution was to mount the saloon independently of the ship, the SS Bessemer, on gimbals. Whilst the ship sailed along, a man watched a spirit level and pulled a lever to keep the saloon level.

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1)

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1) (Photo credit: Marcel Douwe Dekker)

Unfortunately for Sir Henry, it’s not a great idea to have something rolling around in the middle of a ship as it makes it very unstable and difficult to steer. That’s why oil tankers have baffles to stop the oil sloshing around. The maiden voyage was a disaster. The ship crashed into Calais pier not once but twice because of the instability of the ship.

On land, at least you don’t have the vagaries sea level to worry about which ought to make tilting things easier. In the 1970s, British Rail set about devising a tilting train to increase the speed of the rail network. France and Japan had leapfrogged Britain with the TGV and the bullet train.

If the tracks were completely straight, going fast would not be a problem. Unfortunately, they have a habit of bending to avoid things like hills, lakes and the sea. As any motorcyclist knows, if you want to go round a corner fast, the best thing to do is lean over. British Rail’s answer to this was the Advanced Passenger Train (the APT).

The train Used a series of sensors to measure the telemetry of the train and a set of hydraulic rams to lean into the corner. Also debuting on the Advanced Passenger Train was an incredibly sophisticated braking system which allowed the train to brake within the existing signal network. Unfortunately, all this sophistication was the APT’s downfall. They were incredibly unreliable in service and there were complaints from some about motion sickness.

Big Ben

Big Ben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes when you are making advances in rail technology, the last thing you want is any tilting. When engineers undertook the Jubilee line extension in 1994, they were painfully aware of some of the challenges that faced them.

One of their biggest headaches was the station opposite Big Ben. Everyone knew that Big Ben had been built on perilously shallow foundations. Indeed, on its completion, it started to lean to the North. If the Jubilee Line engineers came along digging a big hole next door, there was every chance the tower could topple into the Thames, which would not make great PR for the project.

In order to prevent any further tilting, they injected tubes of concrete in a star shape around the base of the tower. They injected concrete through holes in these tubes to stabilise the soft earth. During the project, they measured the exact angle of Big Ben regularly and if there was the slightest hint of a tilt, they injected more concrete. The Jubilee Line extension had its problems during construction, but a leaning Big Ben was not one of them.

The Industrial Renaissance

Teenage mutant ninja turtles

Teenage mutant ninja turtles (Photo credit: cubedude27)

I have to confess that the names Michelangelo and Leonardo make me think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles long before I think of Florence and all the amazing architecture and artwork. Even so, it’s an amazing place. We spent a day there and marvelled at all the sights. Our tour guide was a short, round man who sported a massive pink umbrella which he held aloft for us to follow. One of the first things he told us was that he was homosexual. At first I wondered what relevance his sexuality could possibly have, but as he took us around all the beautiful buildings he pointed out, he told us a little about the famous renaissance men.

The way he explained it, they were all lovers and they spent their spare time, whilst they weren’t painting masterpieces or carving marble, sleeping with each other. “It was a marvellous time” he told us in his squeaky Italian accented voice. “There was love everywhere and that’s where the inspiration for all these masterpieces came from.” Whatever it was that inspired those great artists, they did a fine job, even if it does mean you get fleeced everywhere you because you are in the presence of greatness.

Although they are very nice works of art and Florence is a beautiful city, I have far more respect for another period in history. If I could travel back in time, the period of choice has to be the Industrial Revolution. In less than a century, a number of inventors transformed the world. Great advances in textiles, metallurgy and energy made more of an impact than any other period that came before (and arguably afterwards). Isambard Kingdom Brunel built God’s Wonderful Railway and if he’d won the argument about how wide apart the rails should be, we would have much faster, safer and more comfortable trains today. Instead, Stephenson, another Victorian engineer won out. Railway lines spread out across the country in a frenzy of navvies.

It was an age that saw the first postage stamp, the first pedal bicycle and the first flushing toilet. Telephones and typewriters were invented along with petrochemicals. For those with a sweet tooth, someone invented jelly babies and ice cream. Pasteurisation meant you could eat the ice cream without fear of being poisoned. The electric light bulb came along to light up our lives. For those with an ear for music, along came the gramophone and the wireless. Children all over the world (as well as some grown up children) give thanks for the invention of the comic book.

Maybe we will look back at the last hundred years and think it a revolution of a different kind. The internet revolution, although undoubtedly profound, somehow pales in my mind when compared with the achievements of our Victorian forefathers.


