Posts Tagged ‘Bob Salt’


November 2, 2020

Civilisation meant living in cities, the bigger the better. But cities need vast amounts of fuel and fuel to keep them going. But how were they to be brought in from necessarily long distances away? Athens and Rome used slaves; and failed. London and Amsterdam used Moonpower; and thrived .

The idea of Moonpower stole upon me in the oddest way. I was sailing my Drascombe Lugger up a lonely reach of Milford Haven, dusk was falling and I needed to find a snug anchorage for the night. Discovering a narrow waterway amidst some reeds I sculled up it, under some oaks until they opened out into a basin which took my breath away. It was if we’d broken into Tutenkhamuhn’s tomb by accident. Chained to its crumbling quays lay the rotting wooden ribs of an ancient fleet forgotten altogether by Time. They must once have been, I surmised, the transport system which had powered a thriving economy on the Haven, even before the days of steam. Most had vanished, but in this almost inaccessible spot their ghosts remained, settling generation by generation into the mud.

I went ashore, lit a fire and communed with that vanished age and its rotting bones ; after half a bottle of wine they seemed to stir in the moonlight as if eager to tell me their tales. They recalled boyhood days with my grandmother at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, watching Thames Barges with their tan spritsails working the tide, carrying cargoes up from the North Sea to the Port of London in the late 1940s.

I took Bob Salt(from my Written in the Stars quartet) up there on a subsequent trip, and he was just as enchanted as I. Between us we worked out the Moon-power story, and he set it in its full historical context . Later on, at his request, we scattered his ashes among their rotting ribs. Here I attach an excerpt from Bob’s book The History of the Brits, from a Practical Man’s Point of View.

No image remains of those old Pembrokeshire vessels, but Thames Barges were making a commercial living on the East Coast as late as 1975, and here is one:

The Thames barge Alamy racing in 2019. Such a vessel could carry up to 200 tons, 25 miles a day, using tidal streams alone. With a crew of only 2 men and a boy they plied their trade anywhere between Cornwall and the Baltic Sea . For their time they were more advanced than the 747 or the Space Shuttle. The huge leeboards allowed a shallow draft but with little leeway. The cunning spritsail rig was highly flexible yet could be handled by a tiny crew. Similar vessels were found in the Low Countries to exploit local Moonpower. Copyright Powell/Alamy Live News.

while my son Mathias took this next picture of one near Tower Bridge in 2020. London’s growth was built on maritime technology like this.

A Thames barge near the centre of London in 2020. Note how the long bowsprit (right) can be tilted upwards to take less space in busy moorings. Using only the combination of mizzen, topsail and staysail she could be manouvered into a favourable stream in a mere zephyr of air, while the boom of her main spritsail could also be used as a derrick to load and unload cargoes . But her most important system can be seen hanging from her bow. When wind and tide were against her it would be lowered ,allowing her highly skilled crew to sleep.

Bob and I believe it was Moon-power, almost completely neglected by historical scholars, which first made sustainable civilisation possible in North Western Europe, where the tides are uniquely strong.


October 17, 2020

Ever since a tiny warbler landed on our ship in mid Atlantic I have been fascinated by animal flight in general. It took me me ten years to work out how our would-be “Christopher Columbus” had done it. What a revelation … what a delightful surprise. By then I had become an expert on low speed aerodynamics, and a glider pilot who soared with birds all over the globe.

In 2009, the centenary of Bleriot’s first flight across the English Channel, I dusted down my simple aerodynamics and applied it to his famous exploit. Everything worked out perfectly: range, speed, endurance, power, fuel….. So while such matters were fresh in mind I thought “Why not apply the same analysis to the Wright Brothers’ famous first powered flight alleged to have taken place at Kitty Hawk in 1903?”

The famous photo allegedly of the Wright Brothers first powered flight near Kittyhawk in 1903. But there are many suspicious circumstances surrounding it. For instance it wasn’t released until FIVE YEARS AFTERWARDS. The only eyewitnesses said they had to pull it up a hill beforehand, so it was probably just another glider. It was allegedly “destroyed by a gust of wind immediately afterwards” so no one qualified ever inspected it. It’s got no undercarriage. Only a madman would try to make the first powered flight in a high wind. The claimed telegram announcing the triumph has never been traced. And most telling no replica with the same feeble engine-power has been able to repeat it. In subsequent years the Wrights did fly, but only with the aid of a powerful catapult. That’s not powered flight: taking off is the critical part

This time nothing worked out. As a long term Wright admirer who had even visited their workshop in Ohio I assumed I’d made some terrible mistake. So I looked deeply into the case and bit by bit their whole story fell apart. I reckon the Odds are about a hundred thousand to one that the famous Kittyhawk flight was total fabrication. You can follow up the investigation for yourself by clicking on:

while there is a primer on simple aerodynamics at:

while there is my novel Pterodactyl’s Blood which covers many of these matters and is discussed elsewhere on this site under ‘My Books’ Category


