Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

Grey Goo in the 1960s

17 Nov
  • “As soon as each box was activated, it began to roll about on the table on its little casters, avoiding collision with its fellows.”

Back in the 1970s, I read a rather strange novel by John Sladek – “The Reproductive System” (1968).  A researcher, Calvin Potter, helps build a self-replicating robot system. The project was set up by “Wompler’s Walking Babies” as a way to get government money when sales of the dolls died away. Other than a difference in scale (the individual units are inches across) the plot concerns the “grey goo” problem encountered in modern discussions of nanotechnology, although in a rather surreal way. The researcher wasn’t particularly competent – he only got the job because the application form didn’t have room for “Miami Institute of Technocracy” so he had to put down “M.I.T.“, but then no-one else really seemed to know what they were doing either.

At each exhibit, Grandison would pause while Cal named the piece of equipment. Then he would repeat the name softly, with a kind of wonder, nod sagely, and move on. Cal was strongly reminded of the way some people look at modern art exhibitions, where the labels become more important to them than the objects. He found himself making up elaborate names.
“And this, you’ll note, is the Mondriaan Modular Mnemonicon.”
“—onicon, yes.”
“And the Empyrean diffractosphere.”
“—sphere. Mn. I see.”
Nothing surprised Grandison, for he was looking at nothing. Cal became wilder. Pointing to Hita’s desk, he said, “The chiarascuro thermocouple.”
“Couple? Looks like only one, to me. Interesting, though.”
A briar pipe became a “zygotic pipette,” the glass ashtray a “Piltdown retort,” and the lamp a “phase-conditioned Aeolian.” Paperclips became “nuances.”
“Nuances, I see. Very fine. What’s that thing, now?”
He pointed to an oscilloscope. Cal took a deep breath.
“Its full name,” he said, “is the Praetorian eschatalogical morphomorphic tangram, Endymion-type, but we usually just call it a ramification.”
The old man fixed him with a stern black eye. “Are you trying to be funny or something? I mean, I may not be a smart-aleck scientist, but I sure as hell know a television when I see one.”
Cal assured him it was not a television, and proved it by switching it on. “See,” he said, pointing to a pattern of square waves, “there are the little anapests.”

It was an array of gray metal boxes, each about the size of a cigarette package, stacked loosely together in a cube about two feet high. When the toggle switch, prominent on the top of any one box was thrown, it sent out a tuned starting signal to the rest; they were switched off in the same way.
As soon as each box was activated, it began to roll about on the table on its little casters, avoiding collision with its fellows. When all the boxes were moving, they resembled a complicated Brownian movement on the dark  surface of the table, as they explored every inch of it.
Kurt and Karl placed bits and scraps of metal on the table. The smaller bits were at once devoured by individual  boxes, but the larger bars attracted the entire brood. The gray packages, now the size of king-size cigarette cases, swarmed over them like ants, gouging away with tiny cutters and torches — and growing fatter.
It made Cal shiver to look at their orderly feeding.

NOTE: The animated gif at the top of the page was an attempt to illustrate the little grey boxes swarming. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to create – using Blender and Gimp – but I learned a whole bunch of new techniques. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the ‘Boids‘ functions working properly in Blender. My attempts had impressive flocks of hundreds of little machines, but I couldn’t get them to respect each other’s physical space. Sigh.

Science, Magic, and Silliness

3 Oct

Thorne Smith was a popular writer in the 1920s and 1930s, now remembered best for his “Topper” books which were made into successful movies starring Cary Grant. He also wrote fantasy and other genres.

The Night Life of the Gods” (1931) was a wonderful farce, with some sparkling dialog, now rather undeservedly forgotten.  A scientist (Hunter Hawk) creates a ray to turn flesh into stone. While (drunkenly) celebrating his discovery,  he meets one of the ‘little people’ and begins a romance with his daughter Megaera (an 800 year old) who has magic which can bring statues to life. There’s some entertaining slapstick as they pit science against magic. Then they get bored one night, in the metropolitan museum,  while surrounded by statues of Greek gods …

At this stage in the deliberations Alfred, Junior, age seventeen, lolled into the room. He tossed his hat at a chair with which it failed to connect. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and looked ugly. He confronted his mother and began to speak in one of those voices which had it been a face one would have instinctively slapped.

