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The cost of peace

I am sure that you, like me, have noticed that with conflicts come great engineering advances. Of course it doesn’t have to be outright war, international tensions and aggressive foreign policies both lead governments into bankrolling high end research.

Manned flight, that most apparent of technological barometers, provides plenty of examples. We need only look to the development of the bomber during the Second World War and immediately after for proof. The Avro Lancaster first flew in 1941, the first Vulcan in 1952. The Cold War followed immediately and before the 50’s were done the still born TSR2 was well under way.


Avro Lancaster: War has long been a spur for innovation

Come the peace though and engineering is seemingly put away in a drawer until humanity once more lurches towards aggression.

I really don’t know why this should be the case. As a nation or a planet we have constantly had the need to address difficult problems, problems where engineers may at the very least help facilitate a solution. Food shortages, global medical emergencies and so forth are a constant in the collective human experience.

Here in Britain today we have two issues that are all too apparent and which may have a common solution; a predicted shortfall in engineers and the creation of an adequate sustainable energy supply.

Do we have a concerted programme from the government to provide a long term future solution? Not that I can see. Pollution and energy have been high profile concerns since the 1970’s and yet what developments have there been over the past 40 years? Windmills have sprung up all over the place but from what I read these are mere sticking plasters and sops to public opinion.

There are proclamations and initiatives but none seem to create more than the merest of blips in the public conscience, nor any visible leaps forward. Myriad promising designs come along then seemingly disappear through want of funds or interest. Its not like there wouldn’t be riches to be gained from pursuing sustainable power generation as a national project, and yet there just doesn’t seem to be the will. Where is the dedicated equivalent of an NPL or RAE?

It occurs to me as I sit writing this on 11/11/13 that the best way to honour the dead is to expend the same energy spent arming them in making the world a better place. The end of a war should not only result in the beating of swords into ploughshares but also in the drive to create a much better ploughshare – and to do so in the memory of those who have fallen.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Sadly, too often it has invariably been the citizen-turned-serviceman and woman-and primarily the 'lower ranks!' who do the falling! The Establishment (*) have usually managed to stay well to the rear?
    Interestingly, they are the only ones who still go to work in very fancy dress, have elaborate initiation techniques before they accept new members (even from their own kind) and hide behind the Royals. A Queen's commission, Queen's counsel, and the Queen appoints (albeit advised by the Bishop!) all Anglican vicars -affectionately known as p-in-chs. [priest in charge!]

    The conflict groupings, who for far too long we Engineers have supplied with most of the facilities they use to contain the rest of us?

    Fellow Engineers may like to know a little of my personal past. I went to a boarding school -a minor public one if you like- which had a unique entrance exam. That one's father had been a Freemason, and was dead! That was all It took boys from all social academic and financial 'levels' and from all over the country: perhaps the first truly comprehensive school. When I was there 1947 to 1959 the school was full to overflowing: the result of WWII.

    Has their(*) society ever really honoured, in the manner suggested by our secret blogger the memory of those sacrificed to keep them in the manner -constantly in control and charge- they have been accustomed to retain for 500 years?
    NO, but I live in hope.
    Mike B

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  • I fear that rather than develop the technology, the money would go elsewhere. This sector employs a significant amount of engineers and it would put a lot (most?) engineers out of a job if it was to cease.

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  • Lovely to see a picture of a Lancaster: my wife's maiden name is (should that be was?) Orrell and another family member was K Orrell, one of the first test pilots for this type of aircraft. In the 70s I worked for the firm which made the machines that put the 'crimp' into Crimplene yarn (textured polyester filament) that worn by your grandmother. The Chief Engineer/Senior designer of Scragg had, as a young man been a quite junior stress-man at Avro whilst the Lancaster was being designed: his was a reserved occupation. But by 1943 he was part of the team charged with the modifications to allow the Lancaster to carry Wallis' bouncing bomb. Roy F used to amuse Scragg staff by describing the manner in which he and others tried to persuade those at the top of the RAF (who had learned their flying when planes were made of wood and wire and fabric...)that it was equations and mathematics that defined flight and material strength and performance, not 'lets get at the bu**ers' , Wizzo Prang!

    I suppose the moral is simple: a good Engineer can turn his mind and hand to anything: but as Mao did one say: "to succeed one must swim in water of the correct temperature" Unfortunately not only do we have little engineering water, someone appears to have thrown the young engineers out with their bathwater. Is that an analogy or a simile, I am but a simple Engineer.
    Mike B

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  • Thank you for your great Post. I think things are going get much worse before they get better. But optimistically, disseminating information like you do may facilitate people think twice about just how much degradation of their world they are willing to overlook.

