Letter from the Balloon III: Forensics, Mysterious Planes, and Peak Helium
by James Bridle
Friends, Citizens, Aeronauts!
On this day, August the 8th, in 1908, Wilbur Wright made the first public flight in the famous brothers' flying machine, at the racecourse in Le Mans, France. You can even watch it now, through the miracle of film and the internet. Twenty-one years later, on August 8 1929, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin set off on its inaugural round-the-world tour, the Weltrundfahrt. An exemplary document of this achievement, Ditteke Mensink's Around the World by Zeppelin is available in its entirety on YouTube. I would particularly draw your attention to this marvellous clip of the 235m-long Grafpassing through a skywriter's smoke trail over New York City. What a time to be alive, when such wonders are both a part of our shared history, and instantly available for us to witness!
The last couple of weeks aboard the Brutalist Ship Bold Tendencies have been filled with events and discoveries. We have been particularly pleased to welcome a number of visitors from local schools and youth groups. The young members of the Artists' Club at Peckham Park Primary School designed and built, over a number of weeks, a series of experimental skyscrapers which they came and showed off on the rooftop - and are still on display in the workshop. A visit from some thirty balloon enthusiasts from Dulwich Hamlet Primary also yielded entertaining discussions on the nature of flight and gases, with particular attention drawn to the potential of methane - sadly, heavier than air, but enough excuse to tell the story of how it takes 250,000 cows to build an airship.
There have also been intense flight lessons for our band of plucky volunteers, many of whom are now fully qualified in balloon handling. If you'd like to know what it takes to be a pilot, they have written up their experiences on the Bold Tendencies tumblr, which you should be following (the title of that post being a rare exception to the well-known Betteridge's Law).
Last week's James Glaisher Memorial Lecture, on the subject of 'Killer Robots', introduced the work of Jack Serle and Alice Ross on The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Drones Project, and Thomas Nash of Article 36, on the concept of meaningful human control over the use of force - and particularly of autonomous weapons. Article 36 campaigns to prevent the excessive and disproportional use of certain types of weaponry on the battlefield; previously, they were part of the successful campaign for a worldwide ban on the use of antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions, now their focus is increasingly on heavy ordnance and the growth of autonomous weapon systems, munitions which do not require a human to be in ultimate control. Unpicking the legal and ethical implications of these developments is deeply complex, and routed in many of the wider concerns of the public understanding of technology which the Right to Flight is engaged with.
Together with the TBIJ's use of open source intelligence - the employment of publicly available information to address a wide variety of issues - this discussion proved an excellent pairing with this week's event on 'Forensic Architecture'. Matthew Shaw's work at ScanLAB Projects investigates not only the use of Lidar scanning in architecture, surveying and even fashion photography, but also the limits of this technology, and how its perceived efficacy can also be used to obscure and confuse. ScanLAB collaborated with Forensic Architecture, a research group based at Goldsmith's, on the Living Death Camps project, to document two sites of historic human rights abuses, the Staro Sajmište camp on the outskirts of Belgrade, used by the Nazis in World War II, and the Omarska camp in Bosnia, put to unspeakable use in the Balkan conflict, and now the site of an ArcelorMittal mining operation. These activities both record extraordinarily detailed evidence of these sites, and provide virtual memorials for those whose lives were affected by them, but may be prevented from accessing them. The project coordinator of Forensic Architecture, Francesco Sebregondi, presented a selection of the group's investigations, including analysis of classified White Phosphorus munitions deployed in Gaza in 2008-9, which was used in evidence before the Israeli High Court which eventually banned the use of the weapon, and the virtual recreation of a Gazan home subjected to a fatal "knock on roof" attack. Both Shaw and Sebregondi thoughtfully articulated notions of "public truth" which are susceptible to technological augmentation, and the potential of radicalising academic disciplines in the pursuit of justice and equality. For me, the most fascinating line of enquiry was that exposed in the complex layers of history, culture and activity uncovered by our increasingly sophisticated technological tools, and the necessity of formulating ever more complex understandings of the world in response to it.
The balloon itself continues to be a site of exploration. If you remember, we have been working with Occupy.here, a tiny, hacked wi-fi router developed as part of Occupy Wall Street, to facilitate a balloon-based darknet, a private messaging platform floated over the streets of Peckham. Last week, I cracked open the case of the Chinese-made TL-MR3020, sanded down the circuit board, and added a massive external antenna (partly following instructions to be found here and here). Previously, the network just about reached down to the roof of the car park; now it stretches out to the surrounding streets, allowing those on the ground and even on the platforms of Peckham Rye station to join the network. Next week, we're adding mesh networks to the mix, working with designer and researcher Tobias Revell, whose Designed Conflict Territories project first brought the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network to our attention.
Artist Denise Ackerl has been exploring the legacy of the 2011 London Riots in her work for some time, and approached us to ask if she could use the balloon to fly a part of her project: the Anniversary Flag. This flag takes the form of an infographic based on statistics released by the Ministry of Justice on the ethnic diversity of those who were brought before the courts following the rioting. It flew on Tuesday, on the eve of the third anniversary of the start of the riots, and will again next Tuesday, three years and a day after they ended, and is currently on display in the workshop.
If you have a project you'd like to see up in the air, or any other ideas for the balloon, don't hesitate to get in touch.