He turned to his work-bench and picked up the two rings on which he had been working. In each ring was deeply imbedded one of the small silver balls most potently charged with its remarkable properties.

‘I have merely to direct the rays emanating from this ring,’ he continued, ‘at any living object and that object, whether man or beast, will immediately be turned to stone. A slight pressure of the finger on the back of the ring is all that is required to release the ray. With this ring I can achieve either partial or complete petrification.

‘You,’ he said, ‘would make a lovely statue. I could keep you in the garden. Might even make a fountain out of you.’

We’re even older than your family. I knew your father well by sight. He was much like you, only by this time of night he usually staggered more.’

‘Thanks,’ said Mr Hawk rather drily. ‘I can tell you must have known him. Exactly what did you say you were—one of the Little People? I’ve heard of them or read of them or something.’

‘Yes,’ replied the little man. ‘We emigrated from Ireland long before the great-great-grandfather of Christopher Columbus ever climbed through a bedroom window.’

‘I never knew he did,’ said Hunter Hawk.

‘Neither do I,’ replied the little man, ‘but I imagine he must have done. ‘Most every man does at one time or another, if it isn’t too far to the ground. Haven’t you?’

‘My God! Look!’ a woman cried hysterically. ‘Brightly has turned to a statue now.’

It was true. Mr Hawk in desperation had been forced to petrify his host. Brightly stood motionless before him, the gun levelled at his head.

At this moment Megaera appeared at the head of the stairs. Her large dark eyes were fixed on Mr Hawk. She was concentrating desperately, putting all her will power into her eyes, calling upon her reserve supply of magic to overcome the potency of Hunter Hawk’s ray. She was determined to play an exceptionally dirty trick on this man who had betrayed her trust. Her heart glowed with triumph as she felt herself succeeding.

Hunter Hawk reluctantly came back to himself, sweating. A moment later Meg effected the restoration of Mr Brightly. And a moment later than that there was the report of another shot. Bang! Zing! Going at great speed something small but hard buried itself in the wall less than an inch from Mr Hawk’s ear. Accustomed as he was to explosions, he was nevertheless unable to regard his present predicament with equanimity. He found himself in the position of a man who is forced to do several difficult things at once. One of these things was to maintain his towel in the important capacity it now filled. The knot, he feared, was working loose. Another thing was to continue rapidly down those stairs regardless of the throng awaiting him at their base. Finally, it would be helpful if he could repetrify Mr Brightly. That should be done without further delay.

Then Hawk performed the incredibly simple yet effective rites into which Meg had introduced him back in the grotto on the night when he had first met her — the night following his own great discovery.

For a brief moment the statue remained motionless, then, with disconcerting agility, it came to life. Jumping down from its pedestal it stood before its grateful liberators.

‘My thanks,’ said Mercury, looking at Meg with suave admiration. ‘Standing poised on the ball of one’s foot for Zeus knows how long is no Roman holiday. One is supposed to do that merely in passing, you know. If sculptors must continue to sculp they should favour the recumbent school.

‘Sin,’ came surprisingly from Mr Betts, ‘is forgetting to pull down the shades.’

‘Oh,’ said Mercury, ‘I understand. It’s not unlike leaving the door unlocked.’

‘Or grabbing the wrong sandals when you jump through the back window,’ Apollo added reminiscently.

‘So it’s that’, said Venus, her face clearing. ‘Well, if you ask me, I think sin is nice. I’d like to live in it.’

‘You’ve never lived out of it.’ Diana tossed at her.

At the moment Mercury was holding forth. ‘What we need,’ he said, addressing his remarks to the Olympians, ‘is a high stone wall. I know all about such matters, and if you’ll all bear a hand we can throw one up in no time.’

The deliberations following this proposal exhausted the contents of three shakers, after which the gods and goddesses alike hurried enthusiastically to the uncompleted section of the wall. Sand and cement were brought from the work sheds, and rocks were collected with feverish energy. The gods were good workers once their minds had been set on a task to accomplish. Mr Betts, realizing the futility of mixing drinks in a shaker, began to use a bucket which Hebe carried along the line of activity whenever she saw an Olympian’s ambition flagging through lack of fuel. Mr Hawk regarded the whole affair as being quite in keeping with the unstable enterprise of the gods, but as it kept them happy and out of other and perhaps more disturbing pursuits, he gave them a free hand.

