Brunel’s failed invention

One of the greatest inventions of the 19th century, and of all man’s time, has yet to be developed. It failed initially for a trivial reason which, today, could be easily overcome. When it is finally embarked upon, it will change the physical infrastructure of many countries to such an enormous extent that we can’t possibly imagine all its ramifications. Its development may still lie a century in the future, though there’s no reason why a particularly enterprising culture such as Singapore or Switzerland or Israel shouldn’t start planning it tomorrow.

I’m reminded of the invention every day as I sit at my keyboard and look out of the window. Yet, to my complete surprise this morning, I realize that I have never written about it before now. A group of trees about 100 yards ahead of me is the prompt. This at is the beginning of one of the first tunnels of the Great Western Railway built by the engineering genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1833. It’s still in use today. If I listen carefully at various times in the day I can hear the low rumble of a London-destined train approaching along a deep tree-lined cutting. The sound then vanishes. If I walk to my back garden quickly I can hear the sound again as the train emerges from the tunnel about 200 yards away to the east. (My house doesn’t actually sit over the tunnel, thank goodness!)

Brunel’s first idea was that his Great Western Railway should be pneumatic — that is, driven by air pressure. It would be so much more efficient than the locomotive system than was then being used to pull carriages and freight trucks along. Instead, in Brunel’s experimental version, the leading carriage or truck had a short downward extension on which there was a circular piston which snugly fitted inside a 12 inch wide tube with a slit along the top to allow forward motion. A steam-driven pumping engine a mile or two ahead pumped out the air ahead of the train. The air pressure behind the train would then push the piston forward — and at very high speed, too. The slit in the tube was was covered by a continuous leather strap which slid aside briefly as the piston-arm moved along the tube and then sealed over again when the train was past. Brunel tried it out. He demonstrated conclusively that a pneumatic railway was, indeed, much more efficient than a locomotive driven railway (in which heavy steam engines) have to travel almong as well as the freight.

The problem with this experimental model — which Brunel hadn’t foreseen — emerged within weeks. This was that countryside rats took a liking to the leather valve, nibbled away at it and thus rendered the tube less than air-tight. This dashed the whole project. There were no rubber-like or plastic materials available in those days which were rat-proof and could have been used instead of leather. Thus, Brunel had to revert to the conventional method of mobile steam-engines pulling the train for his Great Western Railway. Another way of overcoming the problem was theoretically possible. This was to construct a much larger tube so that it fitted snugly around the whole front of the leading carriage or truck. This would be even more efficient. But the cost of building a tunnel for the whole distance of 110 miles between Bristol and London was far beyond the pockets of the GWR Board of Directors.

However, to show that this method was feasible, a full-tunnel short-length fun version was built in the grounds of Crystal Palace in 1864 to the delight of hundreds of people who tried it. Also a short-length passenger railway (with serious intent this time!) was constructed under Broadway in New York. Once again, however, this proved to be unfeasible because of lack of suitable sealing materials. In the 1960s, some Lockheed engineers designed a pneumatic system for a Boston-Washington commuter route. At the same time, the Swiss were considering a pneumatic metro system between their major cities. But in both cases it was cost, not method, that stopped further consideration.

However, the cost could be much further reduced by a cut-and-cover method of construction whereby, for most of its length, the top soil is replaced over the top of the tube and the normal amenity or agricultural value of the countryside is resumed. The overall cost would also be reduced substantially if large factories and warehouses (both increasingly automated with smaller numbers of personnel) were integrated with pneumatic railways with countryside above them all. Freight containers could be rolled on and off vessels at the ports and imports delivered at regional warehouses within an hour or two even in large countries. The cost of land-freight could be reduced to levels scarcely more than those of sea transport today. Countries without coastlines would not be as disbenefited as they are now. As for commuters, the time spent every day could be reduced to a fraction of that by car or existing railways.

