Monday, 26 May 2008

After London

Channel 4 had a gripping programme this evening, Life After People; it featured remarkable scenes of the timeline of the decaying structures of a world after a postulated disappearance of people. In a previous post, Underground London, I mentioned Where London Stood, a site that discusses similar apocalyptic scenarios in literature.

In the same post, I also briefly mentioned Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. This literary/SF novel concerns an archaeologist, David Lambert, who finds a document predicting the arrival of the HG Wells Time Machine at a particular time and place. To his surprise, it does. Lambert, with little to lose (he is tormented by memories of a dead lover and the knowledge that he has caught from her the same terminal CJD-type illness from which she died) uses the machine to travel to the year 2500, where he finds himself in the ruins of a stunningly-described overgrown tropical London. Unlike HG Wells' time traveller, Lambert has the equipment and knowledge to gradually uncover the history - a mix of climate change, various plagues, and consequent civil war during the collapse of civilisation - that led to this situation.

If you don't mind spoilers, there's an excellent review by James Schellenberg here in the Canadian SF e-zine Challenging Destiny.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Bug-hunts and militarism

It's not often that films resurrect political controversies that accompanied books published decades ago, but this was the case with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, which had its UK terrestrial TV premiere on Friday night. The film is based on Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel of the same name, which depicts a future war between humans and alien "Bugs". The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, and has been massively influential. In fiction and film, it originated the now-familiar "Space Marine" genre; and as a book, it has long-running popularity in the US military, being on the reading lists of various services and military academies.

The controversy concerned the politics. Robert Heinlein was one of a number of US science fiction authors with libertarian/right-wing leanings, and the book (through extensive in-book polemic and lectures) argues for a system of government that critics described as promoting militarism (Dean McLaughlin called it "a book-length recruiting poster") or even amounting to fascism. Heinlein's society is admirable in many respects - there is no racism or sexism, and it is definitely meritocratic. But its peculiarities include a two-tiered citizenship, in which only military veterans are allowed to vote or hold public office (in Heinlein's view, a means to ensure that some rights in society should only come if you have proven responsibility). See Wikipedia for more detail on the contraversies.

With Heinlein, the description "armchair general" springs readily to mind. Although he served in the US Navy, he was invalided out with tuberculosis and spent World War 2 as a civilian. Other science fiction writers who had seen active service were incensed enough to write ripostes with a different spin on the same scenario: Joe Haldemann's The Forever War and Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero. I find both far better reading than the fairly didactic original. Joe Haldemann, who was drafted into the Vietnam War, during which he was wounded, writes tellingly about personal loss and the culture shock of returning veterans, exploring this through the device of time dilation in faster-than-light travel. Round trips to and from military engagements take a short time from the traveller's viewpoint, but decades and even centuries from the viewpoint of Earth. Soldiers therefore return to find loved ones long-dead, and encounter even more radical social changes (at one point, the veteran hero finds he is called "the old queer" by new recruits, because while he has been away homosexuality has become the norm, in order to counter disastrous overpopulation).

Harry Harrison, who served in WW2 as a gunsight mechanic and gunnery instructor, took a different tack: satire. Bill the Galactic Hero is a comic dig at militarism and imperialism; it focuses largely on the extended pointless ritual of military life that its dim farmboy conscript encounters. A Vietnam veteran said to Harrison, "That's the only book that's true about the military." The satire tackles the creations of other authors too, such as the sanitary problems of planet-sized cities (Harrison's "Helior" is recognisably Trantor from Asimov's Foundation Series). There are also allusions to Joseph Heller and, I think, EM Forster's A Passage to India (the amusing defence tactics at Bill's court-martial appear modelled on the trial of Dr Aziz, and Felix Grant commented to me a while back that the description of the trooper Tembo - "He had lovely, purplish-black skin that made Bill a little jealous, because his was only a sort of grayish pink" - uses a phraseology that appears to allude to Fielding's remark about the white races being "pinko-grey").