The text is available on Project Gutenberg. source

Two Adventures from the 1960s

27 Sep

Here’s a couple of old fashioned science fiction novels from the heyday of Poul Anderson – spaceships and interesting aliens.  Be warned, I’m an engineer and that shows in my choice of extracts. There’s also plenty of lively dialog in these stories, and interesting characters.

The Star Fox (1965)

One of my all time favourites, the story concerns an industrialist (Gunnar Heim) financing and then commanding an armed privateer to harass an alien species which has conquered a human populated world. The Earth government is dead set on appeasement and refuses to accept that there are any human survivors on the world so it’s somewhat of  a ‘man of honour doing what he must’ story. There’s actually relatively little combat but plenty of action, especially during a trek across the ruined landscape of a hydrogen atmosphere world, fighting off a walking forest and ancient sentinel robots. The alien Aleriona, exemplified by Cynbe ru Taren (‘Intellect master of the garden of war‘)  are also nicely drawn, an ancient race who distrust humans because we’ve developed so fast.

A ship raised from the planet. Forces pulsed in her gravitrons, meshed with the interwoven fields of the cosmos, drove her out at ever-mounting speed. As Aurore fell behind, space grew less distorted by the star’s mass. She would soon reach a point where the metric approximated a straight line so nearly that it was safe to draw the forces entirely around her, cut off that induction effect known as inertia, and outpace light.

A million kilometers away. Fox II observed her:  saw by visible light and infrared, felt with a ghostly quickly-brushing whisker of radar, heard faint ripples of her drive in space, snuffed the neutrinos from her engines, and came to carnivore alertness.

“If races less powerful than we change, that makes nothing more than a pullulation among insects. But you, you come in ten or twenty thousand years, one flick of time, come from the caves, bear weapons to shake planets as is borne a stone war-axe, you beswarm these stars and your dreams reach at the whole galaxy, at the whole cosmos. That can we not endure! … Would you, could you trust a race grown strong that feeds on living brains? No more is Alerion able to trust a race without bounds to its hope. Back to your own planets must you be cast, maychance back to your caves or your dust.”

Satan’s World (1969)

An interesting story of interstellar conflict. The protagonists are Nicholas van Rijn, some of his employees, and an interesting alien species who, though rather primitive in some ways,  had built a civilisation around massively automated technology. I particularly liked the alien taskforce of  twenty three warships which turns out to have only one live alien in the entire fleet (which is part of his personal possessions). The prize is interesting; a frozen planet, not bound to any star, which is going to be heated up by a near miss with a star and can then be used for massive industrialisation.

He did find that the nineteen destroyers or escort pursuers, or whatever you wanted to call them, were streamlined for descent into atmosphere:  but radically streamlined, thrice the length of his vessel without having appreciably more beam. They looked like stiffened conger eels.  The cruisers bore more resemblance to sharks, with gaunt finlike structures that must be instrument or control turrets. The battleship was basically a huge spheroid, but this was obscured by the steel towers, pill-boxes, derricks, and emplacements that covered her hull.

You might as well use naval words for yonder craft, even though none corresponded exactly to such classes in the League.  They bristled with guns, missile launchers, energy projectors. Literally, they bristled, Falkayn had never before encountered vessels so heavily armed.  With the machinery and magazines that that entailed …  where the devil was room left for a crew?

They were meant for aerodynamic work.  They had orders to catch and kill a certain vessel.  They were robots.

They did not have sophontic judgment, nor any data to let them estimate how appalling these totally unprecedented conditions were, nor any mandate to wait for further instructions if matters looked doubtful.  Besides, they observed a smaller and less powerful craft maneuvering in the air.

They entered at their top atmospheric speed.

Muddlehead had identified a hurricane and plotted its extent and course.  It was merely a hurricane — winds of two or three hundred kilometers per hour — a kind of back eddy or dead spot in the storm that drove across this continent with such might that half an ocean was carried before it.  No matter how thoroughly self-programmed, on the basis of how much patiently collected data, no vessel could hope to stay in the comparatively safe region long.