I gave a talk about this to the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Society about 20 years ago. A friend told me afterwards that I’d given the talk in a flat, unexciting way. That surprised me but perhaps I did. If so, the reason was probably due to the fact that I then still considered Brunel’s invention to be premature. If the Swiss had decided against it for cost reasons in the 1960s then it was still probably not the time for it to be taken up in the 1990s. But there is a difference today which is beginning to be discernible as part of our credit-crunch problem and forthcoming recession. This is that there is no great chain of new consumer products ahead of us which existed all through the past 300 years and served stimuli for economic growth. If there is to be economic development (measure in conventional terms) then it’s going to come via new efficiencies on the production side and not new consumer gew-gaws. Also, if we add in the desirable restoration of a great deal of our countryside, then Brunel’s invention is surely going to be one of the answers one day.

Have a non-giddy Xmas!

We are now in a paradoxical situation when America, Europe, Japan and China appear to be on the point of descending into a deflationary economic recession but yet, just under the surface, an inflationary tsunami is actually building up. So far, only a little of this wave of inflation is seeping out into the everyday economy. What is the evidence for this? And where is the rest of the cash?

We need only confine the evidence in a representative way to the American dollar because this accounts for about 70% of world trade and what happens to the dollar is inevitably followed by the other currencies. (In the past week, the European Central Bank has initiated a series of massive euro “loans” which will be fully equivalent to the quantitative easing of America and China in the last three years.) A graph of the true dollar supply (of available, spendable cash) is exponential (ever-steepening) and passed through $2.5 trillion in 1999. It is now $8 trillion and will approach verticality within a year or two.

At the same time, and at an almost identical pace, the price graph of gold has been rising exponentially as more investors and central banks buy gold (Turkey bought a huge amount only this month). It was $300 an ounce in 1999 and is now $1600. At this rate, its price, too, will approach verticality within a year or two. More of this a little later when the brains get to work.

Back to the cash. Where are dollars? Most of them go in and out of a great cloud of insurance policies which are called derivatives. (These are negotiable instruments and therefore count as practical money.) The net balances of these are intended to repay the banks for the diminished value of the collateral (mainly of property) they are presently sitting on as pledges against loans. And this peaceful unfolding could, in theory, happen in due course. All could be well in the years to come. But this is subject to various practical provisos. One is that the banks will survive in the meantime (and most can’t at present without repeated government support). Another is that the governments of the advanced countries will be able to pare back their own national debts out of increased taxation for many years to to come. Another is that unemployment in the advanced (and advancing) countries will not rise to the point of social breakdown or even the overthrow of governments.

Governments (not so much the elected politicians but the highly intelligent and knowledgeable individuals behind them in their Treasury Departments and Central Banks) know all the above but they’ve never had the courage of advising their politicians to call a halt to their incessant money inflation according to Keynesian dicta. Nor, according to today’s ‘democratic’ guidelines can the officials overrule elected politicians in normal times. But if Keynes were alive today, he would be aghast as to the whopping extent of today’s inflation and for how many years it has been going on (since 1970 but accelerating since). The Keynesian idea of governments adding to consumers’ aggregate demand for goods by borrowing and then issuing extra money was only intended to be a temporary one — two or three years at the most. Even if these demand-push policies were correct (no evidence so far), even Keynes was well aware that the governments’ debts had to be paid back in times of full employment and prosperity.

So what will happen? Nothing can happen until we arrive at a catastrophe when all the principal currencies approach worthlessness compared with the prices of commodities. Western politicians, like foxes caught in headlights, will be paralysed with mental confusion (and very possibly physical fear in some countries), so the brains will have to take over. The most effective short-cut will be that of US treasury officials getting together with the Chinese government (who are jointly officials and politicians) and producing a new world currency. The next short-cut, for want of anything better to hand will be to equate the world supply of existing money (by then, very large) with the price of gold (by then, very high) and call this the new world trading currency — something the Chinese have been suggesting for years. (And they, like the Russians, have been mining and accumulating gold like crazy in the last few years. Why? Because America has been holding onto its gold like grim death since 1971 — and has probably been adding to it in recent years, like many other countries.)