Which leads to the Verhoeven film. It didn't do well in the box office, probably because it wasn't clear what the director was trying to achieve. Verhoeven retained most of the details of Heinlein's book, but subverted it by adding a strongly satirical edge, kitting out the militaristic Earth culture with identifiably Nazi trappings. The result is a film that manages to work on its own terms as an action story, while making you distinctly uneasy that the heroes come from a society that's deeply creepy by our standards (essentially a USA that has gone over the edge into a cheery fascism). This essay by Owen Williams - The Provocateur Auteur: Paul Verhoeven and the Reception of Starship Troopers (1997) - discusses the film and reactions to it, and Verhoeven himself describes his intentions in this interview, Big bugs! Big bucks! Director Paul Verhoeven rides "B-movie" Starship Troopers to a timely comeback. I think I'll get out the video: it looks worth re-watching in the light of this background. There are plenty of clips on YouTube.

Addendum: Felix Grant just reminded me of All My Sins Remembered, another Joe Haldeman novel worth finding. As described in this this review, it's a paste-up of several standalone stories by Haldeman about an interplanetary undercover operative, Otto McGavin. Initially adventurous in tone - the science-fictional equivalent of James Bond, complete with Q-style gadgets - the story darkens. As revealed by McGavin's periodical hypnotic audits, he carries an increasing psychological burden from traumatic experiences, personality implants that he abhors, and the tension between his unprincipled work and his "Anglo-Buddhist" upbringing, leading to his complete breakdown. The Forever War could be criticised as, ultimately, pulling its punches; All My Sins Remembered doesn't.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Burial at Thebes

We had a flyer of interest recently: the Farringdon Society of Arts production of Burial at Thebes, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy Antigone. Phil Symes' tabloid-style programme is great fun.

Taking place in Farringdon churchyard, the production has some auspicious literary connections: the good wishes of Heaney himself, and attendance from 30 members of the Yeats Society in Sligo, an exchange visit organised by Janet Sawyer around WB Yeats' Devon connections (his brother Jack Butler Yeats was an artist who lived and worked in Devon - see Societies from across the sea meet to forge fresh Yeats links, Exeter Express & Echo, 19 May 2008).

I'm not sure if there's still time to catch the play, whose run ends on 24th May, but it looks worth checking out if you live in the Exeter area. There are some pictures of the cast and location at Gary Mackley-Smith's Flickr page, Topshaman's Photostream.

Monday, 19 May 2008 breaking the stereotype

In the previous post I briefly mentioned "the culture of science in fiction and fact". Edited by edited by scientist and science writer Dr. Jennifer Rohn, it's "dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture. The site is intended for non-scientists as well as scientists, and the goal is to inform, entertain and surprise".

It's an interesting mix. Some of it is polemical and actively targeting the stereotypes, as in What is Lab Lit (the genre)? ("Boffins are so last century - let's see some real scientists for a change"). But as the launch editorial explains, its scope includes essays, reviews, fiction and poetry - anything about the culture of real science, whether realistic science in fiction, analysis of unrealistic science in fiction, or and science fiction.

There's plenty here for literature enthusiasts: a quick look in the archives finds Science at sea, looking at Stephen Maturin in the novels of Patrick O'Brian; a very nice three-episode feature, Flights of Fancy, arguing how early novelists set the scene for space exploration; A culture of curiosity, concerning George Eliot, little known to be a keen botanist; and Thomas Hardy, Richard Proctor and the dialogue of the deaf, how two 19th century writers exemplified a cultural split that still persists.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The Small Back Room

A recommendation (brought to the surface by a customer asking yesterday, in the bookshop where I work): The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. Its central character is Sammy Rice, a scientist involved in bomb disposal during World War 2, and it has three main threads: Rice's personal difficulties (including pain from a false foot and in-part-consequent alcoholism); an indictment of the bureaucracy hampering the effectiveness of wartime scientific research; and a tense story about the attempts to understand and defuse a new type of booby-trapped bomb. You can get a preview at Google Books.

These days the 1943 book is less known than the 1949 film, which is one of my favourites from this era; it combines the classic chiaroscuro of the peak of b&w filming technique with a surprisingly bleak and modern outlook. Sammy is an unrepentant alcoholic (a situation that remains unresolved) and the film is perfectly open about he and his girlfriend, Sue, living together despite being unmarried. (The Powell & Pressburger Pages site has studio shots and reviews - the one by Adrian Danks here is particularly enlightening about its cinematic aspects, one memorable scene being the Expressionistic distortion when Rice's craving is portrayed via a giant whisky bottle that grows to fill the room).