The destroyers blundered into the main blast.  It caught them as a November gale catches dead leaves in the northlands of Earth. Some it bounced playfully between cloud-floor and wind-roof, for whole minutes, before it cast them aside.  Some it peeled open, or broke apart with the meteoroidal chunks of solid matter it bore along, or drowned in the spume-filled air farther down. Most it tossed at once against mountainsides.  The pieces were strewn, blown away, buried, reduced in a few weeks to dust, mud, atoms locked into newly forming rock strata.  No trace of the nineteen warships would ever be found.

The Skylark Spaceships

5 Aug

Just under a hundred years ago (1915), Edward E Smith started writing what was arguably the archetypal “Space Opera” series. The four books “The Skylark of Space“, “Skylark Three“, “Skylark of Valeron“, and “Skylark DuQuesne” are classics – spaceships, deadly weapons, evil alien races (and plenty of friendly ones), and huge helpings of action. Some people find them the writing style a bit much, though the last of the books was published in 1966 so so it’s less dated. Personally, I love the whole series. The characters, the violence, the “engineerishness”, and especially the sheer scale of the stories. More than any series before, and very few since, Smith kept making things bigger in each story. The first book is about a small group of people from Earth, hurled into the depths of space in their tiny ship and trying to get back. By the second book, it’s time for inter-species war, alien alliances, and giant spaceships. Third book – more aliens, worse war, bigger ships. In the fourth book an entire GALAXY is destroyed.

There’s interesting things to be said about the characters (especially the arch-villian/hero Marc C. DuQuesne), and the alien races (who range from noble to evil with a side order of strange, and every one of which think the humans are weird), but I thought I’d illustrate the “bigger, more powerful” progression by just looking at the various spacecraft mentioned.

Note: I’ve converted measurements to metric as my dear wife commented that comparing “feet” to “miles” isn’t easy for someone who was born the year we went metric (back in the 1960s).

[Skylark of Space]


Our heros Richard Seaton and Martin Crane design a spacecraft around Seaton’s amazing discovery. The villainous World Steel Corporation sabotages it, while building their own ship from the plans. However Seaton and Crane secretly build the “Skylark of Space”, a bigger ship to go exploring with.

It was a spherical shell of hardened steel of great thickness, some forty feet in diameter. Its true shape was not readily apparent from inside, as it was divided into levels and compartments by decks and walls. In its center was a spherical structure of girders and beams. Inside this structure was a similar one which, on smooth but immensely strong universal bearings, was free to revolve in any direction.  This inner sphere was filled with machinery surrounding a shining copper cylinder

So that’s a sphere 12 m in diameter, containing 950 m3 of space.

“Old Crip”

While it was being built, Seaton and Crane went ahead with the construction of the original spaceship. Practically all of their time, however, was spent in perfecting the many essential things that were to go into the real Skylark. Thus they did not know that to the flawed members there were being attached faulty plates by imperfect welding. Nor could they have detected the poor workmanship by any ordinary inspection, for it was being done by a picked crew of experts — picked by Perkins. To make things even, Steel did not know that the many peculiar instruments installed by Seaton and Crane were not exactly what they should have been. In due course “The Cripple” — a name which Seaton soon shortened to “Old Crip” — was finished.

The Skylark is described as “four times bigger than Old Crip”. That can’t be four times the diameter (a 3m diameter spacecraft is too small and there’s reference to “our room” and “the galley”) so I’ll assume it’s four times less volume. That would make it a sphere 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter holding a measly 230 m3 of space.

“DuQuesne’s ship”

DuQuesne and Perkins (villain and henchman) take off in a Steel Corp’s copy of the original plans – i.e. the same size as “Old Crip”.  They kidnap Seaton’s fiance, Dorothy Vaneman, and head off into space, taking also a (beautiful) witness, Margaret Spencer, to be disposed of.

[Skylark Three]

“Fenachrone warship”

The Skylark (version two, same size but much better armoured) encounters a warship of the squat and monstrous Fenachrone, who are setting out to conquer the galaxy.

Yes, it is a space-ship, shaped like a dirigible airship … it must be a thousand feet long

Ok, that’s 305 m long (much bigger than the tiny Skylark), but what dimensions? Taking the “Hindenburg” as a typical dirigible airship, it was 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Applying the same ratio and approximating, we get a ship 50 m in diameter, holding about 700,000 m3 of volume.

