Beyond Timbuktu

One has to be a little nervous about any book whose description of its own first chapter says that “it might be of interest to specialists but can probably be skipped by the average educated reader who does not know Arabic.”

Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa is certainly a book that’s best suited for the specialist, though it does contain a lot of interesting information. Ousmane Oumar Kane ranges widely over the history of Muslim education in West Africa, focusing mostly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reaching forwards to contemporary Islamic colleges and universities in Africa and back into the Middle Ages.

The latter caught my attention for the usual spate of connections between distant regions. One I already knew was the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324/25 of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa, a king so rich he was immortalized (in European style) as an ornament on the famous Catalan Atlas. One I had never heard of was the existence of a school in Cairo for students from Borno, near Lake Chad, endowed in the mid-thirteenth century by merchants from the region.

Though most of the literature Kane discusses is Arabic, he also mentions the phenomenon of ajami, African languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. I was surprised to read that ajami may have appeared as early as the twelfth century, and that ajami literature exists in twenty-nine languages in West Africa and more than eighty throughout Africa.

It always interesting to get a little prod in one’s blind spot, since I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I already knew that appropriating one alphabet to write another language was a medieval commonplace. Christians in Muslim Spain wrote Latin and Spanish (or what would become the latter, over time) in Arabic script, usually called mozarabic. Muslims and moriscoes (converts from Islam) in Christian Spain did the same, called aljamia (sharing the same root as ajami). Judeo-Persian (which is more Persian than Hebrew) is written with Hebrew script, as are Judeo-Arabic and Ladino. Why shouldn’t the same be true in West Africa?

Another “Smallest Aircraft Carrier”

At 131-feet in length, the helicopter landing trainer Baylander (IX-514) has been billed as the “smallest aircraft carrier” in the US Navy, if not the world, by the Navy itself, its current owners the Trenk Family Foundation, and, well, me. That claim is based on the more than 10,000 helicopter landings on the Baylander between 1986 and its retirement in 2014. But what if you want the smallest ship to regularly launch its own aircraft?

The November 1963 issue of Navy magazine All Hands crowned the 206-foot USS Targeteer (YV-3) as the fleet’s “smallest aircraft carrier.” A Drone Aircraft Catapult Ship, the Targeteer was equipped to launch and recover target drones used for gunnery practice by the fleet. The third Landing Ship, Medium (LSM) to be converted into a drone launching ship, the Targeteer was based in San Diego from 1961 to 1968, replacing the USS Launcher (YV-2, 1954–1960) and the USS Catapult (YV-1).

USS Targeteer insignia. NH 64878-KN (NHHC photo).

USS Catapult, circa 1955. NH 55065 (NHHC photo).

USS Catapult, the Targeteer‘s sister ship, circa 1955. NH 55065 (NHHC photo).

Even Targeteer‘s claim, though, is contested. The Executive Officer of the fleet tug USS Kalmia (ATA-184), which also launched and recovered drones at San Diego, wrote to All Hands to claim that its length of 143 feet entitled it to the title of “smallest aircraft carrier.” (All Hands deferred to the Navy’s official classifications. The Targeteer was a Drone Aircraft Catapult Ship, the Kalmia just an Auxiliary Ocean Tug.)

USS Kalmia underway on 16 January 1964. NH 102803 (NHHC photo).

USS Kalmia underway on 16 January 1964. NH 102803 (NHHC photo).

All three claims are weak if you are looking for a ship that launches and retrieves multiple aircraft. If, on the other hand, you are looking for the smallest Navy-crewed vessel which could land or launch a single aircraft, Baylander, Targeteer, and Kalmia all lose to the helicopter pad-equipped “Tango boats” of the Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam. Officially designated Armored Troop Carriers (ATC)s, these were Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) that were modified to serve as floating armoured personnel carriers in the Mekong Delta. Some were further modified with a steel flight deck on top that ran pretty much the full length of the boat. The first helicopter landing on one of these Armored Troop Carrier (Helicopter), or ATC(H)s, took place on July 4, 1967. At 56-feet in length, which is more or less the length of a Huey helicopter, I doubt I’ll find anything smaller to claim the title.

