Project Habakkuk


Perhaps Boris Johnson could press today’s weird wikipedia discovery into action as the new Thames estuary airport?

Project Habakkuk was a plan by the British in World War II to construct an aircraft carrier out of pykrete (a mixture of wood pulp and ice), for use against German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, which were beyond the flight range of land-based planes at that time.

The idea came from Geoffrey Pyke who worked for Combined Operations Headquarters. Pyke, (regarded as a genius by his boss, Lord Mountbatten) had been considering the problem of how to protect seaborne landings and Atlantic convoys out of reach of aircraft cover. He proposed that an iceberg, natural or artificial, be levelled to provide a runway and hollowed out to shelter aircraft.

Pyke was not the first to suggest a floating mid-ocean stopping point for aircraft, nor even the first to suggest that such a floating island could be made of ice. The idea was a recurring one: in 1940 an idea for an ice island was circulated round The Admiralty but was treated as a joke by officers, including Nevil Shute, who circulated a memorandum that gathered ever more caustic comments.

In early 1942 experts were called in to determine whether an ice floe large enough to withstand Atlantic conditions could be created fast enough. It was pointed out that natural icebergs have too small a surface above water for an airstrip, and are prone to suddenly rolling over. The project would have been abandoned, except for the ‘invention’ of pykrete, a mixture of water and woodpulp which frozen together was stronger than plain ice, was slower melting, and of course would not sink.

Pykrete could be machined like wood and cast into shapes like metal, and when immersed in water formed an insulating shell of wet wood pulp on its surface which protected its interior from further melting. However, there was a problem: ice slowly flows, in what is known as plastic flow, and tests showed that a pykrete ship would slowly sag unless it was cooled to −16 °C (3 °F). To accomplish this, the ship’s surface would have to be protected by insulation and it would need a refrigeration plant and a complicated system of ducts.

Experiments on the viability of pykrete were conducted in a secret location underneath Smithfield Meat Market in the City of London. The research took place in a refrigerated meat locker behind a protective screen of frozen animal carcasses. (This meat locker is now site of seminal London nightclub, Fabric.)

The requirements for the vessel became more demanding: it had to have a range of 7,000 miles (11,000 km) and be able to withstand the largest waves recorded, while the Admiralty wanted it to be torpedo-proof, which meant that the hull had to be at least 40 ft (12 m) thick. The Fleet Air Arm decided that heavy bombers should be able to take off from it, which meant that the deck had to be 2,000 ft (610 m) long. Steering also raised problems; it was initially projected that the ship be steered by varying the speed of the motors on either side, but the Royal Navy decided that a rudder was essential. However, the problem of mounting and controlling a rudder over 100 ft (30 m) high was never solved.


According to some accounts, at the Quebec Conference of 1943 Lord Mountbatten brought a block of pykrete along to demonstrate its potential to the bevy of admirals and generals who had come along with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mountbatten entered the project meeting with two blocks and placed them on the ground. One was a normal ice block and the other was pykrete. He then drew his service pistol and shot at the first block. It shattered and splintered. Next, he fired at the pykrete to give an idea of the resistance of that kind of ice to projectiles. The bullet ricocheted off the block, grazing the trouser leg of Admiral Ernest King and ended up in the wall.

Later that year Habbakuk began to lose priority. Mountbatten listed several reasons:

  • The great demand for steel.
  • Permission had been received from Portugal to use airfields in the Azores which facilitated the hunting of U-boats in the Atlantic
  • The introduction of long-range fuel tanks that allowed British-based aircraft extra patrol time over the Atlantic
  • Increased numbers of escort carriers

In addition, Mountbatten himself had withdrawn from the project. The use of ice had actually been falling out of favour before that, with other ideas for “floating islands” being considered, such as welding Liberty Ships or landing craft together (Project TENTACLE).

The Habakkuk design received criticism, notably from Sir Charles Goodeve, Assistant Controller of Research and Development for the Admiralty during World War II. In an article published after the war Goodeve pointed out the large amount of wood pulp that would be required, enough to affect paper production significantly. He also claimed that each ship would require 40,000 tons of cork insulation, thousands of miles of steel tubing for brine circulation, and four power stations, but that for all those resources (some of which could be used to manufacture conventional ships of more effective fighting power) Habakkuk would only be capable of six knots of speed. Much of his article also contained extensive derisive comments about the properties of ice as used for ship construction.

