Britain Invented Rock-N-Roll, And Other Stories

An elderly relative of mine used to get irate at the BBC news. When our Prime Minister [Edward Heath] or another of her bêtes noirs of the day came on, she’d rail at the radio or the TV, expressing her views to them in no uncertain terms. It taught a young me a lot about the futility of shouting at the telly, as well as about making a spectacle of oneself.

The ISS in flight. NASA(Public Domain)
The ISS in flight. NASA [Public domain].
The other evening though I found myself almost at the point of  shouting at a TV programme, and since it’s one with a clear message about technology I feel it’s worth sharing here. The programme in question was one of the Impossible Engineering series, and it was talking about the technology behind the International Space Station. It was recent enough to include last year’s mission involving [Tim Peake], so it was by no means a show dredged from the archives.

All very well, you say. Impossible Engineering‘s format of looking at a modern engineering marvel and tracing the historical roots of some of its innovations would find fertile ground in the ISS, after all it’s one of our most impressive achievements and could easily provide content for several seasons of the show. And I’ll give them this, they did provide an interesting episode.

The trouble was, they made an omission. And it wasn’t just a slight omission, one of those minor cock-ups that when we Hackaday scribes make them the commenters pounce upon with glee, this one was a doozy. They managed to fill an hour of television talking about space stations and in particular a space station that was assembled by multiple countries under an international co-operation, without mention of any of the Russian technology that underpins much of its design. An egregious example among many was their featuring a new Boeing capsule designed to touchdown on land rather than on water as a novel invention, when as far as I am aware every Russian capsule ever made has performed a land-based touchdown.

This bloke invented rock-n-roll, honest! Svenska Dagbladet [Public domain]
This bloke invented rock-n-roll, honest! Svenska Dagbladet [Public domain].
Think about it for a moment. If you don’t know the history of human space exploration and the long progression of Soviet and Russian space stations over the decades that provided so much of the science and engineering on which the ISS bases its success, let me put this in earth-bound terms. It’s the equivalent of the BBC producing a show about the genesis of rock-n-roll music couched entirely in terms of [Tommy Steele], [Cliff Richard], and [Johnny Hallyday], with no mention of people like [Chuck Berry], [Little Richard], [Rosetta Tharpe], or [Elvis Presley]. If they say it’s true on the TV it must be true, right, but it wouldn’t make it any less ludicrous a portrayal of events.

It’s an unfortunate tendency that seems to exist worldwide, that of allowing national pride or even politics to dictate our narrative when it comes to technological advances. Before anyone starts pointing the finger, writing this from the United Kingdom I’m painfully aware that Brits are as bad at this as anyone else, for example when it comes to the invention of radar, or the jet engine. But when it comes to our collective achievements in space it would be nice to think we might have left some of that behind, and that’s not simply my perspective because the UK is the only country to have had a successful space programme and then cancelled it. The key word in the name of the ISS is international, and that means it would not be the craft it is without the contributions from both sides of the old Iron Curtain including mine. It shouldn’t matter whether your space hero is [Gagarin], [Shepard], or [Yang], or even [Kirk], [Dobraydushev], or [Lister], that point should be self-evident to anybody taking even the most cursory look at the field.

This is one of the reasons I'm an engineer. Great Images in NASA [Public domain]
This is one of the reasons I’m an engineer. Great Images in NASA [Public domain].
I was going to make a point about the children of the Apollo era having much in common with those of the Voskhod or Salyut eras in being enticed into science or engineering by the incredible achievements of the NASA and Soviet space programmes. But perhaps it’s better to refer to the fictional space heroes instead.

Television is a powerful medium, and when it gets technology coverage right it can probably inspire far more effectively than even a real space mission on the news. The Star Trek future was the place you wanted to live in, with an international crew from a world that sourced its technology from all corners of the map. By comparison the Impossible Engineering episode was certainly inspiring, but it is ironic that it seemed more fictional in its description of a real spacecraft than the entirely fictional show set several centuries hence. The producers squandered their opportunity to properly tell the story of one of our most impressive achievements, and while this piece is based upon one episode of a single show it’s symptomatic of a wider dumbing-down of the way our culture treats this part of itself.

It looks as though I’ll be doing a lot more shouting at the telly if I watch many more episodes of that particular show, but if nothing positive came of the experience it would leave this piece only as an epic rant. I must credit my colleague and editor [Mike Szczys] for providing an inspiring way forward, and suggesting that if more conventional media refuses to stand as witness to great achievements in the world of engineering, science, and technology, then perhaps we should do it for them. Tell us your favourite engineering achievements, the ones that inspired you and made you take this path, and we’ll use them for a series of features. As always, the comments await.

Meanwhile, did I ever tell you about the role of [Chas & Dave] in the early days of hip-hop? Someone ought to make a TV programme about it.

58 thoughts on “Britain Invented Rock-N-Roll, And Other Stories

    1. Props on the artwork. Keep up the great work!

      I think the story of the space station is more impressive if you look at the simple fact that all the nations cooperated and it all works at some level. It does look like a space camel and I’m not sure how much longer it will stay together but still…it exists and that’s counts for some reason for hope on our big blue dot called Earth.