(If you're not aware of it, my obsession with watching the skies, and with the utility of FlightRadar24 in particular, stems from my investigation of the deportation of Isa Musawa in 2013, and a subsequent visit to Stansted, watching the deportation flights take off in the middle of the night. I'm also wondering why, if these planes exist, they were not mentioned in any of the Freedom of Information requests I made to the Metropolitan Police - indeed, in this case, it may be that the Met's discretion over UAVs may be a convenient confection for covering up their more banal, but far more interesting, fixed-wing fleet. But I digress.)
It turns out I was not the only one to notice the planes. The Huffington Post reported that the plane had been spotted on consecutive days over London, and its movements tracked - and they, too, linked it to the Telegraph's report. London gazetteer Time Out took notice as well, although its coverage of the "Peculiar plane's perplexing Peckham Path" took on a rather more conspiratorial air.
If you come down to the roof one day, you may hear the sound of air traffic control being relayed over the PA, just another one of those strange, technologically mediated forms of communication just beyond the range of human hearing, but accessible to us should we choose to listen in to it. Throughout the twentieth century, many nations, Britain included, fielded Observer Corps, whose job it was to watch the skies. In London, and elsewhere, it is pleasing to see these practices coming back into fashion, again with the assistance of new technologies. Here, then, like the Wright Flyer and the Graf Zeppelin digitally preserved for you, is G-TDSA, the Police spy plane, taking off from Cambridge, headed for the city.
Finally, I would like to include a brief discourse on that most noble of the noble gases: Helium, engine of the balloon, and of the imagination. This is a subject close to my heart, and I will continue this material line of enquiry in the next letter. For now, though, let us look at its origins, and its future.
Helium was first perceived as a bright yellow line in a spectrogram made by French astronomer Jules Janssen during a total eclipse of the sun in Guntur, India, in the summer of 1868. The English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed the same line some months later, and decided it denoted an element unknown on the earth, and so named it after the Greek word for the sun, helios. This strange material was first observed on earth in the lava of Mount Vesuvius by Italian physicist Luigi Palmieri in 1882, and synthesised by Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay in 1895, by treating uranium ore with sulfuric acid. But it was a chance discovery in the United States which was to turn Helium from a chemical oddity into an industrial commodity, transforming its use and understanding.
In 1903, the small community of Dexter, Kansas, celebrated the eruption of a "howling gasser" from a local oil well, believing it to be a sign that a great wealth of fuel oil lay beneath their streets. According to the town's website, "A huge celebration was planned including a band, speeches and games. The evening would end with the lighting of the gas that was billed to 'light the entire countryside for a day and a night'." But to the townspeoples' great shock and consternation, the geyser would not light. Geologists were dispatched from the University of Kansas and after two years of research it was determined that the gas spewing from the earth at a rate of 9 million cubic feet per day was the fabled Helium.
Over the years, the United States government constructed a vast infrastructure for the refining and storage of the precious gas. The first big customer was the US Navy, which flew the first Helium-filled airship, C-7, in 1921. In 1925, the National Helium Reserve was established in Amarillo, Texas - the vast but depleted Cliffside gas field was to be sealed, and its chambers pumped full of precious helium. Although hard to locate through official documentation, you can see the outlines of this endeavour on the landscape north-west of Amarillo, a network of dirt roads and pumping stations still in use, although under increased pressure, today.
The Helium Control Act of 1927 scheduled the gas as protected, creating a US monopoly and an export ban, one result of which was to force other airship powers, such as Germany, to employ the more plentiful, but far more dangerous, hydrogen. The Helium Control Act thus set the scene for the fiery end of the Hindenburg, and many other, lesser-known, disasters - and the public's subsequent turn against airships as a medium of travel, a perception they struggle with to this day.
But there is a problem with this renewed balloon fervour. In 1996, with the world in a more generally peaceful state than it is now, and Amarillo's strategic helium reserve some $1.4 billion in debt, the US congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which mandated the liquidisation of the government's helium holdings (one of the pitfalls and pleasures of writing about aerial gases is that you just can't get around the physical metaphors). In short: a fire sale, producing a temporary glut on the world market, which has in no way added to the government's coffers - perversely, as demand has risen through the evolution of new technologies, and the vast increase in military use since 2001, US helium prices have been kept artificially low by the proscripts of the Privatization Act, encouraging, some claim, irresponsible use of the gas.
The problem is a potential shortage - and perhaps a permanent one. Like fossil fuels, Helium is a finite resource. Once the balloon bursts, the precious gas keeps on going up, eventually bleeding into space. The Independent has a great article on the fears of scientists who believe we may be only 20 years from running out of helium altogether - particularly if the US, which still holds 80% of the worlds' reserves, continues to sell it off cheap. Physics Nobel laureate Robert Richardson believes that the price should be radically increased in order to curb demand and encourage recycling - by his calculation, a single party balloon should be retailing for £75. He's particularly critical of NASA, who use vast amounts of Helium to clean fuel tanks, and vent the gas after use. But frankly, all of us using balloons should be concerned.
What can be our response? If our precious Helium is running out, and Hydrogen, despite the best efforts of our Scientists and Engineers, remains overly prone to go bang at the most inopportune moment, what shall power our flying machines? What is the alternative to the other fossil-fuel-guzzlers which scream across our skies and pollute our azure atmosphere? What, is the question, is lighter than Helium or Hydrogen?
The answer, of course, is Nothing. And that shall be the subject of our next Letter.