Chess, Cricket, and Man versus the Machines

chess robot

Machines are already better than humans at chess, and now computers are increasingly important in sports like cricket and baseball. Author Jon Hotten ponders the implications…

Writing about the 1986 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, Martin Amis said of chess: ‘[They are playing] the foremost game of pure skill yet devised by the human mind, a game that is in fact beyond the scope of the human mind, well beyond it, an unmasterable game’.

Eleven years later, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue. The match and its aftermath were conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue, of fear and loathing. Kasparov claimed to have detected a ‘deep intelligence and creativity’ in the machine, his suggestion being that there had been some human intervention in its play. By 2006, a software programme called Deep Fritz was beating another world champ, Vladimir Kramnik, and now the various machines even play each other and gain their own rankings.

Ultimately, the machines beat the humans through sheer grunt: they could calculate more outcomes more quickly. They never got tired or paranoid, they didn’t suffer from the anxiety that Kasparov felt while representing the entire human race against them. The only achievement ahead of the machines is whether they can actually ‘solve’ chess; that is, calculate the perfect outcome of any game from any position.

There is no element of ‘chaos’ in chess: there are no bad bounces or freak weather, the board and the pieces don’t change. Its variables are perhaps finite. It might be a leap to suggest that sport is as vulnerable to computing power as a game, but there is no doubt that it will shape its future.

Some sports will be more resistant to numbers than others. Football generates a haze of meaningless TV stats because it exists in chaos, statistically speaking. It’s a fluid, random game that lacks the rigidity to support really conclusive analysis. Gridiron exists towards the other end of the ‘scale’ in that it’s quite rigorously positioned and patterned.

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, the book that represents a kind of year zero moment for modern sporting stattos, also wrote about Gridiron. Blindside was in part the story of the importance of a certain extremely rare physique playing in a particular position. Here, where biomechanics meet statistics, are the threads of cricket’s future.

At Loughborough University, where the England and Wales Cricket Board has its Performance Centre, almost every ball bowled in any form of international cricket is logged, its outcome added to an already vast database. It becomes a kind of anatomical chart of everyone playing the game. Broad and specific patterns in each format emerge, and from those come not just tactics, but the types of player needed to implement them.

You could call this the ‘known half’ of stats research, in that it’s open to anyone with the resources to do it. It’s also in its way unmediated and random. It’s produced by a wide base of playing skills, from guys that grew up playing tape-ball to players coached systematically from their early teens.

The other half, lesser known, comes where biomechanics meets with statistical analysis. England’s coaching teams believe that they have identified five common factors that all international fast bowlers have, and similarly, five possessed by all top-level spinners. There is specific work on six hitting, on revolutions on the ball in spin bowling and lots more.

This work creates paradigms into which suitable players are fitted and then driven up the elite coaching ‘pathways’ devised to produce players for the England team. There’s some brilliant and revelatory work going on, but it is in a way reminiscent of the way that Deep Blue began to ‘solve’ chess. It strips away mystery, and to a degree individuality.

England are a very good side, but they did not come up with reverse swing, they have never produced a mystery spinner. Their two really innovative players, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, come from outside of their systems. What they do very well is refine technique in a ruthless way to produce the fine margins needed to win at the highest level. ‘Executing their skills’ as they call it. As such, they are already becoming the product of the research work done.

Martin Amis thought chess was an unmasterable game, but the machines are proving him wrong. Cricket, with all of its variations and oddities, its geographical sweep, its luck and its superstitions, its weather and its deadly psychology, actually might be. But some of its deeper mysteries are being revealed, and new kinds of machines are emerging to play it.

Navigating New York – Map or App?

The Byrne Siblings in Grand Central Station

Bizarre Flemish coincidences and worshipping at the Temple of Apple in this dispatch, as Rita visits New York…

I first suspected something was amiss with my New York Subway app when it advised us to travel from Midtown Manhattan to the Lower East Side via Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River.  “Change trains at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush,” ordered the app.  Clutching my iPhone as I swayed unsteadily with every lurch of the train, I realized those are Brooklyn street names.  I shared my doubts with my companions, one husband and two brothers.  Then something amazing happened.  A friendly New Yorker offered to help.  Confirming my suspicion about the Brooklyn detour, he recommended a different route before hopping off the train, leaving us to remember his complicated directions.