“The Violet”

Meanwhile, DuQuesne and his new henchman Loring have stolen a warship from the planet Osnome.

“This ship must be seventy-five feet in diameter.”

“You and me both. But say, every ship’s got to have a name. This new one of ours is such a sweet, harmless, inoffensive little thing,  we’d better name her the Violet, hadn’t we?”

Another spherical ship, bigger than the Skylark at 23 m diameter (6,400 m3), but tiny compared to the Fenachrone cruiser.

“Skylark Three”

Seaton and Crane aren’t going to stand still when others are flying vast ships and trying to exterminate all competition. In short order they track down the Norlaminians, an ancient race of scientists who have been studying everything worth studying for thousands of years.  Though utterly pacifist, they are willing to build Seaton a real man’s ship.

For two miles that enormous mass of metal extended over the country-side, and while it was very narrow for its length, still its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed everything nearby.

The Skylark lay stretched out over two miles of country, exactly as they had last seen her, but now, instead of being water-white, the ten-thousand-foot cruiser of the void was one jointless, seamless structure of sparkling, transparent, purple inoson.

Taking the “2 miles” figure (10,000 feet is about 200m less), we get a ship that’s 3000 m long and 450 m in diameter. Plenty of space inside for all sorts of things, with 580,000,000 m3 of volume. Indeed, there’s enough space that the old Skylark Two is installed as a ship’s boat.

“Ravindau’s ship”

The Fenachrone home planet and their fleet are destroyed remotely, but Ravindau, a Fenachrone scientist, escapes with a colony ship he’s prepared in secret.

In a remote and desolate part of the planet, concealed in the depths of the towering jungle growth, a mammoth space-cruiser was receiving her complement of passengers.

No dimensions are given but it is described as smaller than the Skylark Three, which is thus able to store more tonnage of metal to feed into total conversion reactors, to power bigger weapons, to overwhelm the last of the Fenachrone.

[Skylark of Valeron]

The five crew of the Skylark Three (Seaton, Crane, their wives, and their cook) run into a group of disembodied intelligences (think Q from Star Trek TNG). The Skylark Three is destroyed, but they escape by rotating into another dimension in the old Skylark Two.

“DuQuesne’s ship”

DuQuesne is a consumate con-man, and fools the peaceful Norlaminians into using their automated factory system to build him a duplicate of the Skylark Three so that he can search for the missing Seaton. Not that he has any intention of doing so – not when Earth is just waiting to be conquered.

For before their  eyes there had already sprung into being an enormous structure of laced and latticed members of purple metal, stretching over two miles of level plain. While it was very narrow for its length, yet its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed into insignificance the many outlandish structures near by, and under their staring eyes the vessel continued to take form with unbelievable rapidity. Gigantic girders appeared in place as though by magic; skin after skin of thick, purple inoson was welded on; all without the touch of a hand, without the thought of a brain, without the application of any visible force.

“Skylark of Valeron”

Seaton and crew return from their (harrowing) adventures in another dimension, popping back into normal space in a far, far distant galaxy. Just finding their home world will be a challenge, but a bigger one is a planet full of chlorine breathing monsters who have enslaved a local world of humans. This calls for a seriously bigger ship!

Mart and I did some figuring and decided that with circles one thousand kilometers in diameter we could chart galaxies accurately enough to find the one we’re looking for … Therefore, we built the Skylark of Valeron just large enough to contain those thousand-kilometer circles.”

Gah! This is one HUGE ship, 1,000,000 m in diameter, a sphere containing 52,400,000,000,000,000,000 m3 of machinery, drives, and weapons – not to mention a cubic mile of computer.

“Sacner Carfon’s ship”

The Norlaminians realise they’ve made a big error by supplying DuQuesne with such a powerful spacecraft. They gather a crew of Seaton’s allies and supply them with a bigger ship

Fully twice the size of Skylark Three in every dimension she lay there, surcharged with power and might, awaiting only her commander’s touch to hurl herself away toward distant and inimical Earth.