The book focuses rather more on the technical and bureaucratic side of the story than the film, but it's nonetheless very readable. The background comes strongly from Balchin's own experience as an industrial psychologist and, later, scientific adviser to the army council. As a scientist, he's generally credited with a number of innovations, though not necessarily on solid evidence: as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, "he claimed to be largely responsible for the marketing success of the Aero and Kit Kat chocolate bars"). The Small Book Room is similarly credited for popularising the terms "back room boys" and "boffin", though the extent to which it did this is unclear: both terms appear in British newspaper ads and editorials more or less contemporaneously with the book, and the primary influence for "back room boys" was probably Lord Beaverbrook's 1941 speech, the term coming from the Marlene Dietrich song in his favourite film, Destry Rides Again. The etymology of boffin is unknown, except that it became a popular term in the RAF in the early 1940s. The original boffins were viewed as admirable: they both produced innovative techniology and, often, risked their lives by going along on missions to monitor its performance. Post-WW2 it become a pejorative stereotype, for eccentric producers of not-very-useful science, that British scientists are still trying to live down. (If you want a take on current science culture, see

Unfortunately it's too late for last month's the Radio 4 programme, Nigel Balchin: Small Back Room Boy, but the Balchin Family History site has, along with a bibliography with cover scans, a very fairly-written biography - see Nigel Marlin Balchin - that, unlike many family history sites, doesn't airbrush out problematical aspects. Balchin's life was blighted by a disastrous partner-swapping arrangement in the 1940s that led to divorce and acrimonious custody battles, then later by alcoholism. Clive James' The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin gives a detailed analysis of the works of this highly versatile writer.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The name'zh Bond, Jamezh Bond

A few oddments brought to mind by Penguin Blog's piece, Covering Bond, in the run-up to the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth on May 28th:

In the Guardian, The name's Ronson, Jon Ronson tells of Ronson's attempt to re-create James Bond's Aston Martin DB3 drive from London to Geneva in Goldfinger, in the process experiencing the real-world consequences of sitting in a car for days living on Bond's diet of rich food and alcohol. And there's the transcript of QI, Series 3, Episode 6, containing the revelation that some of the more picturesque local colour in Ian Fleming's books was complete nonsense. This includes the factoids that homosexuals can't whistle, and that sumo wrestlers "by assiduous massage" can learn to tuck their testicles into their bodies to avoid injury (debunked here at The Straight Dope).

As reported in More grit than glamour in spy writing, the Fleming centenary has been commemorated with Sebastian Faulks writing a new James Bond novel, Devil May Care, to be published by Penguin on May 28th. There's more at the official Ian Fleming Centenary site: events include a new radio dramatisation of Dr. No, and an Imperial War Museum exhibition, For Your Eyes Only, featuring memorabilia as well as focusing on Fleming's work in relation to the Cold War era in which the books were written. Apart from Devil May Care, associated books include a new Fleming biography, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond by Ben Macintyre; Final Fling by Kate Westbrook, the third in her Moneypenny Diaries series; and the UK publication of a graphic novel version of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novel SilverFin

Addendum, May 28: see Devil is in the detail for Mark Lawson's review in the Guardian.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Ernst Haeckel

One of the articles at Cabinet magazine caught my interest, Ernst Haeckel and the Microbial Baroque; the text description doesn't do justice to the beautiful images in this zoologist and philosopher's 1904 book of biological artwork, Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature). Unfortunately, behind this elegant art and some genuine scientific insights, there's a rather darker story.

Haeckel was responsible for some classic images of embryological development that supported the now-discredited theory that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (that is, the belief that embryos go through stages where they look like their evolutionary ancestors). But around a decade ago, in Anatomy and Embryology, 196(2):91–106, 1997 the embryologist Michael Richardson and others reported the results of rephotographing the embryos in Haeckel's classic illustration, and concluded that he had grossly exaggerated the similarity. This only freshened a fact long known: Haeckel was caught out even in his own lifetime by scientists such as L Rutimeyer and Wilhelm His, who spotted that he had redrawn other scientists' sketches of dog and human embryos to make them look more similar.