The above is a foregone conclusion in my view. My other view, developed in my mind in the last few months, is that the best short-cut to getting this currency into circulation fast (and it will need to be) is to ask the leading transnational corporations in the world to put their present financial accounts on hold (to be sorted out later) and to reactivate their accounting software from zero with the new currency. They’ll have to be trusted to do the job properly, and most of them will be for their own sake as credit-worthy players. The new currency will thus spread fanwise within days — a week or two at the most — to all other businesses in the world down to the smallest (those with computerized accounts anyway). Governments meanwhile, in distributing food stamps to their populations will have plenty on their plate (forgive the pun). They will also have to instructing all their their national food wholesalers to adopt the stamps for a few days while the real currency is descending downwards. In a few days, when the food stamps meet the new currency, an exchange value created between them.

The value of the new world currency would undoubtedly wobble for a while — while a more precise calculation of the world money supply and total gold (jewelry plus coins plus bullion) is arrived at. But, within weeks, it should settle down to a largely stable value that would then hardly change from year to year. (Slight changes in gold value due to mining from year to year would be countervailed by increases in world economic productivity. The net effect would be well within 1% per annum either way.) For reasons of nostalgia, governments might like to retain their traditional names for currency and/or establish fixed parities with the world currency. Pre-existing debts remain, of course. When translated into the new currency they would still have to be paid off. Many banks (if not most) would be bankrupted, as would many of their creditors and many businesses (but by no means all) would be also. It would be very hard grind from then onwards but, without no more printing of money by governments, there’d be no inflation from then onwards. Total balances of trade between all the countries of the world should become what they ought to be — zero, not the gross imbalances as presently obtain. The world economy would have a chance of stable development from then onwards, shaped as it always is, by innovations.

With money supply (and gold prices) rising vertiginously at some time during 2012 or 2013, the best I can wish for readers is: “Have a non-giddy Xmas. You’re going to need it in preparation for what’s to come.”

You don’t know, Lord Fellowes?

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, says he does ‘not fully understand’ why his television drama of the aristocratic household has been so fabulously successful. Really? Well let me tell him. Or, rather, let the new. post-DNA-sequencing science of evolutionary biology tell him:

1. It is about a fairly well-defined group of people. It’s not too small (it’s larger than one family) but not too large either (smaller than 100-150 people). It is a resonating replica of the typical scavenger-hunter-gatherer group in which our predecessors spent millions of years. It expresses the same repertoire of social behaviours that were shaped by our environment in that era and then locked into our genes which, in their myriad of possible orchestrations, produce surprises (and their subsequent stresses) as well as regularities.

2. But the most powerful of all the social behaviours is that of status, and Downton Abbey is stuffed full with it, both in those people above stairs and below stairs. Higher status is closely correlated with more, or better, sex by the male, or more, and better, economic security for the sake of her children in the case of the female. The choice of male partners by females and differential numbers of ensuing offspring is by far the most defining and shaping evolutionary determinator of human-ness, way above a fairly low threshold of ‘survival of the fittest’ which even the inept can meet.

There we are then. Downton Abbey will never be a great work but it recapitulates the brilliance of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about a small group or Leon Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks about many small groups. Most of the audience of Downton Abbey will have never read those books but can still respond in the same way as the most discriminating literary buffs. Mirror neurons of the brain, which resonate inwardly to what is seen outwardly, act similarly in all who watch television plays or read novels about status dramas in groups.

Oh, and by the way, Lord Fellowes, if you do not fully understand the reason for the huge success of Downton Abbey, experienced television producers certainly do. Those of ITV are falling over themselves, as you know, for you to write another series of Downton Abbey and, in the case of BBC, to revive Upstairs, Downstairs, a similar production of some years ago. (Before too long we will probably be sick of these dramas in aristocratic settings but Austen, Tolstoy and Mann show us otherwise.)

Another silly educational edict

Announced today, the latest educational silliness of the UK government is that children are going to be required to learn their times tables and division by the age of nine. Specifications will be laid down by “an expert panel” (somewhere deep in Whitehall no doubt). There’s no hope of achieving this anymore than previous governmental targets for literacy and numeracy. Both skills seem to be highly desirable, of course, particularly from the point of view of educationalist bureaucrats looking down condescendingly at the masses, or politicians wanting to encourage an economic upsurge.