A decent sized ship by any normal measure, at 6500 m long and 900 m in diameter (that’s 4,620,000,000 m3) but DuQuesne has fortified the planet and they have to retire ignominiously in defeat. Alas, his triumph is short lived once Seaton and his travelling planetoid turn up.

[Skylark DuQuesne]

There’s many twists and turns in the last book. DuQuesne allies himself with Seaton to tackle a greater danger … betrays him … allies with him … psychic powers are harnessed to build vast weapons … an entire galaxy of the Chlorine breathing aliens attack … and so on.


A crew of 800 genius scientists from a distant galaxy, secretly travel to Earth and build a giant ship on the Moon. They’re just there to take advantage of Earth’s background noise (as the planet gears up with the new technologies brought by Seaton and DuQuesne) so that they can return and fight their own revolution against their lizard-like overlords.

The Mallidaxian’s slimly powerful length now extended for a distance of two and one half miles from the mountain’s foot out into the level-floored crater

A moderate sized ship, at 4000 m long and (based on the Hindinburg again) say 670 m diameter. There’s plenty of room for laboratories and fancy staterooms when you have 1,600,000,000 m3 to play with. A chunk of it is taken up with an instantanious transporter which is useful for flipping hydrogen bombs into your opponent’s office.


Marc DuQuesne is not the sort of person who accepts someone else having a bigger ship. Something has to be done.

Nor was DuQuesne’s worldlet, which he named the DQ, very much like the Skylark of Valeron except in shape. It was bigger. Its skin was much thicker and much denser and  much more heavily armed.

No exact size or comparison is given, so I’ll just assume it’s twice as big (in volume) as the Skylark of Valeron. A chunky little craft of 1,260,000 m diameter, holding 1,050,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters of space.

So just how big are these ships?

  • Here’s a blue whale, humpback whale, a city bus,  and the space shuttle, along with the original “Skylark of Space“, “Old Crip” and the “Violet”  – all to the same scale. (Until I worked this out, I hadn’t realised quite how big the shuttle was … it does look smaller on TV!).

  • You need to increase the scale in order to see the next ship. Here’s the evil Fenachrone cruiser, sandwiched between two versions of the “Enterprise“, a jumbo-jet, and the “Yamoto“, the largest World War 2 warship. The entire diagram above is also shown at the same scale.

  • Then the ships start to get really big, and the scale has to increase again. Here is the “Skylark Three“, the “Mallidaxian“, and the un-named ship that Sacner Carfon et al fly into battle. For comparison, the U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon, the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and once again the previous diagram reduced to scale.

  • The moon-sized ships from the last two books are at a different scale altogether. The “Skylark of Valeron” is about the same size as the (largest) asteroid Ceres, or the distance between Auckland and Dunedin in New Zealand. DuQuesne’s ship the “DQ” is bigger still. The previous diagram is NOT included as the scale had to jump x500 and it would be 1.3 pixels wide!

A source of very old texts

4 Aug

Here’s a sample from “The Builder” of 25 January 1845:

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is one of the most ancient, as well as the most important, of the numerous charities which distinguish England from all other countries in the world. Rahere, by whom it was founded, lived in the reign of Henry I. A curious document among the Cottonian MSS. (quoted at length by Malcolm in his Londinium Redivivum) describes the life of Rahere, and the circumstances which led him to build the priory of St. Bartholomew and the hospital near it. In his youth he is described as haunting “the hows-holdys of noblemen and the palices of prynces; where under everye elbowe of them, he spread ther coshyngs with iapys and flatteryngs delectably anoynting the eevyes, by this mean to draw to hym ther frendschippis,” and took the lead at all plays “and other courtly mokk’ys.”

Becoming impressed with a feeling of the wickedness of his life, he journeyed to Rome as a penance. Here he was overtaken by sickness, and being at the point of death, made a vow, that if he recovered, he would build “an hospitale in receation of poure men, and to them so ther gadered necessaries mynyster after his power.” He was afterwards commanded by St. Bartholomew, in a dream, according to legend, to build a church in his name in Smithfield; and recovering, returned to England to fulfil his vow, and comply with the command. Having obtained the king’s favour, he first built the church, and then “an hospital house a litell lenger of from the chirche by himself he began to edifie.”

