Wednesday 28 September 2011

Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel hits shops

Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel hits shops

I wrote last year about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary "debut" - a signed copy of A Study In Scarlet from 1887 - but now it is possible to walk into your local book shop and purchase a copy of an even earlier example of his work, his very first novel no less!

It seems that even the creator of Sherlock Holmes encountered problems with the postal system, leading to his first foray into fiction being lost in the aether (I wonder where it is now?).  Luckily (and despite his later self-deprecating dismissiveness of it) he kept his original notes which are now in the possession of the British Library, who have been allowed by the Conan Doyle estate to publish it.

It sounds quite interesting - a simple narrative yet it will no doubt contain thoughts and opinions that likely reflect those of Doyle, not to mention giving an insight into the politics and social aspects of the period.

I shall keep an eye out for this book the next time I am in my local booksellers.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

WW2 Catalina flying boats return to Fermanagh base

WW2 Catalina flying boats return to Fermanagh base

I've been looking forward to writing up this one all week, as it concerns one of my favourite aircraft - the Consolidated PBY Catalina.  Not only that, it also involves the experiences and reminiscences of two ex-pilots who appear to have grasped the opportunity to fly in one of the few remaining airworthy examples with both hands - and why not?!  It sounds like they had a wonderful time and it's lovely to hear their recollections.

As well as the memories there is of course the interesting historical reminder of one of the ways in which the "neutral" Republic of Ireland was involved in the Second World War.  I myself was aware of similar operations (although not this particular one, I must admit) and of the part played by the Catalina in the sinking of the Bismarck, but as with so much about World War II it is important that such stories remain in the public consciousness - so it's good to see this 70th anniversary being celebrated and reported in such a fashion.

Like so many great aircraft of the war, the Cat has many impressive stories surrounding it and is a wonderful aircraft to see in the air - and on the water!  I well remember one year at my local airshow in Southend a Catalina performing a touch-and-go landing on a (rather rough!) Thames Estuary.  I've even dug out and dusted off my (I say "my" - this was actually built by my father, so long ago that I was probably younger than the "suitable age"!  It's still available, though!) own Airfix model that hasn't seen the light of day for years, especially for this post.

Although the American-designed Catalina had first flown in 1935 it wasn't until 4 years later that the British Air Ministry took an interest in it, and even then they only ordered one example for evaluation.  Having received this somewhat conservative order, Consolidated simply plucked a completed Catalina straight off the production line in San Diego and stuck a crew in it who, thanks to the aircraft's colossal 2,500-mile range, flew it directly from San Diego to Felixstowe in England.  When it arrived, many of those watching from the ground refused to believe that it had flown non-stop across the Atlantic, since its engines were still purring away happily without the slightest sign of strain or oil.  They were even more sceptical when the crew explained that, with the aid of the standard yet sophisticated on-board radio equipment, they had been in wireless contact with San Diego as they had landed.  Even then it wasn't until 1941 that the Catalina entered service with RAF Coastal Command, to perform some of the feats mentioned in this accompanying article.

Elsewhere Cats were performing valuable service with most branches of the U.S. armed forces, most notably as air-sea rescue craft with the U.S. Navy.  In one incident, on the 29th May 1945, a Catalina was sent up to provide support for a B-29 bombing raid on Japan.  On its return one bomber did indeed ditch in the Pacific and the Cat was sent to pick them up.  On arrival at the crash site, the Cat promptly landed in open sea and retrieved the bomber crew from their dinghy.  However on attempting to take off again, it was struck forcibly by three large waves which ripped the port engine and part of the wing clean off.  Crashing through the cockpit, it seriously injured the pilot.  The co-pilot was able to radio a back-up rescue submarine and, despite the substantial damage to its structure the Catalina remained afloat until the sub arrived the following day to pick up both crews.

Such are just two stories to go with the one detailed in the original news piece, there are undoubtedly many more involving this fantastic aeroplane.  May it continue to fly and keep the memories of its pilots and crew alive for many years to come.

Monday 26 September 2011

Babbage Analytical Engine designs to be digitised

Babbage Analytical Engine designs to be digitised

The creation of a full-size replica of noted Victorian engineer Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, as reported in these pages previously, is one step closer to becoming reality now thanks to this latest piece of news.

It may still be early days, and a target date of 2021 seems a long way off, but the London Science Museum is to be commended for agreeing to convert Babbage's handwritten sketches and plans into an easy-to-access digital format.  This will surely be of great use to the team behind the campaign, making their job that little bit easier and ensuring that the project stays alive.