The four of us were in New York for five days and spent much of our time debating, I won’t say arguing, over where we were and how to get to where we were going.  We brandished dueling directional aids: my iPhone, San Francisco brother’s Android, my husband’s large foldout map (he’s a former Boy Scout), and London brother’s handy pocket guidebook (he being the renowned Luddite Frank Key).  The large map flapped uselessly in the bitter winds tearing through the New York streets, the iPhone and Android couldn’t agree with one another, and the tiny print in the Luddite guidebook was a chore to decipher.  But we were never actually lost because everywhere helpful, friendly New Yorkers came to our aid.  Whatever happened to New Yorkers’ reputation for abrupt rudeness?  Has the city character changed under the benign dictatorship of Mayor Bloomberg?  Really, they couldn’t have been nicer, from the young man in Chinatown who patiently helped my brother with the subway ticket machine to the elegant old lady with dog in Gramercy Park who asked if we needed directions.  We must have seemed ridiculous, walking along with eyes glued to our phones instead of looking up at the magnificent architecture.  I was determined to prove my iPhone’s worth, and fixated on the blinking blue dot marking our location on the notorious Apple map app.  A wayward blue dot it turned out, moving blocks away, first in one direction then another, while we were sitting perfectly still in a coffee shop.

Our phones seemed more useful for instant information when we had a question about a building or historic site.  When was Grand Central Station built we wondered, as we stood amid the swirling crowds in the magnificent space.  We turned to our phones, and San Francisco brother appeared smug about being first to find the answer.  That is until my husband started laughing and pointed to the enormous banner hanging above us.  100 it read, announcing celebration of the station’s centenary.  If we had just looked up, instead of staring at our phones.  In the “Where’s Waldo?” style photo of Grand Central Station above, the three Byrne siblings can be seen in solemn communion with our phones.

We took no chances and hailed a cab to find our way to the Soho art gallery event which had brought us all to New York.  Frank Key was invited to read from his work, excerpts selected by artist James Beckett to accompany a new book entitled, appropriately enough, Works of James Beckett with constant interjections by Frank Key. While my unassuming brother wallowed in his ascension to the pinnacle of the international glitterati, my librarian’s soul was drawn to the beautiful library just off the main gallery.  The narrow curving space held floor to ceiling art books.  As I browsed the shelves a name caught my eye.  Joseph Bueys, the very artist whose work I had dissed in my last Dabbler Dispatch!  There were over three shelves full of books about him; he obviously was a very important artist.  My thoughts returned to the S.M.A.K. Museum in Ghent, Belgium where I had laughed at his “shelving” installation.  At that moment I heard someone behind me speaking Flemish!  Now my siblings and I are half Flemish, our mother being from Ghent.  And in one of those weird serendipitous co-incidences that life churns out, a whole group of students from the University of Ghent were here in New York attending this event.  That is in addition to the group of young people from Antwerp we overheard speaking Flemish in our hotel.  Apparently you can’t move in New York without running into Belgians, of the Flemish persuasion at least. We did not encounter any Walloons.

But we did meet a rather extraordinary Frenchman.  Now what kind of restaurant would you expect to find at the address 10 Downing Street, New York?  A British themed pub perhaps, dispensing roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or steak and kidney pie?  But defying any associations raised by the address, the restaurant is French, headed by a genuine French chef.  We came there through connections of our San Francisco brother, a gregarious sort with friends in every city.  Chef Christophe treated us with the excessive hospitality due the entourage of a newly minted member of the international art set.  The food was delectable.  Even more memorable is how this Frenchman answered the question of why he left France.  “Because I can’t stand the French,” he replied without hesitation.  There was nervous laughter as we tried not to look as though we knew exactly what he meant.

In the remaining days of our stay we got a little better at navigating, taking long walks through the city just following the numbered streets and avenues.  Our London visitor remarked on the lack of crazy people wandering the streets, as used to be the case in New York and still is in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.  We learned that Mayor Rudi Giuliani rounded them up and bussed them out of town to haunt other jurisdictions.  Maybe that is why New Yorkers have become so nice.  But they haven’t solved the garbage problem.  Everywhere we went, from Chinatown to Park Avenue, bags of garbage were piled high at the curbs awaiting pickup.