September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The last of the 4 novels of a saga set amidst Space exploration and astronomical research between 1965 and 2015 when the extragalactic universe truly hove into sight for the first time. Voyaging to a new continent is hard enough, understanding it when you first arrive is harder still. Columbus imagined he was in Japan; in Cochin Vasco da Gama saw little beyond sandalwood and spices; Pissaro couldn’t tear his greedy eyes off Inca gold. What will the first voyagers make of the extragalactic universe as seen from Space? What delusions will comfort them, what preconceptions will blind them to the truth? Morgan and his colleagues, friends and enemies struggle to make sense of a vast new firmament none could have foreseen. Starting at the great radio telescope in Australia Morgan confidently expects to find his own obsession, his Hidden Galaxies. But the results will come as a shock. Or could there be some deep misunderstanding? Meanwhile the race is on to repair and refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope following the Columbia tragedy. Back in Wales Curly and Petrel struggle to make sense of the Sea Empress disaster which chokes their Pembrokeshire coast in oil. Love comes to Morgan from far far away as his university decides to sack him. Old Salt is on his last legs but is not too weak to take on the Establishment, while Frank has persuaded Europe to build the world’s largest telescope. The closest family relationships are poisoned by jealousy; Petrel changes tack; Morgan goes to Venice and ‘hears the horns of elfland faintly blowing’. But has he become unbalanced, as many of his colleagues believe? A great oak falls; Jack Cockle departs. Whose dreams will come true, whose hopes will be dashed`?

The deepest image ever taken of the Universe. It was taken with the WFC_3 camera which Morgan helped to design and exploit towards the end of his career. Does it prove that the Universe isn’t expanding? Looks like it. Morgan thought there was something very strange going on here. It can see back 12 billion years, to before the Sun was formed. The study is called “the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) project.” Courtesy ESA/NASA

Paperback available from Amazon £12.50, 400 pages, e-version £3.99


September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The third novel in the saga of Space exploration is a mix of triumph, disaster and surprise. The Space Shuttle Challenger blows up killing all the astronauts. A colossal Hidden Galaxy turns up crouching beneath the sky. Morgan unexpectedly acquires a daughter and discovers, to general surprise, that spiral galaxies are heavily veiled in smoke. The Hubble Space Telescope gets launched, but with a crippled mirror; ways must be found to put it right. Finally the first very deep images come back from Space; but what do they mean? Rows break out between the teams. Frank builds an observatory on a remote Atlantic isle. Bob Salt intervenes in the Cold War while, deep behind the Iron Curtain Morgan has two encounters which will change his life. But then he almost loses it all. The action shuttles back and forth between Wales, Cape Canaveral, The Caucasus, Castel Gandolfo, the Arabian mountains, Baltimore, the Canary Islands, India, Australia, Paris….. See ‘Against the Fall of Night‘ and ‘The Whispering Sky’ for the two previous novels, with same main characters and ‘Beyond the Western Stars’ its successor and the finale to the saga.

A montage of galaxies found by Morgan and his team solely based on their radio signals, thus it shouldn’t be influenced by their optical characteristics. Indeed such a search could in principle find entirely dark galaxies. As you can see some of the galaxies are almost invisible, but not quite. Perhaps most interesting are the six specimens bottom right, because they are all colossal Giants containing more Hydrogen (which emits the radio signal) than our Milky way. But as you can see some are very dim even so. Image courtesy of Prof. Julianne Dalcanton, University of. Washington Seattle, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Published Amazon paperback, 400 + pages £12.99 and as an e-book on Kindle 2021 £3.99 with equivalent prices elsewhere.


September 29, 2020

A novel about astronomical research

The Whispering Sky is the second of a quartet of self-contained novels relating the saga of two astronomers, originally boyhood friends, caught up in humankind’s endeavour to explore the Universe from Space. Thanks to his feud with Bellfounder – the machiavellian Astronomer-Royal [See ‘Against the Fall of Night’, first in the quartet], Tom Morgan has been thrown out of British Astronomy. Cheated out of the post he had been promised he struggles precariously in Europe to try and prove that his theory of Hidden Galaxies is right. That takes him to far flung observatories from the peaks of the Andes to the Cape of South Africa. Meanwhile the US is building the Shuttle to launch a large telescope into orbit but demands European participation in the venture. Frank Cotteridge, by now Bellfounder’s protégé, is tasked with lighting the European fuse. At conferences and in laboratories across the Continent the struggle begins to try and build the first electronic camera, to act as the great telescope’s eyes. In the 1970’s that looked impossible. And yet without such eyes the telescope will be blind. The race against the clock, and with rivals in California, begins. Personal and professional tensions drive wedges between the two friends while the race for Space forces them to rely ever more closely upon one another. Morgan rashly plans his revenge on Bellfounder, a battle only one of them can possibly survive.

This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth. Morgan and Cotteridge began working on its design back in 1977, 13 years before launch. Courtesy ESA/NASA.

At the same time Morgan is struggling, as a single parent, to bring up his son Curly and hold on to him in a bitter custody battle. When he loses, Curly is whisked away to Australia but then escapes and gets hopelessly lost in the bush.

The author was himself a professional astronomer, and a single parent, throughout this epoch. From 1976 until 2010 he was a key member of the Hubble Space Telescope team. Hubble’s story, our story, which he has been preparing to write for 20 years, is packed with dreams, heroes, shocks, villains, and the odd rare triumph. Like one of Magellan’s crew he saw great wonders and has tall tales to tell; the fight to get born, the Challenger disaster, the crippled mirror, the astronaut repair-missions, cancellation following the Columbia tragedy, renaissance, the race to prevent the space-craft dying, the huge discoveries… he was there; he was there; he was there. He knew the people, felt the pain, drank the wine. ENTIRE QUARTET ‘ called ‘Written in the Stars’ comprises: ‘Against the Fall of Night’ (1964 – 1974), ‘The Whispering Sky’ (1976 – 1983) , ‘Crouching Giant’ (1985 – 1995), ‘Beyond the Western Stars’ (1997 – 2012). All four paperbacks – each about 400 pages long – are out on Amazon, (2020), £12.99 or e-version £3.99.