  1. Western media in particular are guilty of this. For example I remember watching “world news” on CNN about 10 years ago: two stories were about George Bush visiting Iraq and a tornado in Texas. World news ?!?

    “Technical” reports are often similar, like the ISS in the case that you just mentioned. They would say: “this morning, a Soyuz capsule has blasted off from Kazakhstan towards the ISS with 2 astronauts on board.” They are very careful not to mention Russia in any way. Shameful.

    Historical twisting is visible everyday on “historical” TV channels. When they talk about WW2 for example, it is a must to mention Holocaust and D-day landings, which accounted for maybe 7 million dead together. Very rarely they mention the other 53 million dead, and where and how did they die.

    Inspiring for me? Reading about the space exploration from 1960s and 1970s books and magazines, appearance of personal computing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the joy of 1st successful electronic device that I have built myself. And people like Nikola Tesla, Steve Wozniak, and Voja Antonic. Many other influences as well, obviously.

    1. “Western media in particular are guilty of this” – it is indeed guilty but definitely NOT “in particular” ! Not when compared to Russian or other “Eastern” media where the bias is shocking, sometimes feeling like we were still in communist times… and I know what I’m talking about….

      1. LOL, they are probably too young to remember Radio Moscow back in its heyday. I still have QSL cards from back in the 70’s (also Radio Peking, before they changed their name)

          1. Yes.

            And the reason you can’t imagine it is because of too much BS in US media.

            Everyone in Russia knows americans were on the moon (including conspiracy theorists), many know their names. The news do not hesitate mentioning Voyagers, Mariners and Curiosity. Everyone knows about SpaceX and BO launches almost realtime (even via state-regulated TV).

            And even if you open any Astronomy school book, including ones from 70s-90s, you’ll see all US achievements presented there.

            IDK, maybe they just thought “it’s too much propaganda in every other field, let’s at least keep space out of it”

  2. Shhh! Here in the states ignorant nationalism is the biggest driver of what little public support space exploration gets. If you want to see any budget at all for this nation contributing to the advancement of our species then let the rubes think we invented the wheel too!

  3. So very right Jenny. Also Miroslav, that would be why this particular US citizen gets his news from not only US news outlets, but BBC and CBC as well. Still a bit stilted to english speaking world, but a bit better.

    As a kid, I was inspired by the Mercury Seven, Gemini, and Apollo. When I figured out a wimply little asthmatic kid wasn’t going to become an astronaut, I settled on working in a couple of related fields, one engineering, one science. The engineering panned out. ;)

    Early in my career I worked on bits that are today flying on ISS. Boring bits, but they are on orbit. Today as I enter the last third of my working life, I’m peripherally involved in elements of the Deep Space Network, which there have been some articles about here. Amazing technology, made even more so by understanding just how hard some of it is.

    A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting an astronaut. A guy who should inspire every one of us. A farm kid who dropped out of high school and went on to fly several Shuttle missions, Storey Musgrave, the guy the sent to fix Hubble the first time. Storey likes to point out that they didn’t send the guy with seven graduate degrees to fix Hubble, which was never designed to be worked on in orbit, they sent the kid who grew up on a farm and learned that you can fix pretty much anything if you have a bad enough need to. They sent the kid who knew how to improvise and think on his feet.

    Sounds like many of us.

    1. Reminds me of the recruiting used at Bell Labs… mostly farm kids from midwest, for those same reasons. I’m currently working with ground support hardware, but I hope to have something flying up there some day, no matter how boring :). Thanks for sharing!

      1. Father to ex-farmhand-son at son’s PhD graduation: “If I’d known you’d be getting a PhD, I wouldn’t have worked you so hard back on the farm.”
        “If you hadn’t worked me so hard back on the farm, I wouldn’t be getting my PhD.”

      2. Did you know the father of an all electronic analog television (no spinning discs) was a 14-year old Mormon farmer’s son from Utah (midwestern USA). His name was Philo T. Farnsworth (August 19, 1906 – March 11, 1971) . He got the idea for raster scanning while looking at straight line tiller rows in a farm field. Later in life he was embroiled in US Patent lawsuits and finally knuckled under to RCA.

    2. They sent him up with a spanner and a roll of baling wire…

      Even if it’s boring, I’m sure we’d like to know, Komrade. What bits of the ISS belong to you? Were they touched by your own fair hand? Anything interesting about making them?

        1. You mean the MAIN STRUCTURE? You made it possible to design the entire main structure of the thing, in such a way as vibrations wouldn’t cause it to shake to pieces, or cause small nuts etc to fall off, float away, and eventually end up on the same orbit, but at a dangerous speed, SLAMMING into some vulnerable clear plastic window somewhere, letting all the air out? Etc?

          Ok so your work isn’t up there, but it was in the hand of the guy whose work IS up there, that’s pretty good. Letting him know if his design is safe or not, and therefore playing a part in the design process.

          It’s still cool. Better than being some parasite in finance or advertising. You chipped in a little bit to mankind’s eventual destiny in the stars, that is if we HAVE a destiny beyond just doom.