In fact, illiteracy and innumeracy have been growing in the last few decades. In both activities we are almost certainly worse than in late Victorian times. For an increasing proportion of our children, gone are the days when young chambermaids would read the next exciting Charles Dickens instalment by candlelight in their attic bedrooms or when boys would read comics with thousands of words of text. (As a boy, I used to read the latest Rover or Adventure when riding my bike from the newsagent’s shop. This habit terminated when I went over the handlebars and broke my collar-bone.) An increasing proportion of children, particularly boys, never read a book in their leisure time from one year to the next.

Governmental educationalists and politicians have got the causation upside down. They think that higher general educational standards (which are never achieved, of course) and a ‘liberal’ repertoire of subjects will somehow translate into lots of exports and economic prosperity all round (and, of course, higher workers’ wages and thus more taxation for yet more perks for politicians, larger governmental departments and adequate welfare for the aged). On the contrary, it’s the particular form of the economy, and its closely associated parental culture, that produce the motivation for better education. It is the particular repertoire of subjects chosen by parents for their children that determines the flavour of the culture and its economic potential.

In the great manufacturing cities of the early 19th century it was the factory workers, not the government, that started a new wave of fee-paid schools for their children, and to build mechanics institutes for their young people and. later in the century, municipal universities for young people who spoke, dressed and behaved a little differently from those of the upper middle-classes who went into the older, generally anti-scientific, universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. It was only late in the century, after several other unsuccessful efforts, that the government finally managed to wrest childrens’ education away from parental choice by bribery (making education free) so that minds could be conditioned to nationalistic requirements (obedient domestic servants and factory workers, cannon fodder for its armies). Many government-trained and -indoctrinated teachers would hang red-coloured maps of the British Empire in their classrooms, and their children awed with great tales of military success all round the world.

Yes, of course, a successful economy requires high educational standards. The best thing the government could do would be to start to unwind the previous lamentable history of state education. Give education vouchers to all parents and allow new parentally-organized schools to start (and to compete with state schools). At first, and for a generation or two no doubt, many parents would choose unwisely, or even not at all, but there’s already a sizeable band of parents who desire more than anything else the sort of education that only monopoly-fees-priced private schools can offer. It is this 7% of schools that actually supply about half of all the fully-educated engineers and research scientists (the remainder coming from no more than a handful of state secondary schools in the leafy suburbs).

At the present time no more than about a score of our 650 politicians in the House of Commons have had a scientific or engineering education. At my last check some years ago not a single one of the chief civil servants of 14 departments had been scientifically trained. No country could ever hope to remain at the economic forefront (as England once was) with such a lamentable situation.

Fortunately, despite the latest silliness, the present government (as with many advanced country governments) and against the fierce opposition of teachers’ unions are beginning to experiment with more parental choice private schooling. These experiments should be extended as rapidly as possible. Otherwise leave the state education system to its own devices — repeated lowering of examination standards and the production of state-school teachers of which a quarter can’t write grammatical sentences and half can’t do simple mathematics.

The last-remaining consumer product

In a superb essay in this week’s Economist, “Difference Engine: Luddite legacy”, the unknown writer successfully demonstrates that automation inevitably means the death of mass employment. Unfortunately it ends unsatisfactorily with abstract Maslovian ideas about mass “self-fulfilment” taking the place of jobs. But consider: the whole march of the industrial revolution has been about the mass employment of all classes each striving to buy goods that will signify their arrival at a higher station. Now that the majority of people in the advanced countries have already arrived at a full standard package of these (house plus contents plus attachments such as the car and exotic holidays) by about 1980, only an elite minority of the well-educated and well-paid can go further up Maslow’s league table. Imagine, however, a “New Amish” community, each with a scientific specialization that it’s able to trade. In these, standard consumer goods can be shared, and deeply instinctive individual needs for both social inclusion and status can be accommodated. This is a product not of utopian notions (which have been tried innumerable times in the past) but of scientific insights we are only recently gaining as to the particular sorts of genetically implanted impulses each of us is born with. This is something we might arrive at after a century or more of troublesome adaptation. Or it might be accelerated by an entrepreneur who can think of a way of marketing what is the last-remaining consumer product we really need.



