A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Conference in Greenwich, England
From: Geoffrey Kolbe
Date: 2014 Apr 4, 17:58 +0100
From: Geoffrey Kolbe
Date: 2014 Apr 4, 17:58 +0100
I met with one other NavList member at the conference, Bruce Hardie, who lives here in London and who has ambitions to keep himself found with a sextant at sea.
Our talks for the second day kicked off with, "The gunsight that fostered Inertial Navigation," given by Thomas Wildenberg. This was a celebration of Charles Stark Draper and his lifelong dedication to producing inertial navigation systems that firstly, worked, and secondly, were small enough to be useful in guiding atomic bombs to their targets. Between the wars, Draper had been a keen amateur pilot and recognising the need for more accurate navigation instruments, set himself the task of designing a better turn indicator. He demonstrated his device to Sperry, who agreed that it was better than theirs, but it was also more expensive to produce and theirs was selling very well, so thanks but no thanks. But come 1940 Draper realised that his turn indicator, with a reference gyroscopic at its heart, could be modified to create a lead-computing gunsight that would help gunners against fast moving tanks. This morphed into an anti-aircraft gun control system which was extremely successful both for him and his MIT partner who actually produced them. After the war, Draper concentrated on inertial navigation systems for aircraft, getting the weight down from a 3000 lb prototype which flew an aircraft across the United States in 1948 to a conference in Los Angeles where the theme was the possibility of inertial navigation - to a 225 lb model that could guide Polaris missiles to within 2 nautical miles of its target after 1200 nm travel. Wildenberg gave the impression that Draper's system was also used improve the dire performance of bombsights during WWII by essentially putting the aircraft under the control of an inertial guidance system. But I had also been under the impression that the British had handed over the 'family jewels' of technological innovation to the Americans, including the magnetron (which generated high power microwaves for radar) and the Rolls Royce Merlin aero-engine, in return for the Norden bomsight which had the elements described above....
The next talk also took a controversial line though history when Carlene Stephens from the National Museum of American History talked about, "Clocks in space, time and navigation for the Cold War 1957 - 84". She was firm in her thesis that the GPS system, and the development of small atomic clocks for which their operation depended, was a product of the Cold War and the necessity of the American Military to have accurate navigation systems. It has been argued by other speakers in past Greenwich conferences that though the US Army Airforce oversaw the development and deployment of the GPS system, its inception and intent never was driven by military requirements and it was always intended for civilian use. A lively debate ensued during the question period after the talk. If Stephens was correct, why was the public allowed access to the GPS system? Any right thinking government would not have allowed potential enemies of the US to have wide open access to a guidance system of such accuracy right from the get-go. A satisfactory answer to this question did not emerge, and it seems that many experts in the audience had been asking this question for many years and have never got a satisfactory answer. However, many experts in the audience also recounted how GPS had been 'mucked about with' and and even turned off at key moments during the Gulf Wars and the campaign in Afghanistan, so justifying the Europeans launching the Galileo constellation at enormous expense, with the Russians, Chinese, Indians and Japanese also putting up their own systems.
The next talk, "From camel train to WWII: Navigating in the North African Deserts" was given by Keith Langridge. I had been looking forward to this talk as this is my particular interest and one on which I have done a lot of research over the years. However, it seems that a lot of what I know seems to be incorrect. I was alerted to this when we learned that Major Ralph Bagnold, who pioneered the deep penetration of deserts using motor vehicles between the wars, was actually called Roger Bagnold. It seems that a radio set with power pack that Bagnold had mounted on the side of one of his vehicles - and was described as such in the caption to the photo in his book on his travels in the Libyan desert - was actually a gyro compass. It seems that the Long Range Desert Group navigators used bubble sextants and took noon sun sights to determine position. This despite the fact that Jimmy Patch, a sometime member of NavList and an ex LRDG navigator, categorically stated that they only ever used theodolites, at night, to do star sights - a fact reinforced in a paper given to the Royal Geographical Society by Kennedy-Shaw who had been a member of Bagnold's pre-war expeditions and who had taught the LRDG navigators how to navigate in the desert... Ah well, we live and learn.
David Childs also seemed to contradict the thrust of Margaret Schotte's thesis the day before by stating (in his talk, "Pirates, plunder and Ocean Passeges") that what woke up the English to their deficiencies in navigation was the fact that the Spanish and Portuguese were bringing back vast wealth from foreign lands - whereas the English hugged the coast on their salt water travels and so missed out on this wealth. It was English pirates like Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh et al, who decided change the situation by relieving the Spanish and Portuguese of their gold and silver, and the Venetians, Dutch, Swedes and anybody else who came within gun range! Queen Elizabeth desperately needed cash and was happy to look the other way on this expression of free enterprise - so long as she got her cut of the proceeds! And it seems text books were written, schools of navigation were set up in London during Elizabethan times, and Trinity House itself had been set up by Henry VIII almost exactly 500 years ago. The drive for this improvement in the skills to navigate the deep oceans was not war, or national security, Childs argued, but money - and the willingness of English pirates to risk long ocean voyages find it.
There were other talks on other topics, which frankly were peripheral to our interest in celestial navigation and so I will stop there and not go into details on those.
Dr Geoffrey Kolbe, Riccarton Farm, Newcastleton, Scotland, TD9 0SN
Tel: 013873 76715