Thunder in the Skies

Connections, Season 1, Episode 6

November 21, 1978

A dramatically colder climate gripped Europe during the thirteenth century, profoundly affecting the course of history for the next seven centuries. The changes in energy usage transformed architecture and forced the creation of new power sources. The coming of the Industrial Revolution, spurred on by advances in the steam engine, scarred England indelibly; but a moment in history later, gasoline-powered engines opened the way to the heavens.



This is many people’s vision of the world of the future. In many ways, it represents the world we already live in: massive, complex—the end product of everything technology can do. A structure that depends for its existence on the production line and the world the production line has generated. That production line has done many things to us by giving everybody everything everybody else has: the same houses, the same daily routine of work, the same cars to go to that work, the same dependence on the clock, the same cities crisscrossed by roads that fill up twice a day, the same view of the world from the same television set, the same hopes, dreams, ambitions.


Because of the production line, the world we live in has two faces. One is of immense variety: travel anywhere fast, eat food from the other side of the world, see the world from the comfort of your own living room, dress like a peacock. All you need is money. The other face to our life isn’t varied at all. Because all this only works if you have the energy you need. And everybody’s energy comes from the same limited source: this planet.


That energy is the common fire that warms us all. But as the world has become more and more interdependent, more people rely on the same fire from the same oil well, the same electricity grid, the same boiler in the basement. We take it for granted. And we use it as if it were unlimited because we like to be warm. But what’ll happen to us if it runs out? How will we manage if the cold comes again—as it did once before?


Take yourself back a thousand years to another common fire burning in the isolated farmsteads of northern Europe. In their manor houses the Saxons ate together, and at night everybody—including the animals—slept together huddled ’round that fire. The population was small, scattered in lonely communities across the land, each manor making its own clothing, tools, food, sharing what little there was. That guy may sound a bit weird to you, but the traveling poet was a kind of wandering newspaper bringing stories of the outside world into their lives. Few people ventured out past the local fields. Beyond those fields lay nothing but forests full of bogeymen. You knew that because the storyteller told you so. No houses, no companionship, no people. Above all, no kinsmen to share work and food and the fire with.


One of the reasons these tiny communities went on existing at all was because they had plenty to eat. Because the weather was warmer then than now, so the growing season was longer. It didn’t last thanks to something extraordinary that happened outside. And the incredible thing is, it started here in the frozen north.


Another one of those totally unforeseeable events that causes things to change. In this case the trigger was either something that happened on the surface of the sun, or deep in the Earth. Because it was either lack of sunspots or a lot of volcanic activity that caused the weather to change. And when that happened, everything changed.


See, nobody knows for sure, but there appears to be a connection between sunspots and the weather. Less spots, less heat. And volcanic eruptions spew out vast veils of dust that hang, oh, about thirty miles up in the atmosphere and effectively screen out the sun’s heat. Whichever it was, there was suddenly white Christmastime where there hadn’t been before.


Let me give you a small meteorology lesson. The temperature drops. That makes more ice up here in the frozen lands north of the Arctic Circle. And when that happens, glaciers like this one I’m on now start expanding and start to move south. That’s what happened in the thirteenth century. And as these cold regions expanded, so too did the pack ice out at sea, growing, moving south. By 1250 there were icebergs in the Atlantic where none had ever been seen before, and land that had been fertile froze solid. That’s when Greenland stopped being green and started being the color it is today—this color.


Now, all this ice and snow and stuff up here in the frozen north caused the track of the Atlantic depressions to swing south. And that’s when the rest of Europe got it—and did they get it! All those monastic chroniclers stopped spreading rumors about what the abbot was up to and started writing things like, “By god, it’s cold!” By 1300, if you had buttons, you’d’ve buttoned up. The rivers and lakes froze solid everywhere. It was like you were suddenly living five hundred feet higher up than you had been.


Worst of all, the bad weather hit the food supply. This—wheat. It was either too wet for you to sow it, or you had to harvest it in pelting rain. And then, without adequate drying systems, the wheat went moldy on you. Now, why that was bad news was because this—bread—was king of the diet. Everything else you ate was quite literally known as only something that goes with bread. But for my money what was infinitely worse was this: it got too cold to grow vines north of France. And that was the end of the chateau-bottled fruity little numbers from England.