The Temple of Apple

On the last day we made a final pilgrimage of sorts.  Up Fifth Avenue past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, symbol of the old religion, now showing its age and encased in scaffolding for major repairs.  Then it appeared before us, the Temple of the High Church of Apple, the gleaming glass cube that seems to defy all rules of architectural space.  We approached with awe.  I plucked my iPhone from my pocket and tapped on the map app.  There it was, the blinking blue dot, steady and true and finally home.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Launch of YO! Home at 100% Design

All the world’s a stage – or at least it could be, according to Simon Woodroffe, creator of YO! Sushi and Yotel – and originator of a novel new purpose-built home of the future.

His 800 square foot flat utilizes the mechanics of stage scenery to do all sorts of unexpected things. Each shell apartment is configured to maximize space: By way of a false ceiling and a false floor, the apartment shrinks and grows in size at the press of a button.

At the 100% Design interiors trade fair, the show apartment attracted crowds of visitors and press, curious to see how the ingenious technology worked. The show flat was also kitted out with state of the art home furnishings, courtesy of a number of self-interested sponsors.

Mouths fell open in astonishment as the bed disappeared into the ceiling and a whole sitting room, complete with designer sofa and coffee table rose up from out of the floor. Woodroffe deftly threw a table cloth across the dining table – probably a good idea, as it had previously doubled up as part of the floor.

A kitchen emerged from behind a wall of cupboards – and the desk transformed into a spare bed for visitors, who could enjoy a sunken bath… if they could find it underneath the shower (see above top).


“You can decorate it like a a Gucci home, a Philippe Starck home, or a country cottage, but it’s always going to be a YO! Home,” said Woodroffe, who clearly has plans to revolutionize the housing market for everyone – not just the policemen, teachers and students he mentions in his presentation.

My only concern is the prediction of future energy shortages. A YO! Home wouldn’t be the ideal place to live in the event of a power cut. And with so many possibilities of mechanical failure, just imagine the scenarios…

A version of this post appeared in Curious Trends at

Compelling Machinery VI: The B-58 Hustler

Scott Locklin continues his irregular series on machinery that, in one way or another, is utterly compelling. Today a crazy machine from a crazy time.

Aerospace technology became grotesque and beautiful in the 1950s. One of the most grotesque and beautiful creations of that bizarre era of technological excellence was the Convair B-58 Hustler (top).

As I have said before, the early supersonic era is one of my favorite epochs of aerospace technology. Not because the products of this era were particularly effective: most of them were spectacular failures. I love this era of technology because it is beautiful. The creations of this time stretched technologies to the absolute limits. It is the embodiment of a tremendous strain of the human technological spirit, grasping after the unattainable ideal. It is the technological manifestation of the look on the face of the Olympic weight lifter, as his joints crack and sinews pop, straining  every muscle fiber to  accomplish the impossible goal.

What was the B-58? Convair more or less took its F-102 airframe, multiplied its linear dimensions by 1.5 or so, strapped four enormous engines to the wings, stuck a machine gun on its tail, and called it a Supersonic Bomber. The engines were so fuel hungry, the only practical way to get the thing to Russia was to integrate the bomb with the external fuel tank, but it worked. It was bristling with new technologies. In addition to its ability to travel at ludicrous speeds, the B-58 would actually talk to its pilots in a lady-like voice which they called sexy-Sally (or “the bitch” since it always delivered bad news). Yeah, your dumb iPhone will also do this, but imagine what some corn-pone who used to pilot a big aluminum dump truck like the B-17 made of this! It must have been considered something like magic.

Other innovative technologies: the airframe used a sophisticated aluminum honeycomb and fiberglass composite material. The ejection seats were wacky clamshell devices to make it possible for all 3 occupants of the aircraft to eject safely. It had several sophisticated radars and avionics that included an accurate inertial guidance system that used a sort of electric star sextant, doppler radar, and electric compass to reset the drift (probably utilizing some analog electro-mechanical Kalman filter like ideas, which is pretty neat if you’re a signal processing nerd).

The combat doctrine of the era was that nuclear weapon equipped bombers would fly very high, and go very fast, to avoid enemy interceptors. This, effectively, was the combat doctrine of WW-2, applied to the supersonic era. This actually made sense for a brief period: it was very difficult to shoot down a B-29 in late WW-2 which flew too high for most interceptors. In order for interceptors to shoot down the B-29, they would have to gain altitude very quickly, and be able to beat the speed of the B-29, which was considerable. Remember, the B-58 was flying only 12 years after the introduction of the B-29. It was conceived a mere 5 years after the deployment of the B-29. What happened 5 years ago, technologically speaking, in modern aerospace technology? 5 years ago is pretty much last week. I think 5 years ago, we were saying the F-35 would fly in 5 years. Which is pretty much what we’re saying today. But the 40s and 50s were a different era. People were more serious, and technological advance was happening so quickly, combat doctrine couldn’t keep up.

