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No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers 1902-1909 
by Alfred Gollin.
Heinemann, 468 pp., £18, October 1984, 0 434 29902 2
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In the two decades before 1914 Englishmen probably worried more about the future and safety of their country and empire than they had done since Napoleon’s time. The cosy assumptions about British world supremacy which permeated the likes of Palmerston and Macaulay no longer seemed valid in a period of great international change. At sea, the supremacy of the Royal Navy was ever harder to maintain now that three, four, six foreign powers were building new battle fleets. The virtual monopoly of formal and informal rule which Britain had enjoyed in the overseas world since 1805 had been rudely destroyed during the recent ‘Scramble for Africa’, the expansion of Russia through Central Asia, and the rise of Japan and the USA in the Far East and Western Hemisphere respectively. The British Army, which had never been a large force, was now totally eclipsed in size by the mass-conscription, short-service armies of the post-1870 era. Economically, the ‘workshop of the world’ was also encountering problems, with British products being increasingly excluded by ever-higher foreign tariffs, whilst its own domestic and imperial markets were being penetrated by superior German and American wares. In such circumstances, an atmosphere of angst was easy to detect, particularly in Imperial circles, whose leading writers wondered how these external dangers would interact with the rising internal challenges posed by an extended franchise and an organised Labour movement.

As if these geopolitical and strategic problems were not enough, Late Victorian and Edwardian Britons also had to worry about the effect of newer weapons of war upon their national security. Decades earlier, the impact of the industrial revolution upon warfare might not have been so worrying, since Britain’s unchallenged technological resources allowed her to out-produce any rival. Now, not only had her industrial edge been eroded, but inventors seemed to be producing ever more revolutionary and frightening devices. Mines and, even worse, torpedoes threatened to sink an entire warship at a blow. The submarine, to be denounced later by one English admiral as ‘underhand, unfair, and damned un-English’, was an even greater menace: silent, unseen, until it surfaced to deliver its deadly stroke. Then there were the balloons and dirigibles, which could carry men and weapons across frontiers and across seas. In their early years, all of these devices were amateurish, unreliable, and of more danger to their creators than to a foe: but within a decade or so greatly improved designs in, say, Zeppelins and submarines had produced recognisable and threatening weapons-systems.

Furthermore, who could say what breakthroughs scientists would not make next? In the popular press, and in the ‘invasion scare’ literature so brilliantly analysed in I.F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (1966), alarmist voices in Edwardian England warned of ‘death-rays’ being prepared by rival powers, of fantastic digging-machines which could tunnel under the English Channel in a matter of days, and of remarkable new ways of propelling men through the air. No doubt much of this was nonsense. But by what means could one tell which were the potentially useful – and dangerous – new inventions, and which were the fantasies and the totally impractical contraptions? And how could British cabinet ministers, generals and admirals, untrained in the ways of experimental science, determine which projects to fund? For a case in point we need look no further than A.H. Pollen’s marvellously sophisticated fire-control system which he offered to the Royal Navy in 1906 and which would have given Admiral Fisher’s new battlecruisers the unique capacity to carry out accurate fire at long range whilst manoeuvring at speed. Instead, due to a whole array of faulty decisions, the Admiralty opted for an inferior fire-control system – and their own battlecruisers paid the price at Jutland.

The above remarks are worth bearing in mind when the reader turns to Alfred Gollin’s fascinating new book. As the subtitle suggests, it contains two interrelated stories: the first is the epic and rather moving tale of the endeavours of Wilbur and Orville Wright to construct a workable aircraft and to sell their product and know-how for a good profit; the second is the fumbling policy of the British Government towards the ‘Wright model’. From a very early stage, aeronautical enthusiasts urged Whitehall to purchase this new invention, which they felt was far ahead of anything else in the field. On the other hand, the Wright brothers’ insistence that, much as they wanted to do a deal with the British Government, they would not allow an inspection and demonstration until a contract was made; and their later insistence that their price was $100,000: this always provoked a refusal on London’s part. How could one wring such sums from a parsimonious Treasury on the basis of unverifiable claims? And were there not many other inventors in the same area, including some in the Army’s own Balloon Factory at Farnborough, all claiming to have the best lighter-than-air machine?