I said the change in the weather had a widespread effect, but not because of the food and the drink—because it got too damn cold to stay alive in winter unless something pretty serious was done pretty quick. That something may well be in your home today. But when it originally appeared, the first thing it did was to change the shape of the old manor house—remember? For good. Thanks to the weather in this part of the world that kicked off the Medieval ice age.


Only about six generations after the mini ice age had set in, the upper classes in England were living in places like this: Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built for the Countess of Shrewsbury on money from her three husbands in 1597. Nice little place, isn’t it? Amazingly modern. I mean, buildings hardly changed since this. And yet, it’s very different from that manor house you just saw. You could probably pick up a place like this for about a million. Bargain, really.


Let me show you what you’ll get for your money. Most of it—because of that big freeze-up back in the fourteenth century—the very first thing they did when it started raining a lot was to lay paving to save themselves from walking in a sea of mud outside their houses. Next we come to the great hall, featuring an invention which you probably take for granted, but which back in the twelfth century was the very latest improvement. Think about it: it’s snowing a blizzard outside. You’ve got to keep warm. But how do you fix a fire so that it has its own draft, so that you don’t have to keep the doors open all the time and freeze to death? What do you give a fire so that it has its own draft? Yes—a chimney. But nobody knows where they got the theory from to build the chimney—from metalworkers or smithies—but what a difference it made!


Look at this. That’s the plan of the old manor hall you saw just now. And this is the plan of this house. Look at all those rooms. You don’t build those rooms unless you can heat them. The idea was that if you put a fire up against a wall like that, why not put a fire on the other side of the wall? They could both use the same flue, you’d get two fires for the price of one.


Well, the first major change the chimney caused was the separation of the classes. The lords and ladies left their bedding down here in the great hall to the dogs and the servants and passing strangers, and cleared off to live in their own private apartments. And the upper and lower classes never came that close again.


Cozy little office, this, don’t you think? This was the next kind of room they put a fireplace into, so the scribes could do all their work right through the winter without the ink freezing in their inkwells—which it had done before. That did the European economy a real favor, you know. I mean, being able to conduct your business right away through the year.


Oh, like the staircase? What’s new about that? It is. See, with fires in every room you could build up just as well as you could build out. Servants downstairs, of course—upstairs was warmer. It was getting so cold that even the painters noticed it. I mean, take a look at that Bruegel. Frozen ponds, snow everywhere, little village with the chimney pots working, see? Now, that was only worth painting because it was a totally new experience being that cold.


Indoors they hung cloth on the wall to keep out the draft, and later on they turned into these fancy tapestries. And they put rugs everywhere, even on the tables. They kept their bodies warm with two major thirteenth-century inventions. Here’s a bit of thirteenth-century art. Very nice, too. But look what the virgin’s doing. See? One of those two inventions: knitting. The second invention also kept people pretty snug: buttons. And a lot less people died of cold.


And now we come to the high great chamber. Not bad for a living room, isn’t it? And everything again done for warmth: the woven matting on the floor, or—look here under the tapestry—wooden wainscoting; good against drafts. And admire, if you will, this very beautiful plasterwork. That’s originally a mini ice age idea. And the first place they put it? Around the chimney because it was fireproof. Then they put it on the walls to block up the drafty cracks. Then, finally, they molded it and painted it like that.


And as people’s indoor lives got warmer, their habits changed. They started playing more games like, oh, backgammon, draughts, shuffleboard. There was a lot more music, a lot more reading, a lot more intellectual activity in general. Oh, and a lot more furniture. But the place where the biggest change took place was here, in the bedroom. Private little place, isn’t it? Never used to be like that. Everybody used to sleep in the hall. But with separate fireplaces, sleep and undressing and sex became things you only did in private. Our modern preoccupation with privacy starts here.


So does cleanliness. Hot fires, hot water, hot baths. And if it got too cold to go to the toilet outside, well, you could always try one of these indoor portable varieties. Note the padded seat for winter use. Or you could build yourself one of those rather rude half inside, half outside affairs, like that. Another Bruegel.


In the fourteenth century you could eat in your private dining room by the fire. And hygiene began to affect table manners. You washed your hands before dinner, you used a fork. There were separate table settings, and there were separate chairs instead of benches. And they used table linen. Already, it’s remarkably modern.


And, of course, the kitchen—again, thanks to the fireplace, a separate room. By the fifteenth century they knew enough about hot air going up the flue to put turbines in chimneys and run roasting spits with them via gears and a drive chain like on a bicycle. And hotter the fire, faster the turbine spins, quicker the meat turns—doesn’t get burned. Clever, eh?