This didn't much affect Haeckel's career, as he went on the offensive against his critics, admitting to only minor falsifications caused by the need of the draughtsman (himself) to interpolate. Nevertheless, his dodgy embryology was so vivid a meme that his drawings have become a fixture of biology textbooks right up the the present. Only recently, as this note by Ken Miller and Joe Levine shows - Haeckel and his embryos - have some textbook authors begun amending their illustrations to better reflect reality. It remains a problem, however, that the discrediting of Haeckel has been latched onto by creationists, who falsely portray his long-sidetracked ideas as central to evolutionary theory (see PZ Myers on creationism and the Haeckel saga).

Haeckel had a number of other strange ideas, many focusing on German nationalism. Pauli Juhani Ojalan's evolution site has a Haeckel Page; much of it is in Finnish, but the English-annotated illustrations give the flavour of Haeckel's flakery such as his Faces series identifying human nationalities with different species of monkey and ape (it recalls Le Brun's System of Physiognomy) and his Genealogical tree of the Indo-Germanic Languages which presents Germanic languages as the main line of descdent of the Indo-European tree. These ideas, along with his interests in racial superiority, eugenics and social Darwinism, he entwined with a pantheistic philosophy, Monism. All this helped provide many of the supposed scientific underpinnings for Nazism: a very nasty footnote to Kunstformen der Natur.

There are biographies at ScienceWorld and UCMP Berkeley, and Wikimedia Commons has public domain images of all the plates from Kunstformen de Nature.

Cabinet of curiosities

Via MetaFilter, Cabinet Magazine Online. Cabinet is an award-winning quarterly magazine of art and culture whose name alludes to the the 17th-century "cabinet of curiosities" (aka Wunderkammer), a form of mini-museum of interesting objects, more often than not a little morbid, typically drawn eclectically from a variety of genres: art, general science, biology, archaeology, palaeontology, and so on.

So far, Cabinet is up to issue 29, each issue built around a theme (for instance, Failure, The Sea, Ruins, and Mountains) and a good proportion are online. A few articles I liked on an initial exploration: A Minor History of / Giant Spheres; Dead Troops Salute (Arthur Mole's symbolic photographics made from massed military formations); Leftovers / The London Necropolis Railway (the little-known railway that served Brookwood Cemetery - more here); The Scale and the Spectrum (a history of colour-music systems; Extraordinary voyages (about the adventurers who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel); Hashima: The Ghost Island; and so on). Dip and enjoy.

Tackling a taboo

A while back, in the Victorian waterbeds post, I mentioned Dr Neil Arnott. He was an extremely talented polymath, known particularly in his time for his popularisation of science, Elements of Physics (aka Elements of physics, or, Natural philosophy, general and medical : explained independently of technical mathematics, and containing new disquisitions and practical suggestions, in two volumes - they went for snappy titles in those days). He was also massively influential in the field of public health, though in a way that in hindsight achieved the right result for the wrong reasons.

The work of Joseph Bazalgette in setting up London's sewerage system is well-known. What's less known is that the impetus was based in a pre-germ theory: the miasma theory that disease was caused by bad smell (a view that persisted well after statistical evidence showed relevant diseases, particularly cholera, to be water-borne). Arnott was one of the supporters of Edwin Chadwick, the leading proponent of this view (see Death and miasma in Victorian London: an obstinate belief and City Chaos, Contagion, Chadwick, and Social Justice). Also less known is that, counterintuitively, London's problems as a growing city furthermore stemmed from the uptake of apparently improved sanitation in affluent households: the water closet. Sewers and other watercourses that originally carried rainwater down to the Thames now carried sewage, leading to pollution that culminated in the 'Great Stink' of 1858.

In this historical light, Dave Praeger's book Poop Culture looks worth checking out. He argues that taboo and perceived social betterment, not improvement of sanitation, led to the growth of the water closet; and that such taboos still apply now, and are damaging to rational approaches to sanitation. His blog, for instance, tells of Orange County’s solution: ending the marriage of poop and water: a story of how taboo creates recycling inefficiency in water-scarce California by favouring water perceived to be cleaner over readily available clean water. Not for the squeamish, but as Praeger says, "Two hundred years of propaganda have gone into making you uncomfortable with the subject of this book".