What was the effect of the B-58? Well, for one thing, it freaked out the Soviets. The built a whole new generation of ridiculously fast supersonic interceptors to deal with it. They also built their own supersonic bombers, like the Tu-22 ”Blinder” pictured below. They built a giant radar network, so they could at least see the things coming in time to send something up to get the B-58. They also invested heavily in surface to air missile technology, which eventually made the B-58 irrelevant.

The B-58 was rendered irrelevant by surface to air missiles almost as soon as it was deployed, but it earned a reprieve by virtue of being reasonably good at flying low, under the SAM radar. Even so, it was preposterously expensive to purchase and operate. It was estimated to cost its weight in gold. The subsonic B-52, conceived years before, was almost as good at flying under the radar as the Hustler was, and it cost a lot less, carried more boom and had a much larger combat radius. Truth be told, the altitude and cruising speed of a B-52 wasn’t all that different from that of a B-58 either; the Hustler could only maintain supersonic flight while burning tremendous amounts of fuel. While the supersonic dash capability of the B-58 might have made it a more survivable platform in the event of a nuclear war … since a nuclear war with the Soviets would have been the end of civilization, it really doesn’t matter much if the B-58 survives, does it? What’s it going to do when it gets back? In an uncharacteristic display of intelligence, Robert McNamera decided to phase out the Hustler in 1965, a mere 5 years after it was first deployed, and was completely retired by 1970. I don’t think he did it for the right reasons, as McNamera was one of the most cement-headed SecDefs we have ever had, but at least he did it.

What can be learned from the experience of the B-58? I think it is clear by now: we don’t need supersonic bombers.   We don’t need supersonic anything to drop bombs. Supersonic flight doesn’t help much in this role, and the compromises the capability inflicts are not worth the trouble or the money.  The other supersonic-capable bomber we deployed, the B-1B, was never particularly useful either, other than as a nuclear codpiece for freaking out Russian people. The only way a very fast, high flying bomber could conceivably be useful is if it goes very high, and very fast, at which point it’s basically an insanely expensive, pointlessly reusable ICBM anyway.

The other thing we can learn from this: yesterday’s combat doctrine isn’t very helpful. We’re presently engaged in developing a next generation stealth bomber, as if the last generation were not expensive enough. While I admit the utility of a stealth bomber for strategic targets, or the early parts of a war on a third world country, I’m not sure why we need more than we already have. Finally, absurdly expensive weapons systems are almost never worth the money. While we’ve gone through several generations of “advanced” bombers since the Hustler, when we need to drop lots of bombs, the venerable B-52, a 1948 design, is still the tool of choice.

Still, I’m glad the B-58 was built. It’s a crazy machine, from a crazy time.

Winning Style: British Design at the V&A

Perhaps I should be more patriotic, but much as I love the V&A, the latest exhibition is a bit of a bulldog’s dinner. British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age has a fundamental problem with time span and size – there’s simply too much to fit in. Still, this is the exhibition that will be running until 12th August, taking in the Olympics visitors – and all those flocking to our city to mingle with the crowds, when London is the place to be.

The exhibition offers an incredible display of fashion, furniture, art, ceramics, architecture, technology and post-war design. 350 pieces in total, of which more than 250 are from the V&A’s own collection. And it’s quite a feat that all this is crammed into just three gallery spaces – especially when you consider the size of some of the exhibits – an E-type Jag and a Mini, Mark Brazier-Jones’s enormous studio gates and part of Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant, to name but a few.

Co-curators Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood tell a story which, thanks to Mark Jones (recently departed Director of the V&A) conveniently comes full circle – from the first post-war ‘Austerity Games’ in 1948 to the 2012 (pre-First Austerity War?) Olympics. Given the dramatic changes that have taken place over this substantial time period, it can’t have been easy choosing the final exhibits, especially with designers constantly telephoning the museum to find out if their creations were going to be included.

So what is on show?