 A U.S. Army UH-1D helicopter lands on the helicopter pad of a modified U.S. Navy Armored Troop Carrier (ATCH R-92-2) operating as part of the Riverine Mobile Force, 8 July 1967. Photography by Photographer's Mate Second Class Edward Shinton. USN 1132291 (NNHC photograph).

A U.S. Army UH-1D helicopter lands on the helicopter pad of a modified U.S. Navy Armored Troop Carrier (ATCH R-92-2) operating as part of the Riverine Mobile Force, 8 July 1967. Photography by Photographer’s Mate Second Class Edward Shinton. USN 1132291 (NNHC photograph).

The Last of the Computers

One of the first hires at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, before JPL became a NASA facility and even before it had the name JPL, was Barbara Canright. Canright was employed as a “computer” who would do complicated and repetitive mathematics for JPL’s engineers, as were many women who followed in her footsteps at JPL.

From the nineteenth century until the 1960s, many large-scale scientific and engineering project relied on human computers – often female university graduates without the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts – to handle the computational load. As Nathalia Holt explains in her recent book Rise of the Rocket Girls, JPL was no different. Holt’s book describes the careers of computers at JPL from the 1940s to the present: one of the last computers to be hired, Susan Finley, still works at the laboratory.

The book does an excellent job narrating the personal trials and professional triumphs of these women, including the disappearance of computing by hand. By the time JPL acquired its name in 1943, multi-purpose electronic computers were only a matter of years away. In the 1950s, JPL’s computing department acquired the first of many IBM mainframes to do calculation work. “Cora” (for Core Storage) was given a woman’s name to fit into the all-female group. Many of the women who worked with it soon branched out into programming in FORTRAN and other languages, at a time when programming had little or none of the prestige which it would later acquire. That decision helped them carve out a niche which survived when hand calculation was eliminated as a trade by the electronic computers, leading to the computer department being renamed Mission Design and the women who had worked there eventually retitled as engineers. Rise of the Rocket Girls describes their ongoing contributions to a list of JPL space probes that includes Ranger, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager.

It’s an interesting story not least because the female calculators employed at JPL were among the last in the business. Their success in transitioning into the Computer Age, reflected both in their success as individuals and in the establishment of Mission Design, was loaded with assumptions about how the aerospace industry valued various kinds of work. Though Holt doesn’t linger on them, in a lot of ways the undercurrents in Rise of the Rocket Girls reminded me of Rebecca Slayton’s Arguments that Count, which examined the relative influence of physicists and computer scientists in planning for ballistic missile defense during the same era.


The Impact of Middlebrow Architecture

From The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006:

The most conspicuous example of the early 1960s effort to make Dahlgren look more like a modern science installation rather than a gun range was the construction of the Computation and Analysis Building (Building 1200). ‘K’ Laboratory had been in need of office space for some time … Consequently, [Ralph A.] Niemann and [Charles J.] Cohen, with the early support of [Naval Weapons Laboratory] commander Captain Manley H. Simons Jr., began lobbying for a new office building at Dahlgren, using POLARIS, Naval Space Surveillance Command, and TRANSIT as justification for the additional work space … Designed by Dahlgren engineer Robert Ryland, the Computation and Analysis Building was (and remains) situated near the station’s front gate, well away from the Potomac and the gun range. There was no mistaking it for a testing shed. It really looked like a science building with its graceful lines and large windows, standing in sharp contract to the rest of NWL’s research plant. It was no mistake that the building was at the front gate, as it was intended to instill visitors coming to Dahlgren with a sense of scientific enterprise. The strategem worked. ‘One the building was constructed,’ said Niemann, ‘then the issue about closing Dahlgren sort of went away because when people would come down, they’d see a new building. They’d figure things were going good, and maybe Dahlgren shouldn’t be closed.'”

The photograph of the Computation and Analysis Building in The Sound of Freedom shows a pleasant but unremarkable low-rise office building.