This is one of the magazines digitised by “The Internet Library of Early Journals

A digital library of 18th and 19th Century journals

The core collection for the project are runs of at least 20 consecutive years of:

Three 18th-century journals

  •     Gentleman’s Magazine
  •     The Annual Register
  •     Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

 Three 19th-century journals

  •     Notes and Queries
  •     The Builder
  •     Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

OSH Might Not Approve

24 Jul

From June 1960 Popular Science comes a tale of the salvage of a fishing boat in 300 feet of water – well below diving depths at the time.

The Neper meanwhile, had anchored a buoy to the deep-drowned hull and gone home. Officials of the U. S. Salvage Association regarded the buoy and its connected problems in perplexity.

It was then that a seasoned Seattle diver and salvager named Leiter Hockett stepped forward. He offered a weird solution to the initial puzzle of how to identify and inspect the boat that lay so far out of reach. He offered to be let down at the site in a homemade diving chamber, which he had built eight years before.

Some people said this object looked more like an eccentric oil drum than anything else. Actually, its corrugated steel shell, nine feet long and around 30 inches across, had been the firebox flue inside a Scotch marine boiler. It had been made to withstand external pressure, of as much as 450 p.s.i. Hockett figured that this was roughly equivalent to the pressure of water at a depth of 1,000 feet. He had decided to convert the boiler flue into a diving chamber.

The result was strange-looking and obviously dangerous, but it had worked so far.

Hockett had stood the cylinder on end and cut a belt of small, round holes at eye level in the folds of its steel skin. He had filled the holes with laminated, shock-resistant glass, 4 1/2 inches in diameter and 1 5/8 inches thick. The windows were tilted slightly downward, so he could see below when he was in the chamber.

The cylinder had an inside diameter of only 27 inches. Hockett got in and out through an oval hatch, so small that it seemed impossible for his square body and massive shoulders to squeeze through. As it was, when he was ready to make a descent in the diving chamber, he had to toss his fleece-lined jacket and trousers through the hatch, wriggle after them in his underwear, and put them on inside.

To weight the chamber properly, he had filled the bottom end with a half-ton of cement and steel, and covered the foot-high heap of ballast with a floor plate.

Once the hatch cover was closed above him, like the door of a tomb, it was bolted and barred from outside. His only connections with the surface while underwater were a two-way telephone and the supporting wire cable. They were paid out by a 90-hp. engine on a floating crane that lowered and raised his chamber as if it were a plumb bob.

When the hatch clanged shut, Hockett donned an Air Force breathing mask and began to inhale pure oxygen from a tank in the chamber. Soda-lime containers absorbed the carbon dioxide he exhaled. The chief hazard was the slow rise in atmospheric pressure. Within the tiny sealed chamber, it went up at the rate of three pounds an hour. The safe limit was a rise of 15 pounds, so he could not stay below more than five hours.

  • Smiling, Leiter Hockett is about to have the hatch clamped down on him before perilous descent in homemade diving chamber. On first try, he found nothing. Following day with Sea Scanar help, flood lamps attached above his chamber spotlighted Cape Douglas wreck.

  • Anxious moments came when the floating crane began to haul up Hockett and his many-eyed diving chamber. It was entangled in the sunken boat’s rigging. Slacking the line and reeling in again didn’t help. Breaking himm loose by brute force seemed the only chance. But if the rope broke, it meant certain, slow death by suffocation. Then, at a mighty pull, the rigging gave. Hockett was on his way up.

I can safely say that of the numerous ways one wouldn’t like to die, slowly suffocating in the dark in a sealed chamber at the bottom of the sea comes well up the list.

Many years ago I read exactly such a scene in “The Found Atlantis” (1936), a rather bizarre novel by Dennis Wheatley:

After what seemed to be an eternity but was actually no more than a minute they came to rest on the bottom with a gentle bump. The blue beam from the Doctor’s torch, focused on a porthole, penetrated the inky blackness no more than a foot, but into it there swam a new snake-like creature from above. Dead black, no more than three inches thick, and seemingly endless, it passed through the beam in graceful looping curves. The McKay stared at it with sudden horror. He knew that it was no living thing but the cable coiling down from above as it sank in great festoons about them. It had snapped, and they were trapped there, 900 fathoms down, where no human hand could ever bring them aid.

