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Aural Delights Nov 2008

The A Bertram Chandler Story UFO is now available as an audio podcast from Starship Sofa Aural Delights No 48






















The Mentor

Grimesish Grumberlings

At the moment Grimes is on Long Service Leave. Thanks to an Australian Literature Board Grant I am able to do the research necessary for either the Australian science fiction novel or, some might say, yet another Ned Kelly book. It will be one of those What if efforts. What if Thomas Curnow had not flagged down the special train south of Glenrowan... What if the train had been derailed, as planned by Kelly, north of Glenrowan and the police party massacred.. What if savage reprisals by the authorities had sparked off an insurrection... And so on, and so on.

The Australian War of Independence, if it had happened, could no more have succeeded without outside help than the American War of Independence. (It can be argued that the decisive action of the American Revolution was the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, the participants being the British and French navies.). So, in my rewritten history of Australia, the rebels will receive aid - arms, volunteers and money, from the U.S.A. Ned Kelly - who, in real life, was something of a military innovator - will be able to make intelligent use of the weaponry that, even in 1880, was available but considered too fantastic by the military establishments.

At an early stage of the Kelly Project I decided that the use or air power by the rebels would be decisive. My first intention was to launch Dr. Bland’s “atomship” into Australian skies. Dr. Bland was one of those inventive nineteenth century physicians, deported to Australia for the crime of murder (he had killed a man in a duel) who designed a dirigible airship powered by a steam engine. He found no backers for his enterprise. But, I decided, the Bland Airship had never been built. At about the same time, in the U.S.A., another inventive physician had designed, built and successfully flown his “aereon”. This was Dr. Solomon Andrews. His dirigible was engineless. It was, in effect, a lighter than-air glider. With positive buoyancy it glided upwards, with negative buoyancy it glided downwards. Dumping ballast and valving hydrogen as required it flew in a series of’ swoops. In it, with companions, Dr. Andrews made a spectacular flight over New York. It seems incredible that neither military nor commercial interests were prepared to give support to the inventor. (As a matter of fact Abraham Lincoln did offer his encouragement - and then he was assassinated.)

So, when in Washington in April this year, I decided to find out all that I could about the Andrews Airship and also about professor Lowe’s mobile hydrogen gas generator, an ingenious device that was used for the inflation of the Union Army’s observation balloons during the War of the Rebellion. (After many years I’d trained myself to say “the War Between the States” rather than “the American Civil War”; I discovered, in Washington, that the fratricidal conflict has acquired yet a third name...)

The Lighter Than Air Gallery of NASM is very small, but it contains some good models of the U.S. Navy’s airships, the Zeppelin-type dirigibles as well as the big blimps. There is the mock-up of Hindenburg’s control car (this was used in the Hindenburg film) and, hard by it, a TV screen giving viewers a non-stop moving picture of the great airship’s last moments. But there was nothing on Andrews and nothing on Lowe.

I had been able to obtain access to NASM’s library and one of the research assistants was willing to help me. But he had never heard of Andrews and I gained the impression that he thought that I was wasting both his and my time. Nonetheless he provided me with big, thick aeronautical files covering the Civil War period. I found quite a lot on Lowe, including sketches and even photographs of his hydrogen gas generator - but even then I was unable to discover just how the thing worked.

But there was absolutely nothing on Andrews.

Finally a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, who was in the library doing research of his own, got into the act. He suggested that we try the records of aeronautical patents for the period. A book was found for me. I leafed -through it, reluctantly ignoring- all the marvelous devices that could never have gotten off the ground without anti-gravity - and then I found it, The patent taken out by Andrews after his “Aereon” had successfully flown. At last the research assistant evinced enthusiasm. He hurried away to Xerox the patent for me. He returned, crestfallen, to admit to me that three pages were missing.

He went then to make a search among the files. He returned with a very thick folder. I opened it - and found that its contents concerned Salomon Andree, the Swedish balloonist who tried to reach the North Pole by air...

The research assistant was very apologetic. He said, “It’s obvious, sir, that you know more about Andrews- than we do. If you’ll send us Xeroxes of your material we’ll try to find the missing pages of the patent for you...”

I now have all the necessary information - and - NASM have Xeroxes of’ the material already in my possession. I hope that when I an next in Washington I shall find that Dr. Solomon Andrews has at last found representation in the National Air & Space Museum.

It was suggested that National Archives might have the information that I needed on Professor Lowe’s device. Obtaining access to their files - was a little more difficult than at the National Air & Space Museum, requiring production of Passport and all the rest of it. Finally, however, I was able to tell a charming young lady what I wanted and to ask her for assistance in finding it. And then I was ensconced in the National Archives reading room with a box of correspondences relating to the Union, Army’s Balloon Corps. There were plenty of letters to and from Professor Lowe — but most of these were on such vexed topics as pay and allowances. Fortunately the young lady had attached to the box a note suggesting that I might find what I wanted in the National Archives Library, in a book entitled AERONAUTICS IN THE UNION AND-CONFEDERATE ARMIES DURING THE WAR OF THE REBELLION.

The librarian was quite incredulous when I showed her this. She must have been confusing AERONAUTICS with ASTRONAUTICS. Finally, much to her (and my) surprise she was able to find the book for me. And much to my surprise I found therein the complete specifications for the gas generator. Essentially it was a lead-lined wooden tank on wheels. There were shelves inside the tank on which iron filings were spread. Undiluted sulphuric acid was poured in, and water, after which hydrogen gas came out. It was bubbled first through a lime solution to remove acid impurities and then through a cooling water tank. A large observation balloon could be fully inflated in three hours.

On another day I was doing research on the various military firearms that would have been available in 1880. The Smithsonian’s Curator of Weapons was very helpful. Ho told me of Francis Bannerman who, shortly after the conclusion of the War Between The States, bought up all the surplus weaponry, both Union and Confederate. He is said to have armed both sides in just about every South American revolution during the late Nineteenth Century. He didn’t worry about rights or wrongs - all that he insisted on was cash on the nail.

I was privileged to handle one of Bannerman’s big, thick catalogues, over a hundred years old. I’d have sold my soul for a Time Machine, unlimited credit and an enormous shopping bag.

One result of my Washington researches is that America will play a far greater part in the

Australian war of Independence than I had originally intended.

But - as Ned Kelly said on another occasion - “Such is life.”

—THE END —

* It is interesting to note that although Dr. Bland first designed his dirigible - and made working models of it - in 1851, his final attempt to gain support for the project was made in 1866, shortly after Dr. Andrews’ successful flight over New york. Paraphrasing Charles Fort - It just wasn’t airship time!
Originally Published in The Mentor No: 28 - Dec 1980