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  • Undoubtedly Global peace is a sentiment shared by most readers and contributors to these columns. Sadly though, until the human race has matured to the extent that power and greed have been bred out (would this make for a better world?) no-one will be the first to forego all means of defense. Which in real terms is largely what drives innovation. Got to have a bigger stick and all that chest thumping stuff.
    Two homilies spring to mind:
    An Irish one which states: 'Speak softly, but carry a big stick', and one which I think was an old philosopher (Socrates?) which states: 'If you wish for peace, prepare as if for war'.
    Seems like the technology race, on some level, will be here for a while yet.

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  • Yes, of course we all seek a better world for our grand-children if nothing else.
    I do believe that perhaps the most significant date in the last century was August 8th 1945. Up until that day, every Service Chief and Politician of whatever stripe could happily send young men off to wars, certain in the knowledge that whilst they would be killed and maimed in millions, the senders (and their families) would be safe at home, albeit sheltered.! That option was removed by Oppenheimer. Unless I am mistaken, the closest to nuclear winter we have got since is by mistake, and by very junior operators. The leaders have had their minds concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of their death in the morning (or after 4, 8, 18, 32, ...minutes after they start it!)

    I remember a silly cartoon in Punch, showing a series of runners racing past a large sign "10Kn walking race" and one pointing to the leader and saying to the time-keeper "It was him who started it!"

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  • It's a moot point whether it was removed by Oppenheimer or General Leslie Groves, or indeed the crew of the Enola Gay.

  • Well this is actually a great argument for HS2 - and I'm usually a skeptic about it.

    In the worst case it's not going to deliver what it should. But that's still a lot better than having a war .

    It will create skilled jobs and all the people who work on it will go on to other projects afterwards, the better for their experience.

    When you look at it that way, why the heck not?

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  • Our Editor (and perhaps other bloggers) may recall my long career within the textile and synthetic fibre industry and its machinery. Since I first visited the firm in 1968, I have maintained a most happy and courteous link with du Pont. Indeed almost my last consultancy assignment in about 2004 (on behalf of the series of major international banks and Koch Inc of Kansas) was to do the due-diligence of the purchase (by Koch) of the synthetic fibre interests of Du Pont. [all except Kevlar!] As a student of the history of du Pont/synthetic fibres generally, I had access to the archives of the firm. These are in the public domain.
    It is a fact not at all well known (for reasons that will be quite obvious) that du Pont was the primary contractor to the US Government in the construction and operation of the Manhattan project. I have seen many of the relevant documents [the contract provides for du Pont to be paid at cost for everything they did...and $1 profit] Plainly they realised what they were releasing from the 'box'. But most importantly there is also a report, which Oppenheimer and the others insisted on writing -much to the annoyance of General Groves- which was published in August 1945! and gives quite detailed descriptions of the work completed. This was Oppenheimer and his associates (mostly academics) salving their consciences to the eyes of their academic colleagues worldwide. Apparently Oppenheimer told Groves that this matter was not negotiable: either they published or the bomb was not completed!

    I can only repeat what I have said before, notwithstanding the comments about the need to carry a big-stick, if you want peace prepare for war...that the future is in our hands as Engineers.

    I am far too old to make a difference now, but perhaps one of my students might!

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  • I think the answer to why progress accelerates under conflict, or its threat, is fairly straightforward: Investment, correctly targetted.

    The last two world wars started with our armed forces lagging in technology (particularly in aviation). The sequence seems to be;

    Go to war


    Make something quick

    War ends

    Too many people making things quickly

    Close down huge chunks of engineering capacity

    Speculate on why war is necessary for progress, couldn't this be spent on peace instead etc.

    Cycle repeats

    Answer this: In case of war, where will you throw the (governemt) R&D money;

    Academic institutions

    Historically (amazingly) the correct response has occurred, ie, industry

    In times of peace...., a far smaller quantity, mostly focussed around universities.

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  • Unfortunately, we live in a world of evil men who have no hesitation about using lethal force against other nations or even their own people. Russia is rapidly rearming with very modern and capable weapons (including new nuclear missiles); China is arming rapidly and 'making waves' in their neighborhood, to the consternation of Japan and the Phillipines; N Korea is headed by an insane, threatening boy with nuclear missiles; and Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. We needn't think these things are happening too far away to be of concern to us, but from the viewpoint of Beijing the flight time of a nuclear missile to a relevant target is only 30 minutes or less - whichever way they choose to point it. Trident might be expensive, but it is here, so to speak. Any alternative would take 20 years to develop and deploy. Given the rate of change in the military 'balance of power' over just the last ten years, who would think that to be an option?

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