Yet if the British Government could never agree to commit funds to the Wright brothers, it also never fully broke off relations. The state of public opinion about Edwardian Britain’s backwardness in aerial developments, and the growing fear that (in particular) the Zeppelin had made the country ‘no longer an island’, meant that air-minded individuals inside and outside the corridors of power kept returning to this issue. The publication of H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air in 1908 accentuated the mood of unease, especially among the Tory backbenches and in the House of Lords. The formidable Lord Northcliffe, once he recognised the great lead which the Wright brothers had achieved, ordered the big guns of his Daily Mail to be turned against Whitehall’s apparent inactivity. The great ‘naval scare’ of 1908/09, when the nation’s alarm at the German maritime threat reached new bounds, also kept the aerial pot boiling.

By October 1908, Asquith’s government judged the whole issue important enough to appoint an ‘Aerial Navigation’ sub-committee of the famous Committee of Imperial Defence to report upon the dangers and the possibilities. Objections by the Army in the form of General Nicholson to any of these new-fangled machines, and a preference by the Navy for airships, were hardly the desired result of their earnest deliberations. By the following year, however, the War Minister Haldane had created an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would analyse all the problems ‘scientifically’ (a favourite Haldane notion), while the specifics of the Wright brothers’ invention would be acquired, second-hand, as it were, from the single machine which Charles Rolls was planning to purchase from them. There would be no direct relationship between the British Government and the Wright brothers, and all the hand-shaking and banquets in their honour when they visited London in May 1909 were merely a guise by the Liberal Administration to avoid further criticism from Northcliffe and the Air League.

‘In this way the first chapter of a novel phase of British life came to an end, in May 1909.’ Thus, with astonishing abruptness, Professor Gollin concludes his account. What happened next, and how things changed (or didn’t change) between 1909 and 1914, the reader is left to discover for himself. It is a pity, to say the least, that there is no attempt to provide an epilogue, or that in some other way the author could not have offered his reflections upon this interesting tale.

What has preceded this all-too-sudden ending, however, is more than useful. Gollin has not only added a considerable amount to our knowledge of the Wright brothers’ negotiations with various governments and private parties after their early flights had shown how far ahead they were of everyone else in the field: he has also given us a detailed case-study of how Edwardian governments reacted to strategic threat and technological change. Above all, perhaps, he has shown the importance and, in some ways, the limitations of ‘public opinion’ in issues of national security.

As against that, it has to be said that this book is at times excessively detailed and slow-moving. Letters and memoranda are reproduced in full or in extenso when a synopsis would suffice. Character descriptions, nearly always a little larger than life, are repeated: on page 300 we learn that General Sir William Nicholson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was both quarrelsome and disliked aeroplanes; on page 399, we learn again of his dislike of anything aeronautical; and on page 405 of his quarrelsomeness. Critical comments on how this or that earlier historian of British aviation got things wrong, or exhibited prejudice, frequently occur in the text, stopping the flow of narration. All of this makes the book perhaps a third longer than it need have been. It is almost as if Professor Gollin had become so fascinated by his topic that any and every point and piece of evidence had to be included. It’s a pity, since he has a splendid tale to tell and tells it well in many sections of his book. The book could have been tighter, and readers could have had the benefit of the author’s conclusions and – who knows? – of some effort to set this case-study in the wider context of Edwardian Britain’s reaction to the new inventions of war. What is abundantly clear is that the year 1909, when Blériot first flew the Channel, the Wright brothers were feted in England, and Haldane’s Advisory Committee on Aeronautics was set up, marked a historic turning-point. The warships of the Royal Navy, for centuries the guarantor of Britain’s security, were no longer able to keep the home islands intact from the depredations of an enemy. Defence measures, and defence organisations, had to be built up in the air as well as at sea and on land. ‘Splendid isolation’, in the physical as well as the diplomatic sense, was no more. If the coming of the era of manned flight brought opportunities and glittering prizes, it also brought new hazards to human beings, and to humanity in general. Cheap, mass travel by jumbo jet to Florida, on the one hand, and the bombing atrocities of Guernica, Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo, on the other, were standing in the wings – and were already being forecast as the Wright brothers were flying their early machines. Perhaps, instinctively, the Edwardians were right to be apprehensive about the security of the state. For science and progress have all too often been two-edged swords, promising both creation and destruction. Given man’s nature, and that of the social and political world he has created, that may always be so.

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