Room 1: Tradition and Modernity, covers the two decades after the war and juxtaposes the efforts to rebuild towns and cities with ongoing life in the countryside. Here you’ll find futuristic, visionary design from The Festival of Britain – an original drawing of the Skylon, the Festival’s ‘Antelope Bench’ by Ernest Race and Lucienne Day’s famous Calyx furnishing fabric.The Flowers of the Fields of France dress, designed by Norman Hartnell for the Queen’s state visit to Paris in 1957 sits alongside Laura Ashley fabrics, Harris Tweed suits and Terence Conran’s flat packed furniture. There’s a recreation of a 1950s ‘pop’ interior and Brian Long’s 1971 Torsion Box Shell Chair (never brought into mainstream production due to the rising cost of plastic during the oil crisis).

The creation of the New Towns is represented by Harlow (formerly known as ‘pram town’) and Milton Keynes. Sir Henry Moore’s sculpture, Harlow Family Group, is, for me, a stunning highlight of the show. A 1965 drawing by Erno Goldfinger turns out not to be an elevation of Trellick Tower, but of its lesser known sister building, Balfron Tower, in East London. And I was surprised to discover that traffic lights were designed by kitchenware retailer, David Mellor…

Decorative high modernism is brought to life through the story of reconstruction at Coventry Cathedral (designed in 1952 by competition winner, Sir Basil Spence) – and artefacts include a remarkably contemporary looking ornamental altar cross by Geoffrey Clarke. I also noticed that quite a few of the designs from this period were influenced by overseas travel. Like Sir Hugh Casson’s fiercely fashionable Cannes Tableware (see above) – and the artwork for Elizabeth David’s book, Mediterranean Food.

The second section of the exhibition, Subversion, is a reaction against the welfare state and modernist design. This charts the rise of mass-consumerism, American inspired pop culture and the art school scene. Here you can listen to the Beatles (in case you haven’t heard them before) and marvel at bottom-wiggingly small trousers worn by the likes of Brian Eno, whilst wondering how itchy David Bowie must have felt in his one-shouldered, one-legged Kansai Yamomoto knitted lurex jumpsuit. There’s a corner on ‘creative salvage’ – a furniture collection inlcuding Tom Dixon’s 1985 Railings Chair. Stand-out fashion items include a dress from Alexander McQueen’s Horn of Plenty collection and a deconstructed corset gown by John Galliano. Oh, and there’s a decidedly curious tulle creation made especially for the show by Hussein Chalayan.

The final room offers an exploration into the decline of British manufacturing and the rise of creative industries: design consultancy, advertising and new technology. In terms of British design achievements this is perhaps the most impressive gallery, with a 25 foot scale model of Concorde, a Topper sailing dinghy and a video games ‘pavilion’. Smaller items include Kenneth Grange’s 1963 Courier Shaver, Alex Moulton’s 1964 Stowaway Bicycle, Patrick Ryland’s 1960s fish and bird bath toys and the eponymous Dyson vacuum cleaner. There are also recent works by British based design teams like Fredrikson Stallard and Troika.

Then there’s the artwork for some legendary 1970s advertising campaigns and architectural designs for six major projects including 30 St Mary Axe, the revolutionary Falkirk Wheel boat lift and the London 2012 Aquatic Centre. And so we come full circle back to the Olympics.

Recent shows have already been dedicated to The Festival of Britain and Post Modernism – and the Sixties and Brit Art have been done to death. However, there are some new things here. And, whilst some of the older designs appear a tad dated, especially in the technology section, others are suddenly back in vogue. Even British Rail’s promotional posters look surprisingly designery and cool. No doubt, the show is heaven for lovers of mid-century modern style. It’s also a fantastic showcase of British design heritage and a powerful promotional weapon for the industry.

There’s more than ample food for thought, but I was left feeling that this stereotypical V&A mash-up of artefacts from the past 60 years is just the tip of the iceberg. The show may well be geared to the limited attention span of the world on the web, but the exhibits appear as design snapshots that are not easily placed in their historical context, which may be particularly confusing for visitors from overseas.

Thankfully, the one thing that does come across clearly is that we’re global leaders in fashion, furniture, art, ceramics, architecture, technology and design for advertising, publishing and music (each worthy of an exhibition in its own right). Unfortunately, this isn’t going to help us top the Olympics league table.

Cult Cars: The Edsel – A Fashionable Failure

The Ford Edsel was launched on ‘E’ Day, the 4th September, 1957. It was so big, it had its own television special on October 13th, called The Edsel Show, featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Louis Armstrong. Research and development had gone into overdrive to create the Edsel; this car was jam-packed with modern technology. But production ended on 19th November, 1959. No car has ever been less successful. Only 2,846 of the 1960 model made it off the production line. And The Ford Motor Company lost £350 million (around £2.5 billion in today’s terms).