Wimbledon started the first tennis club in the whole world and is the still greatest tennis venue, despite the fact that English tennis is hardly worth speaking of. The City of London started the first central bank in the whole world, the Bank of England, and is still the greatest financial nexus, despite the fact that English banks and institutions now comprise only a small fraction of the thousands of foreign entities that have set up shop there. Wimbledon produces significant export earning from temporary foreign tourists during the Tournament. The City of London produces enormous export earnings all the year round from tourists who spend their formative careers there before returning home. Both Wimbledon and the City of London face intense competitive pressures from several other cities around the world which seek to take away their respective crowns. So long as both venues keep their other facilities reasonably up to date, then the Great and the Good of both activities who, more than anything else in their lives, desire to keep their statuses constantly burnished by being seen to be rubbing shoulders with other Great and Good, will ensure that the basic adage of economics — the Customer is King — still applies. Even if the Eurozone itself survives (which is arguable), the nasty threats of President Sarkozy and other Eurocrats to dethrone the City of London by means of taxing financial transactions are as nought compared with what the customers will decide as they allocate their time and their financial and status activities as between London, Frankfurt, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Sao Paulo and any other cities whose mayors fancy the top slot.

Beware of innovations!

The further back we go in history, the higher is the social class in which innovators originate. This is because innovators need leisure-time more than anything else. They need to be able to temporarily marry their basic obsession with a variety of other daily qualia without chronic distractions such as having to earn a living or to carry out other time-consuming responsibilities. Also, the overwhelming majority of innovators are always young people below the age of 30 or 35 — that is, before their frontal lobes become too networked with conventional notions. This means that, in modern times, the growing numbers of unemployed young in the advanced countries who, unlike their equivalents in the Great Depression of the 1930s don’t necessarily “know their place” in the social hierarchy, will undoubtedly become a new large source of potential innovation, particularly with the Internet being more or less freely available for specialist self-education and for propagation of new ideas. And innovations are not always beneficial to society or governments either. Indeed, some of the cleverest ones might be motivated by grievance. As the credit-crunch of 2008 continues to spiral downwards, either to wider economic depression or currency catastrophe, politicians had better become much more widely aware of the status needs of others than to remain too preoccupied with their own ambitions and yabooing one another like boys in a school playground.


Keeping our heroes occupied

Just as the planetary environment has shaped our genes over billions of years, so have innovations shaped mankind’s cultures and economies. Entrepreneurs, financiers or politicians who purport to be responsible for economic growth and consumer prosperity are really ten-a-penny and spring up like mushrooms whenever significant innovations appear. Those three heroes (or anti-heroes) of modern culture merely take advantage of whatever innovations come along and, as individuals, happen to be the right sort of person at the right time and in the right place. Unfortunately, we have no significant innovations today that remotely compare with the three that took us through the industrial revolution — the steam engine, the electrical dynamo and the computer — and which spawned thousands of new consumer good as by-products — so none of the three ‘heroes’ at present know how to lead us out of the economic mess that the advanced countries find themselves in (never mind the rest of the world). A corollary of this is that our largest, most efficient world-wide businesses are presently bulging with profits but don’t know how or where to invest them next in order to produce the next tranche of consumer goods that, according to orthodox economic wisdom, could kick-start us into renewed economic growth. So what will be the next significant innovation(s)? Goodness knows! But if we had to place a bet it would probably be in one or both of the two most exciting scientific research areas today — genetics and particle physics. Until the next innovation comes along, the best our heroes could do would be to dampen down the excesses of today — the excessive expectations of the mass consumer, the excessive exploitation of our wonderful natural environment and the excessive world population. That’s more than enough to keep them going while the research scientists plod away at their experiments.

Either way won’t be pleasant

Yesterday’s dramatic enlargement of the Eurozone to 26 countries amounts to little more than a cosmetic camouflage of the two real problems of Western Europe. One is that governmental debts are still growing even in those countries which have adopted the most austere spending programmes. The other is the near-bankruptcy of most of the major banks of Europe and their unwillingness or inability to lend more to potential start-ups (always the biggest generators of jobs, particularly for young people). Is it to be the case of a gradual spiralling downwards into long-term depression, or a catastrophic chain reaction sparked off by either the bankruptcy of a large bank or the default of one of the original Eurozone nations? The largest investment funds are not happy with yesterday’s political sham, and neither is this humble observer.