James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006, p. B-3

From James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006, p. B-3

The previous decade had saw the appearance of a swathe of new corporate research and development centers with innovative architecture, often designed both to streamline the collaborative research process and to put an impressive, even futuristic, face on corporate America. The Eero Saarinen-designed GM Technical Center is the most famous of these, but many of the research campuses were built by companies in the aerospace and defense sectors. In 1957, TRW’s Space Technology Laboratories (architect, A.C. Martin) opened in Los Angeles; the next year Convair Astronautics built a new headquarters designed by Pereira and Luckman just outside San Diego.

The NWL Computation and Analysis Building was a far more modest building. Instead of glass curtain walls, it had ribbon windows. Instead of a landscaped campus, it had a lawn. Its designer, Robert Ryland, was an electrical engineer who had held series of management roles in the various NWL labs. According to his obituary in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, Ryland graduated from MIT in 1951 and and headed the Electronics Systems, Strategic Systems, Protection Systems, and Personnel departments at Dahlgren before retiring as head of the Engineering and Information Systems Department in 1992.

There’s no real comparison between the Computation and Analysis Building and the big private research campuses, but there’s a entertaining overlap of eras and impact. Clearly, if Ralph A. Niemann is to be believed, you didn’t need a star architect or an expensive and expansive campus to make an impression if you were working in government.

Source: James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006 [GPO, 2006] p. 119-120)

Listening to New Books

In the last few months I’ve been listening a lot to the podcasts from the New Books Network, which offers a huge selection of interviews with the authors of new, mostly academic books in what’s now a mind-bogglingly wide range of fields. Given my interests, I’m only subscribed to New Books in History and New Books in Military History, but through those feeds I’m getting podcasts from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society; East Asian Studies; Genocide Studies; Jewish Studies; and a bunch more.

Interviews are usually about an hour long, which means they tend towards the fulsome, but you get a lot of interesting information and a good sense of whether or not you want to actually get the book. I’ve been finding it a nice way to learn about topics I’ll probably not want to dig into so deeply – I have a good chunk of walking in my daily commute, plus days when the subway is too packed to read – but if you were a graduate student trying to get the gist of new research without reading all the latest books, I suspect this could be a godsend.

A Curious Path for Guidance Technology: MEMS and the Military

At the end of my blog post about laser gryoscopes, I mentioned that pretty much every smartphone now has microelectromechanical (MEMS) gryoscopes or accelerometers inside its case, and that too was development funded by the US Department of Defense. It was pretty much a throwaway observation about I which knew nothing more, so it was very neat to see a whole chapter on government funding for MEMS in a new book from NASA, Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight.

As the chapter’s author, Andrew J. Butrica, explains, a lot of the early research into MEMS was done at and around Stanford University and its Integrated Circuits Laboratory in the 70s. One of the lab’s partners and funders was NASA’s Ames Research Center, whose interest was mainly in the opportunities to use MEMS instruments in biomedical research. Another was the National Institutes of Health, also interested in medical research, which put more than a million dollars a year into the Integrated Circuits lab. A third, and one who had been funding electronics research at Stanford since the 1940s, was the military’s Joint Services Electronics Program. The first MEMS accelerometer, described in a 1977 dissertation by Stanford electrical engineering student Lynn Michael Roylance, was funded for its first two years of development by the Joint Services Electronics Program and in part thereafter by a NASA grant.

What happened next would have seemed really weird if I didn’t already know about the winding path towards military use that the laser gyroscope took. One of the earliest widespread adopters of MEMS sensors was the automotive industry, which used MEMS pressure sensors to measure the air pressure in engine manifolds, MEMS accelerometers to trigger airbags in case of sudden deceleration, and MEMS gyroscopes to guide anti-skid and rollover detection systems. Automobile manufacturers liked MEMS sensors for their small size and reliability, which also made them good for use in guided munitions. Starting in 1990 or so, when the global market for MEMS devices had grown to $480 million (according to the March 1, 1993 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology), development came full circle and MEMS sensors started turning up in weapons. A quartz tuning fork gyro was integrated into the Maverick anti-tank missile in 1990, while in 1995–6 automotive-grade MEMS components were used to build a prototype guided shell, the Extended-Range Guided Munition (ERGM), for the US Navy.