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Sidmouth and nearby

Today was one of those days when you can believe summer is finally happening. Clare and I went to the Donkey Sanctuary in East Devon. I guess it's best summarised as a very gentle experience: donkeys are pleasant enough, but they don't seem to relate very much (and you aren't allowed to feed them). However, from the Sanctuary we took the beautiful 500-foot descent down the wooded Weston Combe - at the moment the bluebells and wild garlic are in flower - to the beach at Weston Mouth. We didn't know it's a naturist beach, but it's all very discreet (it's so inaccessible that anyone on the beach is either sunbathing, doing serious walking, or geologising - so no curious spectators). Offshore, the last bits of the MSC Napoli are still there. Rather than climb back up, we walked along the beach to Sidmouth - a couple of miles on loose shingle, almost as strenuous as the climb, especially on a hot day without the forecasted breeze - and had tea there.

I never tire of Sidmouth, for its pleasant isolation and very genteel Regency style. It also has a solid literary presence: Jane Austen's family visited it in 1801; Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived there for a time; it was the home of novelist Stephen Reynolds, author of A Poor Man's House (based on his life among Sidmouth fisher-folk) and the great love in the life of Philippa Powys; and RF Delderfield lived there at the end of his life. It's the setting of HG Wells' short story The Sea-Raiders (featuring killer squid) and of the title story of Jane Gardam's The Sidmouth Letters (described here at BooksPlease); and it appears in fictionalised form in various works: as Beatrix Potter's "Stymouth", Thomas Hardy's "Idmouth", Thackeray's "Baymouth", and Howard Pyle's "Spudmouth".

It featured, as Westcombe-on-Sea, in the Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster series. Stephen Fry, in his Telegraph column at the time, wrote well of it in the article "Dear Sid", reprinted in his book Paperweight. He mentions its Edwardian hotels, the long esplanade with "a greater concentration of tea-rooms, bun-shops and knick-knackariums than one would have imagined possible outside the novels of EF Benson", and where the only coin-operated machine he saw was a telescope. He also confirmed its reputation, among other quiet resorts, as "God's waiting room", quoting an average of four deaths a week in its hotels, the corpses being quietly removed at two in the morning to avoid upsetting other guests. (This sounds more furtive than it actually is; as the book Front Office points out, for hotels everywhere this is standard procedure that makes all-round sense). Fry commented also on the particularly marvellous atmosphere when it was decked out as the 1930s Westcombe-on-Sea, in relation to Britain's sentimentality for a chocolate-box past. A diet of chocolate would be emetic, he says, but it's nice for a occasional treat.

I found the list of Sidmouth's pseudonyms at A Place in Literature, a posting at A Curious State of Affairs, the weblog of Sidmouth-based author Jan Marshall. By coincidence, she and her partner were also out today, but taking the clifftop route: see Walking the coastal path for very nice photos (see also her Photo-blog).

See also: Seaton and Sabine Baring-Gould.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Diddums, then

This is complete trivia, perhaps, except as an illustration of the increasing ability to access historical texts on the Web. A colleague elsewhere just asked me about the history of the term "Diddums". I vaguely recalled, and confirmed via Googling, a story that it related to the brand name of a doll designed after a drawing by Mabel Lucie Attwell, whose prolific sentimentalised images of chubby toddlers led to an iconic and money-spinning genre. However, the Exeter Library Online Reference, accessible from home computer by library card number - there will be local equivalents - gave access to the OED, which finds citations well pre-dating Attwell for its use as an expression for cooing at a baby.

1893 E. F. BENSON Dodo I. vii. 142 Women who were content to pore on their baby's face..saying ‘Didums’ occasionally

It's kind of interesting that it originally it meant genuine sympathy, rather than the current meaning of sarcastic non-sympathy. Feeling in a competitive mood, I had a look in another of the Exeter Library databases, 19th Century British Library Newspapers, which led to a peculiar poem called "Babies' Trains" in the Manchester Times, Saturday, February 23, 1884, where the source is credited as Fun magazine (a 19th century rival to Punch). This, in turn, was online at a non-subscription database, the Comics Collection, George A Smathers Libraries, University of Florida Digital Collections - where there's a wealth of material.