Theories abound as to why car sales flopped. Some say it was down to technical malfunctions, especially with the push-button gears in the steering wheel. For others, it was the extreme styling: the vulva-shaped radiator grille, and thunder-thigh tail fins. It’s also thought that the name, Edsel, used in honour of Edsel Ford, group president and son of Henry Ford, sounded too much like a tractor named Edson. But perhaps this was simply the wrong car at the wrong time?

Whatever the reason for its failure, the Edsel is more popular today than it ever has been. Fewer than 10,000 Edsels survive, and are now collectors’ items. A mint Citation convertible is likely to fetch over $100,000. What’s more, many of the Edsel’s features, such as transmission lock on ignition, self-adjusting brakes, steering wheel gear selection and multiple colour combinations, which were considered impractical in the late 1950s, are now standard features of modern sports cars.


Tragedy aside, the Edsel’s legacy includes some wonderful old film footage:


The Edsel was advertised as the world’s “easiest car to handle “– if you could switch on a lamp, you could drive it:


The car’s marketing was heaped with souped-up, saccharine advertising-speak: “When they move from the line, who can say what unexpected pleasures they will bring and to whom?” One of the Edsel’s key selling points was that it provided a means to “far-flung travel joy.”  On this note, Ford funded a series of cheesy, travel-inspired advertorial films like this one, where a doctor takes his chocolate munching, ‘seen-and-not-heard’ wife on holiday, via a cattle market, to the Okefenokee Swamp – just start watching, and you’ll soon be hooked…


Episode 2 includes a hillbilly version of Amazing Grace that’s better than anything from the Waltons… though you may need some earplugs.

There’s another fascinating promotional film called West to the Tetons too. I’ll leave you to find that one for yourself…

Of course, the saddest part of the legacy is the Edsel graveyard.

Advantages of Analogue: Vintage Television Revisited

Happy New Year! I hope you had an enjoyable time over Christmas? Mine was somewhat quieter than expected… mainly due to the lack of a television signal. I’m sure there are many advantages of communal living, but sharing a satellite dish doesn’t seem to be one of them. I didn’t necessarily want to burden you with yet more of my technical difficulties. However, it does seem curiously pertinent, as I was planning to write a post about analogue-inspired design.

It does seem that everything has become inordinately complex. Back in the day when televisions were housed in polished teak boxes, with twiddly Bakelite buttons, getting a good signal was simply a case of re-positioning the aerial (which could account for lower obesity levels back then). Even when aerials were installed on rooftops, they rarely ceased to function altogether.

Now most of the UK has already gone digital, analogue is being gradually phased out (supposedly by October, 2012). But I’m not sure if this procedure explains why my lack of a signal meant that I couldn’t even view terrestrial channels? It seems we’re being left totally at the mercy of machinery like Freeview/Sky boxes and satellite dishes – plus pushy service providers, urging us to upgrade (as the latest technology rapidly becomes obsolete). All I want is an old fashioned aerial. And so, it seems, do others…

The retro-styled LG Serie 1 television (only available in Korea) doesn’t just look like an old set, it actually uses old CRT technology, including an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio cathode ray tube. The set has a 14-inch diagonal screen, complete with rabbit-ear antennae and detachable chrome legs, as well as old-school knobs for changing channels and adjusting volume. However, it also features a modern digital tuner, composite video input and a wireless remote for contemporary couch potatoes…and you can choose from colour, black and white, or sepia picture settings.

More often than not, vintage television sets are now referred to as ‘iconic’. In fact, Mike Bennett is in the process of setting up the South West England Vintage Television Museum at Beaford in Devon. In case you want to reminisce, many of the exhibits can already be seen online at the

So, what did I miss on TV?

Marathon of machine versus mind

How many of your Christmas gifts were made in China? Ongoing upgrades in transport and technology will no doubt make the world an even smaller place in 2012.

Translation innovation think tank, TAUS, believes that translation will become a ubiquitous service, “like the internet, electricity, and water, translation is one of the basic needs of human civilization.”


But will distant cultures ever be able to communicate effectively with each other?  And will machine translation ever make perfect sense?