You must admit, it is a very nice piece of property. But why it matters so much to our story is that in every single one of its heated rooms it had this: a glass window. But it had so many more glass windows than anybody else that, at the time, this place was known as Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.


Now, this is just one of the places that got built in the great sixteenth-century property boom. And as the houses went up, the forests came down. And these guys were the villains of the peace: the people cutting down trees to make charcoal for fuel for their glass-making furnaces to make the windows everybody wanted. So much wood was going up in smoke, the government passed laws to try and save the forests for the people would be really sunk without wood—the navy. But by the beginning of the seventeenth century, things had got desperate. There had to be somewhere else the glassmakers could go and chop their firewood. And then they found the ideal place.


See, glassmaking needs sand and wood, mainly. And that’s just what there was tons of here. And in 1608 it was all absolutely free. The one-year-old colony at Jamestown, Virginia, was built on sand. And as for forests—you couldn’t see the wood for the trees. So the master plan was to send glassmakers over here to get on with it—by the boatload.


If you think about it, things must’ve been pretty far gone to try a harebrained scheme like this. I mean, four thousand miles in a leaky boat to make glass surrounded by Indians and wild animals? Well, they managed to talk a grand total of eight idiots into coming to blow bubbles in America. But one hard winter and they all gave up.


The plot now shifts from glass to iron for one of the oldest reasons in the world. We come now to one of those deeply meaningful moments in history when things change because of the basic drives in mankind. You know, a belief in progress, fundamental insight into the nature of things, a dogged persistence in making ideas work, the joy of discovery, that sort of thing. The extraordinary change that was to happen because of the failure to bring boatloads of glassmakers here to Jamestown was a result of one of those visions people have—in this case, the desire to make as much as possible as fast as possible of this stuff: money.


So if you’re ready for a devious tale of the upper crust on the make, here goes. About fifty years before Jamestown, Queen Elizabeth was desperate to make bronze cannon. A, for the defense of the realm, and B, because she got a cut in the profits. Now, you need copper to make brass, and we in England didn’t have very much of that. So some German miners (with an eye to what they might make out of it) came over and, in 1566, found copper. Now, the other thing Elizabeth wanted to do was to get the wool market back on its feet—so that she could tax it—but she didn’t have enough brass to make these carding combs essential to the production of wool. So some more German miners (with an eye to financial gain) came over and, in 1566, they found calamine, one of the essential ingredients in making brass, near Bristol.


Now, the metal-making boom that followed used wood for furnace fuel just as fast as the glassmakers had. And then, in 1611, enter Sir Edward Zouch, a crafty courtier with an eye for a fast buck who says, “Me and my partners have come up with an absolutely brilliant solution. Let’s use coal to make glass.” So Zouch gives the king £1,000, and in return the king gives Zouch a monopoly to use his new coal furnace to make glass. Well then, Zouch runs out of money and along comes a certain Sir Robert Mansell who (guess what!) owned coal mines, who gives Zouch some more money to pay off his debts, and buys him out.


One year later, Mansell gets the king (amidst rumors of bribery) to make it illegal to make glass with anything but coal, and then he really starts coining it. Well, in 1622 Mansell gets holed up before a court by his competitors, and listening to him on the jury is a certain Vicant Grandison, who, hearing about all these things, immediately goes into the lucrative business of coal furnaces. Well, his grandson eventually sets up, using coal to smelt lead near Bristol. And then, one day when he doesn’t pay his partners what he owes them, one of them leaves him and goes off and starts smelting copper—also near Bristol.


Hmm. So by now in Bristol there’s a great deal of copper and calamine, and brass begins to look very profitable. So in 1699, a young Quaker called Abraham Darby turns up. Now, he knows about brass because he’s been making malt bills for the people who make beer. So he decides there’s a lot of money to be made in brass household utensils, which he makes until he notices the Dutch became a great deal more out of iron pots. So he goes into that.


In 1709 he moves to nearby Coalbrookdale, where he’s heard there’s a lot of good coal to be had for not very much money. Now, because his old mates in the brewing business used coke to dry their malt, he tries coke in his furnace. And, because the coke is pure, he makes iron without impurities in it. And everybody—but everybody—wants to buy it. So here we are, at a totally new way of making iron thanks to inventive genius—and, of course, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, and a lot of that. Still, on with the story. All this mining activity in England had created a totally new kind of problem, and Abraham Darby—clever, resourceful, and rich—was just the man to solve it.


