I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.
Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.
One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:
Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.
After 1903, 1911, 1913 and 1928, it's time to round off this miscellany of Australian mystery aircraft with 1939 and 1940 -- separated by little over a year in time, but quite far apart in place and circumstance.
Continuing this miscellany, on 23 August 1913 the Maitland Daily Mercury published a letter from the Reverend G. W. Payne reporting that he, his wife, and a Mr and Mrs Preston had seen 'an aeroplane with searchlight hovering fairly high over Newcastle and the Hunter Valley'. This was just before 4am on 22 August 1913, though Mr Preston had also seen the light at 2am on 21 August. What they were all doing at such an early (or late) hour is unclear, but it was 'A reflection of the light on the still waters of the lake' (presumably Lake Macquarie) which first caught their attention:
The four of us watched it traversing a line from the direction of Newcastle north and west. Though at a considerable distance from us and fairly high in the air, the nature of the light was quite unmistakeable. It passed away in a westerly direction after loitering some time over the Hunter Valley.
I have a short, non-peer-reviewed article about Trove bots coming out in History Australia as part of a special issue on Trove; the advanced access version has just been published. Here's the abstract:
Like many other historians I use Trove for both targeted searches and exploratory ones, which in itself has revolutionised my historical research practice. However, I have recently been exploring the potential of Tim Sherratt’s concept of ’Trove bots’ – Twitter bots which tweet links to random Trove Newspaper articles – as, in effect, automated research assistants, as well as public engagement tools. Here, I will discuss how I have been using one such bot, @TroveAirRaidBot, in my current writing project, and its limitations and hopefully its potential.
It was an interesting piece to write: partly trying to make a case for experimenting with Trove bots for their curiosity and engagement value, but more reflecting on how useful their directed serendipity can be for serious research too. Also, it amuses me to have a formal publication with a Twitter handle in the title!
It's currently available for free, but I'm not sure how long that will last. In any case, the green open access version is here.
After its early showing in the 1909 mystery airship wave, Australia was rarely visited by phantom airships proper. Maybe that's because real airships were even rarer, with none that I know of between 1914 and the late twentieth century: they just weren't a very plausible thing to think you saw. But they did turn up sometimes.
There was one in Western Australia in 1910, another in 1918, and a relatively famous one on 10 June 1931 between Lord Howe Island to Jervis Bay. That last one was seen by Sir Francis Chichester while making the first east-west solo flight from New Zealand to Australia -- though he seems to have only reported it decades later, and even then stopped of short of claiming it actually was an airship. In 1925, another phantom airship was seen, more definitely but equally incongruously, at Myall, near the Murray River in northern Victoria.
The time has finally come to address the claim I've made in the title of this series of posts, that the air raid somehow vanished. Why did I say that, and what does it mean? Well, look at the plot above. Previously I looked at how often 'air raid' (and related phrases) appeared per issue in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in each month across the First World War. The above plot, now, is how often 'air raid' appeared per issue in each year from the start of the First World War (when 'air raid' was first used) until the end of the Second. Now you can see that the first peak in 'air raid''s popularity came in 1917, at an average of 0.8 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA; and that this was followed by a second, much bigger peak in 1940 of 5.2 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA. All of which makes sense.
What's more surprising is what happened in between. From 1921 to 1934, the phrase 'air raid' almost completely disappears from BNA. At the lowest point, 1929, the average number of mentions per issue was just 0.026, or one in about 38. In other words, if you read 38 issues you might expect to read the phrase 'air raid' once, which is more than six weeks of reading a daily. If you want some absolute figures, 'air raid' appears 609 times in the 23054 issues contained in BNA for 1929. So 'air raid' was not a phrase you were at all likely to see in a newspaper in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Yesterday marked the centenary of the founding of the Royal Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921. I celebrated in the usual way (buying books, talking about myself):[tweet id="1377043532775493636" conversation=false][tweet id="1377044249552678913" conversation=false][tweet id="1377044649374715908" conversation=false]But I also decided to use the occasion to talk about something that's missing from the usual RAAF origin story, and that's the mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. [tweet id="1377045231397335041" conversation=false][tweet id="1377046196846399494" conversation=false][tweet id="1377046835257253889" conversation=false]