Interestingly, the sensors in the ERGM were built by Draper Labs, better known for designing extremely precise gryos and accelerometers for use in intercontinental ballistic missiles, who had used an initial government-funded investment in MEMS development to enter the automotive MEMS sensor market. (There’s a lot of good information on those developments, much of it written by Draper Labs staff, in this NATO paper collection.)

Obviously, the use of MEMS in cars and commercial electronics (like the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone) were not the only factor in continuing development. From 1992 on, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invested in MEMS research through its Microsystems Technology Office. So did national labs like Sandia, and presumably many others – I’m sure I still only know a small slice of what was going on with MEMS in these years. Still, it’s interesting to see another case of what still strikes me as surprising – development coming full circle from speculative military research through commercialization to practical military use.

Spacesuit Style

Gizmodo is reporting that SpaceX has hired costume designer Jose Fernandez, whose work appears in Batman v Superman, Tron: Legacy, The Avengers, Iron Man, and other movies, to design the spacesuits to be used in non-NASA launches aboard the company’s Dragon capsule.

It might be better to say that Fernandez will be styling the suits, since spacesuit design is a pretty technical area. Reportedly, the plan is to begin with a concept design and then engineer it to work from there. It’s a logical move from a company that’s shown a demonstrable love for science fiction (naming its landing barges after spaceships from Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels) and flair for good PR.

SpaceX’s suits will probably go into service along side those used by NASA, who have always been aware of the need for space suit style. As Nicholas de Monchaux explains in his fabulous book Fashioning Apollo, NASA sexed-up its earliest pressure suits – which were essential US Navy pilot’s gear – by adding a layer of silver to make them seem more futuristic. More recently, its experimental Z-series suits have revealed their own touches of fashion. The Z-1, for example, is often nicknamed the “Buzz Lightyear Suit” because of its green striping. For the Z-2, introduced a few years later, NASA commissioned students three different designs from Philadelphia University fashion students and offered the public the change to vote for their favourite: the winner? The Tron-esque “Technology” option.

NASA’s engineers are aware of the demand for cool, Science-Fictional suits, and appreciative of the chance to make some aesthetic tweaks to what’s otherwise a practical design. Talking to io9 last year, suit designer Amy Ross explained:

We’re engineers, and this is space hardware. So a game I used to play with my mentor is “Why is this feature on the suit?” Because this is a very highly engineered product. If there’s a feature there, it’s there for a reason, not just because it looks cool. As fun as that would be, we don’t get that luxury very often.

So with Z1 and Z2, we’ve been given that freedom to think a little bit about what it looks like, and it’s been a lot of fun because spacesuits are cool. We all grew up with these movies too. Hollywood has some really neat things going on and with commercial space coming up, everybody wants to look cool as an astronaut. We don’t usually get to do that but with Z1 and Z2 we really had the opportunity to think a little more about what it’s going to look like.

Both the Z-1 and Z-2 look a lot bulkier than preliminary images of the SpaceX suit I’ve seen because what SpaceX is creating is only a “pressure suit,” designed to be worn inside the pressurized capsule, not a “space suit” that will be exposed to the rigors of extravehicular activity or a moon- or mars-walk. In fact, though suits like the A7L used on Apollo were custom-designed masterpieces, the pressure suits used by Space Shuttle crews over the subsequent thirty years were quick conversions of existing suits.

Until the Challenger disaster in 1986, Shuttle crews flew without pressure suits at all. The Launch Entry Suit that was issued after the accident was a modified version of a existing design by the David Clark Company used by NASA’s Dryden Research Center, combined with a nonconformal helmet that had been tested by the US Air Force for U-2 pilots. When the Air Force introduced a new pressure suit for test pilots, NASA adopted that as its Advanced Crew Escape Suit (details of both can be found in a NASA-sponsored history of US pressure suits, Dressing for Altitude).

Given that one of the early instructions was to look “badass,” we can assume that SpaceX will adopt something sleeker, more form-fitting, and a lot cooler looking. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what they choose.