The problem Darby eventually solved first appeared here, off the Cornish coast. Most of the mines southwest of Bristol went out under the sea, so they flooded. By 1700, the flooding was so bad the mining industry here was in a state of crisis. The crisis was resolved by a couple of fellows living in Dartmouth, whose livelihood depended on the mines. One was an ironmonger called Thomas Newcomen, and the other was his partner John Calley, who was a plumber. Now, Newcomen knew about the flooding in the mines because he did business with them. So what he did was to put together a few ideas that, oh, a dozen people had tried before him and failed with, introduced one new major component, and have himself a disastrous accident that showed him exactly how to make the thing work properly.


Part of why it worked was because of the brewers. They were boiling up their malt in boilers made of copper, which would take plenty of heat and pressure. So Newcomen grabbed that idea to help him with his idea. This was the result: the Newcomen engine. What Newcomen did was to build a cylinder with a piston inside it, and then underneath it he put a boiler of the kind that the local brewers were using. His new component was that: fixing the top of the piston to a chain and fixing the chain to the great beam, so that, as it seesawed up and down, the other end worked the pumps that lifted the water up from the mine.


How he made it work was like this: around the cylinder he built a jacket with cold water inside it to keep the temperature in the cylinder down. Right. The steam comes up from the boiler into the cold cylinder, where it condenses. That makes a vacuum. And the atmospheric pressure on top of the piston then pushes the piston down into the vacuum. When it’s right at the bottom, the weight on the other end of the beam lifts the piston back up again. More steam comes in, and the cycle continues.


Now, it didn’t work all that well. And then, one day, the cylinder developed a leak, and the water in the jacket went through the leak, into the cylinder the precise moment it was full of steam, caused the steam to condense instantaneously, and made such a good vacuum that the piston came roaring down the cylinder, went through the bottom of the cylinder, and buried itself in the boiler. And the minute Newcomen saw that, he knew he’d got it made. So he built himself another cylinder—no jacket this time, but with a system that permitted a controlled jet of cold water to go into the cylinder each time it filled with steam, so that on each cycle he got a good vacuum and a faster stroke.


The engine went into the mines for the first time in 1712, and it was an instant and total success. Everybody wanted one. And that gave Newcomen a really big headache. Because he’d been making the cylinders out of brass—and in those days, brass was way too expensive. So somehow, somewhere, a cheaper cylinder had to be found.


You remember the fellow I told you about, Abraham Darby, who’d gone off to make iron pot at Coalbrookdale new Bristol? Well, this is where he comes back into the story, because this is Coalbrookdale. By the time Newcomen was looking for a cheaper metal than brass for his cylinders, Darby’s crowd here had come up with the answer. Do you remember? Darby used coke fires to melt his iron. Coke’s clean, so the coke fumes don’t dirty the melting iron in the furnace, so it comes out pure and strong enough to make cheap cylinders for Newcomen’s engine.


Well, you can guess where we go next—for a minute or two, anyway. The steam engine. But to get there took two coincidences. The first one happened when the Newcomen engine had been working happily all over the place for about fifty years. In 1763 there was a model of the Newcomen engine, like this one, in Glasgow University, and it broke down. So they asked the university repairman to fix it. And while he was fixing it he realized that the Newcomen engine was really not as efficient as it could have been—for this reason: as the jet of water came into the main cylinder to condense the steam, it also cooled the cylinder down. So that the next time the steam came into the cylinder, it began to condense a little bit early. And that repeated each time the cycle occurred, and the cylinder got colder and colder. He realized that what you had to have was a cylinder that would do two jobs at once: it had to be boiling hot so that the steam wouldn’t start to condense early, and it had to be cold enough when necessary to condense the steam. Now, you can’t do that with one cylinder, so he built another one—connected to the main cylinder with a tube. Around that second cylinder he ran cold water to keep the temperature down, and he had a pump there in order to get a vacuum in that cylinder.


Okay. The steam comes into the main cylinder, and it’s sucked immediately into the second cylinder, where it condenses instantaneously. The vacuum then forms through the whole system, and the main piston comes down. The man who developed that separate condenser was called James Watt. And he now had a machine that was so efficient that the precision with which the cylinders were made just wasn’t up to it. The pistons didn’t have a good fit; they wobbled around. It took one more step before Watt could say that he had a full-blooded efficient steam engine. And that next step happened because of some trouble artillery regiments were having in France.