This, however, was fiction. Wheatley’s protagonists survive as they are scooped up by ancient pumps built by Atlanteans thousands of years before. Delivered into a pocket of air, they then face the challenge that they are on the INSIDE of a bathysphere – and the bolts that fasten the hatch are on the OUTSIDE. They have to slowly dismantle the machinery that forms the base of the device in order to escape.

Time passed. The air became thin and rarified. It was as difficult to draw sufficient into their lungs as if they had been locked up for hours in the dry heat of the hottest room in a Turkish bath. Camilla said nothing but she had an awful feeling that instead of being about to faint again she was really dying now. She tried desperately hard to keep herself upright but her body suddenly went limp and she fell forward in a crumpled heap. Vladimir saw her and motioned to Bozo to take his place then, as the gunman crawled painfully forward, he lifted Camilla tenderly in his arms, kissed her gently on the cheek, and propped her up against the side of the sphere next to the oxygen tanks where she would reap the benefit of more than her fair share of their precious supply.

After two hours and a half they had cleared the second lot of machinery and begun on the third floor, but the air had become positively stifling. Their breath came in quick short pants and an examination of the oxygen tanks showed that even with the reduced supply they had only three quarters of an hour to go. Another hour and they would certainly all be dead.

Long before Harry Potter

20 Jul

Back in the dim, dark, 1960s, I read a pair of books which I would argue are still some of the very best “Children’s Fantasy”. Many people have praised the Harry Potter books for juxtaposing the magical within a mundane world. However, decades earlier, the British author Alan Garner had combined the commonplace and the magical in two books, “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” (1960) and “The Moon of Gomrath” (1967).

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

As they went deeper the blue light grew pale and strong, and by this the children knew that they were nearing the Cave of the Sleepers … Here in this cave, waiting through the centuries for the day when Cadellin should rouse him from his enchanted sleep to fight the last battle of the world, lay a king, surrounded by his knights, each with his milk-white mare. The children looked about them, at the cold flames, now white in the core of the magic, flickering over the silver armor, at the horses and the men, and listened to the muted, echoing murmur of their breathing, and beating of the heart of Fundindelve.

Garner populates his stories with schoolchildren Colin and Susan; Cheshire farmer Gowther Mossock; and local spinster Selina Place. But he also brings in, amongst others,  the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow;  Fenodyree and Durathror (dwarves); and the evil Grimnir and the Morrigan (aka Selina Place). Likewise, he sets his story about the perfectly real Alderly Edge (a massive sandstone ridge in otherwise mostly flat Cheshire), Stormy Point, and town of Macclesfield. Beneath these prosaic places (in the many abandoned mineshafts and caves) he places magical caverns and the burrows of some rather unpleasant creatures, the Svart Alfar. The chapters of  The Weirdstone that deal with a desperate escape from the caves and mines are some of the most gripping I’ve read.

Others have obviously thought so. Here is a photo-essay by a caving enthusiast that echoes the text:

The Moon of Gomrath

The sequel has a little less action, and more things happening in alternative (magical) realities.

The Brollachan.  Now the Brollachan, said Uthecar, has eyes and a mouth, and it has no speech, and alas no shape.  It was beyond comprehension.  Yet the shadow that rose in Susan’s mind as the dwarf spoke seemed to her to darken the cave.
Shortly after this, Cadellin arrived.  His shoulders were bowed, his weight leaning on the staff in his hand.  When he saw the children a frown grew in the lines about his eyes.
Colin? Susan?  I am glad to see you, but why are you here?

“What does the hunter do? What’s he for?”
“Do? He is, Susan: that is enough. There you see the difference between the Old and the High. The High Magic was made with a reason; the Old Magic is a part of things. It is not for any purpose.”

For 1960s children’s stories, these are fairly dark. Major characters are killed and no-one comes out unchanged. Mistakes are made that have unpleasant consequences. Rather like real life, in fact.

Two other unrelated stories, the average “Elidor” and excellent “The Owl Service“, conclude the “Early Garner” period. Garner himself was quite disparaging of his early stories – particularly “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” – and convinced that his later stories are better crafted. For myself, I completely disagree. I’ve reread these early stories decades later and greatly enjoyed them. His later work I found to be complete tosh (though other readers differ).