Will the Eurozone crumble today?

Shares in Europe and America started dropping immediately at 2.30pm yesterday as soon as the newly-appointed Mario Draghi spelled out that he was going to do his job properly. He was going to run the European Central Bank according to the Treaty which set it up in the first place and not lend money willy-nilly to Eurozone governments. During the night, the 17 Eurozone leaders have scraped up 200 billion Euros from somewhere (10-fold less than is really needed) in the hope that Mario Draghi will loosen the ECB rules a little bit and also that the IMF, America or China might chip in with more money today. How likely this might be is what investors will be deciding this morning. If they are of the same mind as yesterday afternoon and take their money elsewhere then we can reasonably imagine that the Eurozone will seriously start crumbling today and through the week-end.


Government from bunkers

Those high-flying pilotless planes called drones fascinate me. American drones have been hand-picking and killing Taliban commanders in Afghanistan one by one in the last year or two. Last week, one of America’s latest bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel drones went off-course and landed deep in Iran. (This accident will electrify the Israelis, of course!) You can be sure that Russian and Chinese scientists will already be examining the drone closely and will soon be taking its detailed specifications back home for copying. It is said that the latest American-Israeli drones under development are now slimmed down to the size of songbirds, or even large insects like mosquitoes. Once enough countries have developed these drones in the coming years, it will surely be the case that no powerful politicians in the world will be able to show themselves in public for fear of being assassinated by a simulated pigeon which has parked itself overnight on a nearby roof. It will be government from bunkers by then, won’t it?

We’re busily printing food tokens

“Britain Suffers as a Bystander to Europe’s Debt Crisis” so says the headlines in today’s New York Times. On its home page this is followed up with: “If the Euro falls, Britain will sink, but if Europe forges a closer unity among the Eurozone countries, then Britain faces being ever more marginalized.” What the NYT doesn’t go on to say in its story is that, if the Euro fails, America will also be marginalized. This is why a deeply worried US Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has been over here in Europe for the past three days talking to the four leading players (Merkel, Sarkozy, Monti and Draghi). Geithner, whose real executive power concerning currency exceeds that of President Obama (and President Hu for that matter) is too intelligent not to know that if the Eurozone sinks into economic depression then so will America and China. All three major economic powers (and any other country with a halfway competent civil service) will be busily printing food tokens and polishing their emergency procedures right now.

What an interesting week to come! (300)

The Merkel-Sarkozy plan (that of a new Eurozone government with taxation powers) which they’ll be cooking up today at lunch-time is bound to fail for one simple reason. Indeed, it was for the same reason that it wasn’t dared to be instituted right at the beginning of the Euro-banknote era in 1999. This is that humans, being an intensely social species, will instinctively revert to their nearest convenient denominator when stressed. We clump together even more tightly. This applies whether we are talking of cultures, or religions, or languages, or tribes, or social classes, or professions, or work groups, or neighbourhoods, or ultimately, families.

The idea that Germans, Italians, French, Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards, Irish, Flemish, Luxembourgians, and eight more cultural denominations (at their largest linguistic dimension, never mind smaller ones) will cheerfully submit to a centralized budgetary authority is crazy in the extreme. Even if Merkel and Sarkozy are so desperate to agree today on some sort of formula, and even if the Eurozone leaders agree to it on Friday, then the only epithet we can apply is the old one: “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad”.

The only eminent politician who has put his finger on the problem so far is the Prime Minister of the smallest country of the Eurozone, namely Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxemburg. He recently said: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to be re-elected once we’ve done it.”

Precisely. Never mind the social eruptions, revolutions or even coups d’etat that would inevitably follow such a proposal, it is the amour propre of the career politicians alone (or even their lives if they ever wish to show themselves in public in the coming years) that will prevent any sort of United Europe. What an interesting week to come!