In 1773 the French army asked an English ironmaker called John Wilkinson if he could solve a problem. See, instead of firing, their cannons kept on doing this. Not too good for morale. It was probably the French connection that spurred Wilkinson to develop this: a new way of boring cannon barrels. And he did it in 1774 in his ironworks in Staffordshire, back in England.


Now, much of what he did wasn’t new. He took a solid cast iron cannon—on the grounds that, if you make a cannon in one piece, it’s less likely to blow up when you fire it—and he mounted it horizontally. And then, using horse power or water power, he spun it. Now, that wasn’t new either. What was new was this: a screw-and-cog system for advancing a bar very slowly towards the cannon, so that the cutting head at the end of the bar enters the cannon dead center, and then bores it out with extreme accuracy. Now, if you could do that to a cannon, you could do it to a cylinder. And by this time, that was just what James Watt had been waiting twelve long years for. In 1775 Wilkinson delivered the first cylinders to Birmingham, to Watt’s works, and the age of steam power had arrived.


You know, the steam engine is a beautiful example of how innovation happens bit by bit. There’s the mine-draining problem, Newcomen’s engine, the brewer’s boiler, Watt’s condenser, Wilkinson’s cannon-borer. No one man does it all. In spite of the myth, James Watt did not invent the steam engine—he only invented a vital bit of it. And it’s only when all the bits come together that the final form of the steam engine comes into existence. And when it does, that’s when it causes widespread change to occur—in this case the Industrial Revolution.


This is the standard view of the Industrial Revolution: black, satanic machines. But although these machines slammed the world into the industrial age—didn’t they just?—they did something else, too. Something genetic. Steam power began by changing the shape of the countryside with the mines and the factories. It went on to change the people themselves, genetically. Because when it was used for transportation on the new railways, people started marrying much further afield—not just the girl next door. The travel bug hit everybody. Thanks to John Wilkinson’s cylinders, steam power was to take people all over the world. And now it would no longer matter to a ship’s captain which way the wind was blowing—with steam ships like these still running on the Italian lakes. Why are we on an Italian lake? Well, that’s something else that has to do with Wilkinson.


Now, the dynamic world of iron and steam made a lot of people a lot of money—including, of course, John Wilkinson: the man from whom everybody bought their steam engine cylinders. Which is just as well, because he needed the cash. Well, he didn’t, his brother-in-law did. You see, at the impressionable age of eighteen, his sister Mary married a man called Joseph Priestley, a protestant minister who failed in the pulpit because he had a stammer, a bit of an amateur scientist—he discovered oxygen—and, to judge by his letters, a real creep. Because he married Mary for her money, and when he discovered she didn’t have any, he sponged off her brother.


Well, in 1767 he and Mary found themselves living in Leeds next door to a brewery, where Priestley divided his time between preaching (badly) and sniffing (scientifically) around the place next door. Now, during this scientific sniffing he discovered that there was a nine-inch layer of gas floating above the beer in the vats. And it did very mysterious things, like: candles went out in it and mice died in it. Ether didn’t seem to do very much at all. But before he had a chance to find out why, he dropped a load of it into the beer and the brewers slug him out. But not before he had also discovered that, if you poured water from one glass into another, back and forth, in the gas, the gas went into the water and made fizzy bubbles.


Mmh. Tasted great. Priestley had invented soda water. The fact that the navy refused to try it out as a possible cure for scurvy only whetted Priestley’s appetite. By 1770 he was using gun barrels made by his brother-in-law John—free of charge, of course—and heating substances up in them, and exploding the gases that came off using the new electric spark that was around at the time. Well, he got so excited about these bangs he was making that he wrote to a fellow investigator. The letter begins: “Our village has received your two letters” because apparently they were sent with an Italian singer who’s only just got here, and then goes on to detail the rest of his new discoveries. And this letter is why we are on a lake in northern Italy: because it was sent to a man called Alessandro Volta, who lived here in Como. And, quite by accident, the letter arrived in just the right place at just the right time.


It was the right place because Como was surrounded by marshland. And what happened next has to do with the fact that marshland can be very unhealthy. It was just the right time because, when Priestley’s letter arrived, Volta had just finished inventing a new way of making the spark that Priestley was using to explode his gases with. It was a kind of portable electricity generator, and it was to turn out to be absolutely vital in the business of identifying bad smells. Let me explain.