A brief history of warfare

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over time, the human race has devoted a lot of energy to finding creative new ways to hurt or kill each other. Back in the dragging women back to the cave by their hair days, sticks and stones were the order of the day. Plentiful and easily fashioned, these devices would do the job but it would be messy and time consuming. Not only that, but if both of you are similarly armed, regardless of the victor, it’s highly likely you will both be hurting afterwards. Sooner or later, one bright caveman realised that if you took a very small, sharp stone and attached it to a stick, it could be thrown some distance with accuracy. Once the spear had been invented, cavemen no longer had to fight at such close quarters.

Sharpened flints were all well and good, but they were a bit crude. When metals were discovered, weapons could be much more strong and finely constructed. The sword became the order of the day. Some of them were sharp and some of them were heavy, but they were all effective. In response to this, metalworkers developed armour and shields. In order to breech the armour, bows and arrows and crossbows came about. Nothing struck fear into the heart of a warrior in plate mail armour than a crossbowman.

For a time, occupiers built castles which were a hardy defence to most of the weapons of the day. With the advent of gunpowder and cannons, the balance of power changed yet again. The walls could be easily breached and deadly missiles could rain down into the interior of the castle. Muskets and rifles reduced the skill level required of the average foot soldier and increased his range.

During world war I, there were a number of advancements. Aeroplanes were used for reconnaissance and later for bombing missions. Once the bombers became enough of a nuisance, fighters were developed. The most famous of which being Baron von Richthofen in his glorious red Fokker DR1 triplane. Trench warfare was the order of the day. The only way to advance was to assemble a large number of men and go “over the top”. With the advent of the machine gun, such tactics were stopped in their tracks. A well aimed machine gun operated by a handful of men could take out hundreds of soldiers. In order to counter this, the tank was developed. Because it was bulletproof and had caterpillar tracks, the tank could advance with impunity.

By the time world war II started, aircraft could fly much further and could carry a lot more. It is hard to believe now, but at times during world war II, it was routine for London and Berlin, both European capital cities, to have many tons of high explosives dropped on them on a nightly basis. When you think that the slightest innocent casualty in a war today causes an outcry, it’s a sobering thought. With the advent of the V1 and V2 rockets, missile technology was well and truly here to stay. When the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, the scene was set for the cold war.

Fast forward to the first gulf war and the tales of cruise missiles flying down streets and navigating through towns were absolutely mesmerising. By the time we got to the second gulf war, laser guided missiles meant that explosives could be delivered with pinpoint accuracy. With all this technology, sometimes the most effective weapons are the most simple and Improvised Explosive Devices (or IEDs) have been used to murderous effect by the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Weapons get more sophisticated by the day. Bullets can now go round corners and there is enough destructive power in the world’s nuclear arsenal to lay waste to our wonderful planet several times over. It is no wonder that Albert Einstein said that he had no idea what weapons would be used in world war III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

News travels fast


English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalg...

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s connected world, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago, events took a long time to become widely known. News was originally spread by word of mouth which meant that it travelled only as fast as the people who carried it. With the advent of literacy and language, people began to use the written word to communicate with the wider world around us.

Military communications relied on various methods throughout the ages. A company runner was often sent across a battlefield carrying instructions between different units. Sometimes he even survived the trip. Semaphore signals using flags or lanterns were somewhat safer and are still in use today between ships in the same formation.

There is a plaque in Kensington marking how the news of Nelson’s death was broken. After he was killed in the battle of Trafalgar just off the coast of Cadiz, the ship carrying his body pickled in a barrel sailed to Falmouth where the news was sent by rider to London. Even after riding through the night changing horses at every opportunity – it was days before the public knew about Nelson’s death. As time went on, despatch riders exchanged their horses for motorcycles and advances in radio and telecommunications rendered them pretty much obsolete altogether.

In the wild west, news was propagated by the pony express – literally men on ponies riding from town to town spreading news of anything noteworthy. As the railroads crept across continental America, telegraph lines were built alongside and before too long, a message given to a telegraph operator in one town could be relayed to the other side of the country in a matter of hours.

The first recognisable newspapers came about in Venice around the 17th century. Costing one gazetta (a small coin of the time), these handwritten sheets gave the reader an inkling of what was happening in the world. During the industrial revolution, great advances were made in technology and it was possible to buy a printed newspaper for the first time. Many of the newspapers we recognise today (such as the Times or the New York Post) started at around this time.

In order to populate the newspapers with stories, they relied on correspondents. They were so-called because they would send in the stories via letter. Any such letters from far away climes would travel on packet steamers across the oceans to deliver their stories to the newspaper office ready for publishing. The further away the correspondent, the longer the delay.

When I was growing up, if you wanted news you either read a newspaper or tuned in to the television at 6PM or 10PM.