When completed the Analytical Engine will be an enormous machine (we're talking double-decker bus scale here) so it's just as well that Babbage's notes, while not complete, can be easily accessed and analysed before being applied to a computer model and then, finally, a complete and accurate facsimile.

Ten years will be a long time to wait but I'm sure that it will be well worth it, and this blog will continue to report on the progress of this remarkable undertaking.  Carry on, you fellows!

Tornado steam locomotive sets new record

Tornado steam locomotive sets new record

From pedal power to steam power now, and guaranteed to get to Scotland far quicker than any penny-farthing could, Tornado the modern-build steam engine has further added to its laurels.

Striking a blow for the steam locomotive in what must be a great vindication for its creators, 60163 Tornado proves that it has what it takes to go the distance (literally!) and easily overcome the two of the most difficult railway gradients in the British Isles during this record-breaking inaugural trip to Glasgow.  Not to mention weather that, as you can see, while as typically British as the scenery would be a challenge to any train.

There it once again captured the hearts and minds of all who saw her, bringing back happy memories for many and providing everyone involved with a marvellous experience.

I have a distinct feeling that this will not be the last 40-year old steam engine record that the mighty Tornado will break and I for one look forward to reading of its next great achievement.  Well done, chaps!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Penny farthing 'back on the production line'

Penny farthing 'back on the production line'

My favourite kind of news story, this - an historic and unusual device making something of a comeback.  In this case it is the magnificent penny-farthing, the instantly-recognisable Victorian bicycle.

Although there have long been penny-farthing designs available (if you know where to look), these have always been scale versions of the real thing - little more than a novelty; a modern-day pastiche of the classic design complete with BMX-style wheels. 

This one looks to be a different kettle of fish, however.  Practically the same as the original, by all accounts, but with all the bonuses modern industry can bring.  There again we see that great ideal of which I have spoken before - vintage aesthetics married to 21st-Century mechanics.  Perfect!

Roger Lovell (above, left), the chap behind their reintroduction, sounds like just the kind of thoroughly decent fellow who would espouse the cause of these machines - not surprising really as he races them for a hobby (a sport I have blogged about previously).  He is to be commended for bringing these wonderful bikes back into production, not to mention giving the local economy in Leicester a small boost and maintaining an historic link with the area's manufacturing history.

A splendid win-win situation, then.  Who knows, soon we may again all be whizzing about on Leicester-built penny-farthings.  Whee!

Thursday 15 September 2011

Documentary showcases woman pilots of the 1920s

Documentary showcases woman pilots of the 1920s

Proving that anything men can do women can do equally as well, if not better, this second aviation story of the week focuses on the pioneer aviatrices of the United States.

Ruth Nicols
In an amazing story that risked being lost in the mists of time, this new documentary looks at the 20 women including Amelia Earhart who undertook a nine-day flight across continental America in 1929, in what was the first all-female cross-country air race.

The accompanying article gives us a delightful taste of what went on during those 9 days and seventeen stop-overs and the details of this new documentary certainly sounds fascinating - a pity then that it looks to be confined to the US/Region 1 for it covers what was indeed a pivotal moment in the aviation history not of America but also the wider world and so really deserves a wider audience.  If it wasn't for this film producer stumbling across the story it might have remained untold for another 80 years!

As it is the story of this event has been saved for another generation, and for us to marvel at the sheer guts and determination of these early aviatrices - particularly in the face of attitudes to women at that time.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Seaplane flypast marks 1931 Schneider Trophy victory

Seaplane flypast marks 1931 Schneider Trophy victory

I touched upon the Schneider Trophy air races of the 1920s and early Thirties back in March when the Spitfire, the ultimate descendant of the Supermarine S-series seaplanes that took part in them, celebrated it's 75th anniversary.

Yesterday, however, marked the 80th anniversary of the last Schneider Trophy race which was held at Southampton Water in Hampshire and was won for the third time in succession by Great Britain.  This feat allowed the British team to keep the trophy for all time and signalled the end of the competition.  The Supermarine S.6B that won did so at a record-breaking speed of 379mph, later raising it again to 407mph and as has been said setting the template for the famous Spitfire fighter.  The original Schneider Trophy and the S.6B now both reside in the London Science Museum.

As many as half a million people crowded on to the beaches around the Solent to watch the 1931 race and what that must have been like one can only imagine.  That the idea behind the Schneider Trophy - of advancing the field of aeronautical engineering - was so widely embraced not only by the aircraft manufacturers but also by the general population of no less than 4 nations (Great Britain, France, Italy and the United States all took part) shows how much aviation enthralled people during that period.  I've featured it before but footage of the 1929 event bears reshowing; the roar of the Merlin engines, the sheer speed of the aircraft and the hundreds of thousands of spectators cheering them on is something that sadly may never be recaptured.