Priestley’s letter sent Volta off on a trail that everybody else was on at the time: investigating what kind of gases were mixed up in air. Now, some people like Priestley got substances, burned them, and exploded the gasses that came off. Other people put acid on metal and looked at the fumes. Volta? Well, he went fishing. In 1776 his boat was in an area of reeds in a marshy part of Lake Majore, where he couldn’t help noticing that some bubbles were coming up from the marsh. I say he couldn’t help noticing it because the smell practically made him throw up. But in true investigative style he approached the mysterious stuff with a lighted taper. Marsh gas—methane. Only Volta called it “inflammable air.”


At this point he got out his portable electricity machine. Pretty much all that was known about electricity at the time was that, if you rubbed certain substances, they gave off sparks. Now, Volta chose this substance. It’s a cake made of three parts turpentine and one part wax. And if you rub it with a cat skin briskly, like this, and then put this lid on top of it, and then make contact between the lid and the metal base, like that, that lid now has a fairly stiff charge of static electricity in it, and it will retain that charge almost permanently. Which is why Volta called this his eternal electricity machine.


Now, Volta used to carry this charged lid around as a power source for his next invention, which was based on Priestley’s idea of using an electric spark to explode gases. Only, Volta did it with style. He had himself a glass pistol made. See? Two wires from the outside run in to the inside, where they almost meet. What you do is: you fill the pistol up with inflammable air, put a cork in the end of it, then very carefully earth that wire, and bring the lid over until it touches the other wire, at which point the current runs down the wire, jumps across the gap, forms a spark, ignites the flammable air, and….


Volta had two great ideas immediately. The first was to turn this into the new terror weapon: the electric-glass bomb. Never got anywhere, of course. But the second was that this was an excellent instrument for finding bad air. Because he’d already proved that bad air exploded. At the time, everybody thought that malaria came from bad air. Mal aria is Italian for “bad air.” So for the next thirty years people went around poking the new instruments at, oh, cesspits, bogs, dung heaps, sewers, you name it. If it was indescribably awful, they’d sniff it.


Now, the bad air brigade became really rather fashionable. Napoleon, in his North African campaign, ordered a bad smell map of Egypt to be made. Now there’s a thought! Of course they were all on the wrong trail. Malaria had nothing at all to do with bad air. So in the long run the electric pistol was a bit of a flop. And there it might have ended, except for what happened about 1850 in the Arctic Ocean.


By then, these Yankee whaling ships were having to go up to the north Pacific to find whales. The Atlantic was almost fished out. So the price of whale oil for lamps was rocketing. In 1859 a bogus army colonel dug a hole in Pennsylvania and found the answer: oil. Our hero’s name was Edwin Drake, and thanks to him there’d be oil lamps forever. Well, what else could you do with it?


Now, I’m sorry to do this to you, but do you remember Priestley and his soda water? Well, guess where his soda water went over very big? Germany—in the health resorts full of people taking their punishment (I mean, cures) with Teutonic thoroughness. Gallons of sulfur water forced down with every mouthful of lettuce. No wonder they went for Priestley’s fizz. You ever tried straight sulfur water? Anyway, it was at one of these spas that something got done to that oil they discovered in America—something that involved Priestley yet again.


This funny little workshop in a garden is in a spa town in Germany. It’s called Bad Cannstatt, and it’s in what is now a suburb of modern Stuttgart. And it was here that a couple of men called Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach found another use for oil that was to produce one of our modern world’s most vital and most commonplace inventions. Both men, up until 1882, had worked for the company that made Otto engines. They were used to power everything from sewing machines to saws. You had a cylinder with a piston in it. As the piston went down it sucked in a mixture of town gas and air. Then the piston came back up again and compressed the mixture. You lit the mixture, it exploded, it pushed the piston down again. The piston came back up yet again, this time pushing the exhaust fumes out. And then, when it went down again, it brought in a new, fresh mixture, and the cycle continued.


There were two things wrong with that. One, it weighed a ton. And two, you couldn’t go anywhere with it, because you had to stay connected to a supply of town gas. What Daimler and Maybach did was to replace the town gas/air mixture with a byproduct of oil called gasoline, which explodes easily—too easily.