So here is Babies' Trains (Fun, Volume 46. New Series Volume 39, February 20th 1884). As it beats the OED citation by nearly a decade, I sent it to them, and had a very nice e-mail back saying it had been added to their revisions list.

Thursday, 1 May 2008


I'm sorry to return again to a theme of Englishness and pastoralism (I suppose it's something of an obsession for me), but I noticed a copy of Keith Roberts' Pavane in our science fiction box, and couldn't resist recommending it.

Pavane is one of my favourite books, a novel-length paste-up of a series of thematically linked stories set in 1968 in an alternate timeline where the Catholic assassination of Elizabeth I had led to wars resulting in Papal dominance of the world. Because of this and the Church's vetting of invention (particularly having a downer on electricity and internal combustion), the England of this 1968 is socially feudal, and technologically roughly like our early 19th century. The mood and setting I can only describe as like an SF take on Thomas Hardy's Wessex: set in Dorset (Golden Cap and Corfe Castle feature prominently) it has the same landscape and the same lyricism and melancholy. Despite what has been seen as a flawed ending, it's widely acclaimed as his masterpiece and a classic of alternate-world SF: "Moody, eloquent, elegaic".

Keith Roberts himself was a strange and tormented character. As A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs mentions, he died under harrowing circumstances - pneumonia after a long decline while suffering from multiple sclerosis, during which time his legs had to be amputated (not, I strongly suspect, a consequence of the MS, but of the heavy smoking mentioned in some accounts). Nevertheless, he attracted some highly unsympathetic obituaries (Michael Moorcock said, for instance, "I think it's a mercy someone that miserable is dead") that highlighted Roberts' habit, despite being engaging company sometimes, of vitriolic fallings-out with every friend and work colleague he had dealings with. More on Keith Roberts at Ansible #160 gives typical accounts.

This Scratchpad e-zine article, The not-quite-career of Keith Roberts (PDF) by Bruce Gillespie, gives I think a fair summary of the corpus of Roberts' work. His weakness, Gillespie argues, was the "disturbing, even embarrassing, psychodrama being played out" with two repeated types of character: sexually rejected isolated men who bury themselves in their work, and attractive innocent young ultra-competent women. The former isn't hard to identify with Roberts himself; the latter appears to have been some kind of significant fantasy figure for him, even turning up in his autobiographical Lemady. Way back I read some of his stories about Kaeti, one of his highly interchangeable heroines, and found them fairly resistible. Of his other books, The Chalk Giants and the historical Boat of Fate aren't bad, but Pavane is his best legacy.

You can read the Prologue of Pavane and part of the first story, here on the Internet Archive. For the bibliographics, see Uchronia. If you don't mind major spoilers, this LJ Hurst review, originally in Vector, is an interesting and more technical analysis than most reviews, unfortunately finding considerable weaknesses of logic if you peer too closely at the economic picture and overall scenario.

Rather than spoil the literary aspects, I thought I'd leave the techie part for last. It would be lying to gloss over that Pavane is intensely geeky in places. It will gladden the hearts of steam enthusiasts with its description of Jesse Strange's cargo-hauling steam road train, a technology that never really kicked off in real-world Britain beyond a few traction engine road train services like this one at Eskbank. In less cramped landscapes, they made more sense (see the Boer War Fowler B5 Armoured Road Train) and still exist, though not steam-driven, notably in Australia.

The other geeky technology in Pavane is the highly authentic description of its mechanical semaphore network, a technology that was perfected briefly in the real world before being driven out by the electrical telegraph. For the time, it wasn't at all a bad system: telegraph chains, as described in this Royal Signals datasheet, made it possible to get a message from Portsmouth to London in 15 minutes under best conditions. The bandwidth was pretty poor - at best, around 15 characters a minute - but coding of stock phrases made the best of this. As well as the actual message, semaphore transmissions necessarily contained control codes - for instance, what we'd now call a "handshake" routine to ensure both operators had established communication - and the most interesting part for me, technically, is that operation of semaphore chains, around 1800, contained all the roots of modern digital data transfer protocols, such as handshaking, data packets, route encoding, and error checking.