Today, as the accompanying article explains, two modern seaplanes (and the death of the seaplane has been greatly exaggerated, by the way!) have flown the same course as in 1931 by way of commemoration.  It seems a small act in comparison to the majesty of the original races and the important part they played in eventually ensuring the continued existence of this country, but at least they are being remembered in some fashion.  We may never be able to recreate the evocative images and thrills associated with the Schneider Trophy races but this certainly gives us a chance to look back and marvel at those magnificent men (pilots and designers) and their flying machines who went before.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Boardwalk Empire Is Bringing Back Old School Subways

Image courtesy of Gothamist
Boardwalk Empire Is Bringing Back Old School Subways

A wizard wheeze from HBO, makers of the hit U.S. television series Boardwalk Empire, who have brought an actual 1920s subway train out of retirement and with the assistance of the New York Transit Authority are running it on a limited basis on one of the Manhattan lines for every weekend throughout September!
Image courtesy of Gothamist
The London Transport Museum and London Underground have done similar one-offs in the past with 1930s-era stock, but nothing as old as the '20s I think.  It must be quite an experience; it's just a pity there's a great big ocean between me and it, else I'd probably be on it every weekend!  Well, it's reminded me to keep an eye out for any vintage LU runs in the future, anyway*.  Some videos have already surfaced on YouTube which give a good sense of travelling on a 1920s subway train.  It looks like fun!

Incidentally has anyone actually seen Boardwalk Empire yet?  Is it as good as I hear?  I'm amazed the first series hasn't already been snapped up by Channel 4 or someone.  For the likes of me who refuse to further line the pockets of the Murdoch empire it is most frustrating!  I want my Twenties fix! ;-)


*While searching the Interweb to confirm my memory of the LU/London Transport Museum heritage runs, I've discovered there's another one this Sunday, the 11th September, up at the end of the Metropolitan line between Harrow-on-the-Hill, Rickmansworth and Amersham.  The museum's 1938 train and locomotive are being given an airing and there's even a competition for the best period-dressed passenger!  It may be a little late in the day (certainly is for me, not to mention a little bit of a trek for me at the moment) but I thought I'd bring it to your attention anyway.  Details here.

Monday 5 September 2011

Cord's grandson honours his work

Cord's grandson honours his work

This year marks the 75th anniversary of what, in my humble opinion, is the most beautifully-designed [American] car there has ever been - the 1936-37 Cord 810/812SC.

As always, there is a healthy fan-cum-drivers club in America today as well as a museum and it is the former which has this year organised its annual run around the Cord 810.  I also like the great idea of baseball-style cards being handed out to the local youths of Auburn, Indiana where the cars were originally produced.  It's an inspired way of connecting them with an important aspect of [their] motoring history, in a fun and tangible way.  Well done to Mr Hummel, and here's hoping the 2011 Auburn Cord Duesenberg reunion was a great success.

The Cord Corporation built it's first car in 1929 - the L-29.  This ground-breaking automobile had a front wheel drive layout at a time when every other car in the States was driven from the rear; indeed it was the first such car in America ever and with the exception of the later Cords fwd would not be seen again on a US car until the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. The L-29 was produced for 3 years until 1932 before a break of another 3 years whereupon the 810 arrived.
Founder of the Cord Corporation, Erret Lobban Cord, had already bought the Auburn Automobile Company and Duesenberg during 1925-26.  Until their untimely demise in 1937 Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg (under the design direction of Gordon M. Buehrig) produced some of arguably the best looking cars of the decade, such as the Auburn 851 Speedster and Duesenberg Model J (below).

The Cord 810 was another innovative design.  Front-wheel drive again, it was the first car anywhere in the world with retractable "pop-up" headlights (which were actually originally landing-lights from a light aircraft, and were operated by two hand cranks inside the car).  Other pioneering features included electrically-operated variable-speed windscreen wipers and a radio as standard (the latter offering not seen again for another 20 years).

The next year, 1937, saw the introduced of the supercharged 812, which would prove to be the last hurrah for E.L. Cord's empire.  No other car so perfectly captures the 1930s aesthetic of Art Deco/ Streamline Moderne and the glitz & glamour that such designs continue to evoke.  An example of the Cord 810 was later displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art, surely forever answering the question "Can a car be art?".

*These two fine examples, below, are probably about as close as I'll ever get to having my own Cord 812SC and Auburn 851 Speedster ;-)*


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