Today, there are whole networks and channels devoted to bringing the news into your life 24 hours a day. There are hundreds of sites all over the internet dedicated to providing the very latest news. It can be a matter of seconds before a story becomes world news. Satellite technology means that correspondents can report direct from very remote locations live as events unfold.

Not only that, but smartphones have become so sophisticated now that every user is a potential correspondent. Nowadays, we get breathtaking footage of disasters as they unfold – often in high-definition. Revolutions that might have once been quietly suppressed by brutal regimes are now headline news. There have been many high-profile cases where people have attempted to stand Canute-like against an unwelcome story by taking out injunctions. With Twitter, the news seems to sweep over them like an angry wave.

If only more of the news was good news!


When you think about it…

A 12" record, a 7″ record, and a CD-ROM.

It struck me the other day that I have been working for over 25 years and in my lifetime so far, I have seen an incredible amount of technological change. When you think about all the changes in communications, entertainment, transport & media, it makes your head spin.

As kids we used to listen to vinyl records. Occasionally, we might transfer the songs on those vinyl records to cassette tape so that we could make compilations of songs we liked or so that we could listen to them in the car. I would venture to suggest that there is a sizeable number of people alive today who wouldn’t recognise either of these two modes of listening to music. Vinyl records gave way to compact discs, but when was the last time you bought a compact disc ? I certainly can’t remember the last one I bought.

The TV we watched at home used to be black and white. It used to take an absolute age to warm up so for a long time, you only heard the audio. When you turned it off, the picture slowly disappeared down to a central white spot as bright as a pulsar before finally winking out leaving the screen slate grey. The screen was far from flat, it bulged out into the front room like Big Brother’s eyeball and the TV was so deep, it was roughly the same kind of proportions as the fridge.

The buttons were of the mechanical push the new one in and the old one pops out kind of touch. You had mysterious settings like vertical hold and horizontal hold and you had to tune the thing in which involved a screwdriver. When we moved once, our new house had six channels – that was twice as many as we had in the previous house. I suspect that if you exposed children to that kind of environment today, they would be on the phone to childline before you had retuned the TV.

My Uncle Nobby once showed me an Irish phone box during one of our trips to Ireland. It had a handle that you used to wind and wait for the operator to answer. You then told the operator which number you wanted and they would put you through. I thought that the whole thing was terribly antiquated because at home, you could ring anyone in the world.

Number by number, you would stick your finger in the dial and drag it round to the stop and patiently wait for the dial to slowly return to rest. The whole process would take about a minute to a minute and a half for a long number. I used to remember phone numbers – I still remember nan and grandad’s (01793 724159) mainly because I remember the way nan used to sing the number out whenever anyone called the house. How many numbers can you remember today?

When I was given a pager by my company, I thought I was the bee’s knees. I could be contacted anywhere in the UK. Whenever you had a message, the thing would beep and buzz and you found a landline and called a special number to speak to someone who read out your message. Typically the message would be to phone someone else, so you would have to write the number down before ringing off so that you could make another call. My next pager had an LCD display where the actual message was displayed. Whoever was leaving the message still had to phone up and speak to an operator, but at least it was progress.

Cars in those days routinely had no power steering, no power assisted brakes and no electric windows. They routinely only had four gears (or three if the car was an automatic). Many cars had plastic seats. Unless you drove  a Volvo or maybe a Saab, they were pretty much death traps. Crash testing was in its infancy, so there wasn’t much effort put into crumple zones unless you owned an old British Leyland car which would probably spontaneously crumple all on its own.

I remember when I was given my first camera. It was a Kodak brownie which like all cameras of the era took film that you had to load into the back. Mine could take up to 24 pictures which you then had to get developed which meant putting the film into an envelope and posting them off. When they came back a week or two later, it would be your first look at the photos you had taken.

When you are living through it, technological change seems to pass agonisingly slowly. It is only when you look back at how things were not so very long ago, you realise how quickly things evolve. It is this pace of change which makes me so excited about what will happen over the coming decades.

I am incredibly excited by the smart goggles under development by Google. Pretty soon, I won’t be handing over the cost of an iPad to my optician ever couple of years. I will have some electronic glasses that will automatically adjust to my degrading vsion. Not only that – but I will see the whole world in augmented reality. If as they suggest that they will be able to make these available as contact lenses – I think the whole world will start to wear them regardless of their state of vision.

I am also incredibly excited about the low barriers to entry that we see everywhere. Want to publish a book – no problem go right ahead. Want to make a film – as Iron Sky has shown, you can crowd source your investment and away you go. There has never been a better time to start a business. In a matter of hours, you could have your own website with umpteen different ways to pay and you could get your wares in front of potentially anyone.

I think the pace of change can only accelerate.