This was their first attempt, here. In 1883 Maybach designed a system to pass hot air, which came in here, over the top of gasoline, which was being pumped up from a little reservoir down here. And as the hot air passed over it, it picked up the gasoline fumes, and the mixture went on round and into the engine cylinder. Now, the other end of that hot tube there sticks into the cylinder, and it’s the other end of that hot tube that causes the mixture to explode. Now, the strength of the explosion depends on the mixture. And you set that pretty well once and for all with this air valve here, and then you trundle off at your one and only speed.


It was in 1892 that Maybach made his really great invention. And this is where Priestley comes back into the story. You see, Priestley’s work on various kinds of air and soda water and so on excited a great deal of interest among the medical circles. And they decided that bad air caused disease. And in order to get rid of the bad air they turned to scent sprays to fumigate places like hospital rooms. Now, the scent spray works very simply. You use this bulb air here to puff air through a tiny nozzle. In the middle of that nozzle it narrows for a moment. At that precise point the air speeds up, an its pressure drops. At that point you inject a jet of perfume. Now, because the air is at low pressure, the perfume atomizes into tiny droplets, and you get a spray like that. And that is precisely what Maybach did with his invention with the gasoline.


This is it. It’s called a carburetor. Now, the great thing about the carburetor is that, with it, you can regulate the mixture exactly. And since it’s in a very fine spray, the explosion is a very efficient one. And that’s why it was the carburetor that gave the Daimler Motor Company its head start over every other rival.


I said Daimler got a head start—well, in a manner of speaker, because that still left the customer with the problem of getting any kind of start. Still, if you persevered, hmm? By 1895, anybody who was anybody had one of the new horseless carriages. By 1896, in England, they even stopped making you have a guy walk in front with a flag.


By 1899 it became obvious that igniting the mixture was a matter of great precision, especially when your piston was going up and down a thousand times a minute. And the old hot tube method just wasn’t good enough. More often than not it just stayed red hot, and it ignited the mixture prematurely when the piston was in the wrong position, and sometimes it blew up the car.


It was one of Daimler’s distributors, a man called Jellinek, who pushed hard for a new form of ignition, and in 1899 Daimler adopted a system that was the direct descendant of Volta’s pistol. Because in this engine the ignition happens because of an electric spark. In this engine everything comes together: Newcomen’s piston, Drake’s oil, the scent spray, and Volta’s pistol. And it was such an amazing success when they raced it on tracks like these that the company was so pleased that they called it after the daughter of the distributor who had the idea in the first place, and her name was Mercedes.


Now, Daimler’s engines didn’t just go into cars, he did an awful lot of demonstrations with the engine in boats. So it didn’t come as a surprise to the company when, in 1901, they got an order from a fellow who was living on the edge of a lake in Austria.


This is the short story of one Wilhelm Kress. Short, because he didn’t last long. He was a pianomaker who gave up tickling the ivories in favor of designing a new terror weapon for the Austrian navy, took the idea to Vienna, and sold it to the emperor—in spite of the fact that Austria didn’t actually have a navy at the time.


Back home on his little lake outside town, Kress started assembling his infernal machine, and ordered a Daimler engine which he said had to be of an absolutely exact power and exact weight. Unfortunately, somebody at the factory boomed and sent him an engine twice as heavy as poor old Kress had asked for.


In 1901, Kress launched his contraption, and a massive engine—too massive—chugging, he spluttered along, far too slow to skip over some debris he suddenly saw floating in his path. Ah, the rewards of genius. Still, other people did take up the idea of using an engine the way Kress had. Well, not quite.


It was to be another thirty years or so before the gasoline motorcar engine was dropped in favor of another one. And even then, the new one still used Maybach’s fuel system and the scent spray idea. The latest versions of that engine cruise along carrying hundreds of people at speeds that Kress could never have thought possible. They cross the oceans of the world without a thought for floating debris, turning holiday-making into the world’s fastest growing industry, with ports of call in every country.


So that’s where this trail of events has brought us: to a present-day invention capable of annihilating distance or people. The direct modern descendant—the peaceful variety—of Wilhelm Kress’ failure is this: the Concorde. The modern jet aircraft, and all that that implies. Because what Wilhelm Kress was trying to do was to get a seaplane off the water of that lake in Austria. And had he done so, he would’ve beaten the Wright brothers’ first flight by two years. And instead of a couple of American bicycle mechanics, all the glory—or the blame—would’ve gone to an Austrian pianomaker who dreamt he could fly.

Thunder in the Skies

James Burke

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