Monday, 26 September 2011

Full steam ahead: is there a future in revisiting obsolete science and technology?

Several weeks ago I was looking towards Greenwich in south-east London when I spotted an airship. A small one to be sure, but nevertheless a reminder of the time when Britain not only had a large manufacturing industry but in some sectors was even in the vanguard of technological development. The blimp in question was probably the 39 metre-long Goodyear Spirit of Safety II, which although nominally an American craft was assembled at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire. I visited this site about 20 years ago and managed to go inside one of its' two enormous air sheds, once home to such giants of the skies as the 237 metre-long R101. Sadly, these days the hangers are mostly used for filming and rock band rehearsals, and recently a housing estate was built inside the base perimeter. However, it's not all a case of rust and nostalgia, as Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd are making use of Cardington in a joint project with the aeronautical heavyweight Northrop Grumman to build three unmanned hybrid airships. The 76 metre-long Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle or LEMV - a classic boffin-flavoured acronym, hurrah - is being developed for a US military surveillance role. The company's future plans include eco-tourist airships, so are we seeing the glimmer of an airship renaissance?

On the whole this seems rather unlikely. In the 1980s Cardington was home to Hybrid Air Vehicles' predecessor Airship Industries, one of who's Skyship 500s appeared in the James Bond film A View to a Kill (the same design as seen in my circa 1984 photograph below). Unfortunately the innovations in materials and engines weren't enough to save the company from liquidation.

An air display at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire - late 1970s
Although Hybrid Air Vehicles has grandiose plans for vehicles up to twice the LEMV's length, it's doubtful there will be a near-future resurgence in long-haul civilian airships. After all, even during their interwar heyday a transatlantic ticket on the likes of the Hindenburg cost more than double that of an ocean liner. Therefore, military usage and cargo delivery to aircraft-unfriendly terrain are a far safer bet from an economic viewpoint, despite the obvious advantages of aerial craft less reliant on fossil fuels. Indeed, there are even schemes afoot in several countries to develop solar-powered cargo airships.

Another UK-based proposal that seeks to put new life into old technology sadly appears to have rather less chance of success. The Class 5AT (Advanced Technology) Steam Locomotive Project plans to develop a steam engine capable of matching current main line high-speed stock. After ten years' effort, the team have put together a very detailed study for a 180 km/h locomotive, but as you might expect there hasn't exactly been a rush of investors. The typical short-term mentality of contemporary politicians and shareholder-responsive industry means few appear willing to support the initial start up costs, especially when Britain's current rail network operates so wonderfully (hint: that's called irony). If you think any of this sounds familiar, check out the post on boffins and their pipe dreams, where the science and technology were frequently superlative and the economics frankly embarrassing.

Then again, a resurgence in motive steam might appear to have little relevance outside of alternative history novels, but a point to remember is that it was only when James Watt started to repair a working model of Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric pumping engine in 1763 - a design by then half a century old - that the development of true steam engines began.

The steam car has even less chance of a reawakening, although there appear to be good engineering reasons behind this, namely difficulty coping with the constantly-changing speeds required in urban driving. As it is, steam on the road seems to have mostly novelty value these days. A good example is the British Steam Car, winner in 2009 of the Guinness World Land Speed Record for a steam powered car. It may have a dull name, but with a Batmobile aesthetic and top speed of 225km/h, the world's fastest kettle has certainly proved a point that steam needn't be associated with slow.

Somewhat less romantic and rather more pragmatic, NASA has returned to tried and tested capsule technology for their space shuttle replacement, Orion. The "Apollo on steroids" design is now accompanied by the Space Launch System or SLS (another uninspired moniker), which refers to a rocket slightly taller than the Saturn V that will have second stage engines developed from those used on this famous forebear - which incidentally last flew in 1973.

But reappraising old science isn't restricted to high technology, as can be seen by the resurgence of biotherapeutic methods in the past few decades. Most people have heard of the fish pedicure fad but the rather more important use of disinfected maggots to clean flesh wounds has received NHS support following some years of trials in the USA. A 2007 preliminary assessment even showed success using maggot therapy to treat wounds infected with the 'superbug' MRSA. Yet the technique is known from Renaissance Europe, Mesoamerican and Australian Aboriginal cultures: sometimes low-tech really could be the way forward.

Possibly that's the key as to whether these revitalisations are likely to succeed; if the start-up costs are relatively cheap then there's a good chance of adoption. Otherwise, the Western obsession with the now makes it all too easy to dismiss these projects as idealistic dreams by out-of-touch eccentrics. Not that new technologies have always followed the rational approach when initially developed anyway, since historical backstories have probably been as much a driving force as objective analysis. I guess we're back again to disproving that old Victorian notion of continuous upward progression, but then as the philosophically-minded would say, we do live in postmodern times.