If the unusual wording on this gift is anything to go by, there could be some curious conversations at the Olympics in July:

Collect and keep the certificate…

China Yun brocade is China’s the gorgeousest princely brocade, a section previous dynasties’ baldachin’s craft art zhi Dacheng, because becausbe like in the sky de rosy clouds but“Yun brocade”zhi given name, be special for palace manufacture impenal robe, vestment, curtain, baldachin’S wait for palace drive appliance de fabricate workshop. “drive brocade spin”Yun brocade de manufacture chief adopt tradition’s flower’s a thread of loom’s handwork’s fabricate, by two people cooperations operation, a people carr turn lines sample spend this, a people dish of shuttle zhuang colorful manufacture, a day output nothing. but several centimeter, at fabricate huge amount of use gold thread in process, silver wire, and match as colorful si si’s wool rare valuable brocade line inweave but become make zhi sumptuous, brilliant, ens”inch brocade inch gold”de good reputation.

Omg! Do you feel utterly powerless in our increasingly high-tech world?

A couple of months ago, our building suffered a series of power cuts due to a faulty circuit breaker. I hadn’t realized quite how much we depend upon electricity. The first outage struck at around 10.30 am. My laptop had about half an hour’s charge before it went dead. I found an old digital notebook which worked for a while… until that, in turn, ran out of battery power. My mobile phone was all I had left – and I needed that to make calls in the absence of a landline.

Almost immediately, I was struck by how bored and frustrated I felt without access to a computer. I went to turn the radio on, only to realize it wouldn’t work without power. I thought I’d make a cup of tea, but that wasn’t possible, so I turned on the tap to get a drink… There was a loud gurgling sound, and a few drops of water sputtered out. The other taps were the same. And the loos weren’t flushing either. Great.

I decided to go to the gym. The lift wasn’t working, so I walked down 8 flights of stairs to the car park. The electronic security gates were held open (rather unnervingly after the recent riots). At the gym, I was at least able to use the shower facilities. Returning to the car park, I was surprised at how dark it was. The emergency lighting (which lasts for three hours) had gone off. What I hadn’t bargained for was having to walk back up 8 flights of stairs in complete darkness. I used my mobile phone, but it did little to light the way. I had to feel for the riser of each step with my foot. It was not only dangerous, but very scary.

Once back indoors, I found a torch, though I was worried the batteries would run out. I trekked downstairs to the local shop to buy some more, as well as matches to light candles later. The staff at the Italian restaurant in the building were going home. They’d not only lost a day’s trade, but the perishable contents of their fridges – including gallons of ice cream.

When it got dark, I duly lit my candles. It was actually rather romantic watching the flames flickering all around the room. Less so the prospect of salad for dinner as well as lunch, and getting ready for bed in a non-operational bathroom. Luckily, I remembered a wind-up radio that I’d squirreled away in a cupboard – but I soon discovered the damned thing needed to be wound up every few minutes to keep playing – so I quickly gave up on that. When the power was miraculously restored at around 8.30 pm, I was utterly jubilant – until the next power outage, anyway.

All I can say is, at least I didn’t have to rely on an e-reader too. I am currently awaiting delivery of Bryan Appleyard’s (mysteriously delayed in the post) book from Amazon. Much like Mr A, I too am bothered by the internet cutting “not just attention span but one’s ability to live in and enjoy the real world.” Yahoo’s new omg! feature perhaps typifies this trend? Although it’s not just celebrity culture: treasures of art and nature are being turned into photo and video opportunities, and people being rated as social networking contacts. Meanwhile, mobile phones with language translating predictive text, universal QR codes and an increasingly virtual reality are set to unite us in a phony worldwide community. Our unique selection of apps will eventually define us to niche advertisers, potential partners and government agencies alike.

Call centre automated answer systems are one of the many ways in which we’re being increasingly asked to do everything for ourselves – as are online Q&A instructions (these days employed more often than not, instead of a human operator).  Of course, we still require generalist skills and knowledge to know what to do when technology fails us, along with a sense of humour, especially in the case of dysfunctional texting and voice recognition software.

The other day, I certainly required all the common sense I could muster to work out from many pages of troubleshooting tips that my printer was very definitely kaput. At Currys, I found the relatively new model had already been superceded by a wireless version. It took me a whole afternoon to upload the software, get the printer functioning and work out how to use it.

Then I went to dinner with an old friend who shared stunning iPhone images of his holiday in the Okavango Delta with me. Proof, if any were needed, that technology does have an upside too…