    1. Heh. Recently I watched an American show, and they said: “… Without Robert Goddard, we might have never reached the space …” I LOLd so hard that I almost spit my food out. The amount of “America first in everything” in many TV shows is just unbelievable.

      1. My favorite is still heavier-than-air manned flight.

        I’m American, so it’s pretty much the Wright brothers. But my parents used to live iin France, where it’s Clement Ader. And now I live in Germany, where it’s Lillienthal all the way. I also lived in China, and although they have no claim on flight, they invented everything else.

        All of which is to say, human ingenuity is pretty universal. As is the desire to root for the home team.

        1. It’s one of those things like the telephone being invented simultaneously in separate places. Sometimes it’s literally been a race to the patent office. Things are invented when their time comes, when other technology comes about to make it possible. Without the internal-combustion engine and strong fabrics, we’d’ve been stuck trying to make steam planes out of cast iron.

        2. Elliot Williams – I’m a yank too mate… however the Wright Brothers got revised by JANES (world’s foremost authority on aviation history?). Google Gustave Whitehead. He was a naturalized American by way of Germany. He did it in Bridgeport Connecticut 14 August 1901 2-years before the WB duo. 1.5 miles at 50 feet (2.4km at 15m).

  4. If you dig into the sources and history, you will have to describe how the Soviets copied their tech from England and the US in terms of shared equipment as an ally, and simply taken as in dismantling and copying a Super-fortress that used an emergency landing field inside Russia, right down to the printing on the copied valves (tubes). Then rocket tech and H-bombs, the transistor, integrated circuits, 6502 and other CPU’s, metallurgy, etc. This could cut viewership and get angry emails and tweets!

    1. You have no doubt heard that the reason the US got to the moon first was that our Germans were better than their Germans? Of course, von Braun credited Goddard for getting the ball rolling, and IIRC Goddard gave some credit to Tsiolkovsy. And of course, we owe the basic math to Newton, and the idea of rockets in general to the Chinese.

      Can we please quit with the nationalism, at least on the subject of space? It’s bad enough down here.

  5. People like to talk about the “Space Race” of the 60s, so perhaps if you wanted to reduce it down to those simplified terms terms to people, you could say that the Russians won low earth orbit, and the west won deep space.
    The Russians were consistently first in getting off the planet and into low orbit. The first satellite, person, space station, etc. They got ahead and remained ahead to a degree that the west right now relies on Russian manned spaceflight and first-stage engines on even some of it’s own rockets.
    The US seemed to excel in getting beyond earth orbit. The maned moon missions, probes to the outer solar system, and the only probes to leave the solar system.
    Of course it isn’t a matter of winning or losing. The US, Russia, along with Europe, China and India have achieved many things to get where they are in space. The differences though seem to resound even to today.

    1. I hope this isn’t too much of a simplification but it seems like a lot of the US’ success was because we got some of Germany’s best rocket scientists after WWII and had the industrial might to make it happen.

      1. True, the USA really ramped up it’s industrial production during WW2. I suppose a space program is good in that it creates demand for high-tech industry, which war also does. With no war, things might have stagnated and regressed.

        Actually I’d forgotten the Cold War. In which case a space program is a nice happy way of developing rocket technology for missiles, without looking like it’s just for missiles. And a space program contributes to the “pissing off the Russians” industry, which was a big part of diplomatic relations back then, and thus worth billions.

        The reason the West relies on Russian launchers is probably more to do with the fact the Russian economy collapsed back around 1991, and even now you get a lot of Roubles for your dollar. They have rocket geniuses too, and they’re willing to work for a lot less, in absolute terms.

  6. The story reminds of a stupidity by Flemish radio soms years ago.
    One station had the marvellous idea to hide fake stories on Wikipedia forse April 1. One of these was not caught/found and nobody corrected it later on.
    1.5 years later another channel of the same organisation wanted to make a series about Belgiums importance and picked up this exact story: the US nationale hymne is written by a Belgian composer.
    After some commercial TV spots the error was discovered and we had a food laugh.

    1. Belgium is very important. “My dear friends,” Tintin said, “I am going to talk to you today about your fatherland: Belgium.”. Anyone having Congo as part of their country is important :)

  7. There’s a word for all this: ‘chauvinism’.
    It’s older than rock ‘n roll: Not content to let Röntgen (German) have his day in the sun discovering X-rays, the French had to have Blondlot fabricate N-rays (“…Can’t let those damned Krauts show us up…”), and to be held up to ridicule by the patient investigations and skullduggery of an American phycisist. Isn’t all this international intrigue fascinating? (One might say that the N-ray was the original ‘cold fusion’). ‘course, the problem with chauvinism is that it leads to Jingoism (English/British word).

    1. I miss adverts by means of an unconventional antenna. To the point that it’s a pile of shit and can barely pick up anything, and needs messing with every time I want a different block of channels. This got such a pain, that I’ve stopped bothering.

      So I barely watch TV now, after a lifetime of having it on all day every day, “just for the noise”. I’ve gone weeks at a time watching 0 TV at all, and I haven’t missed it. And I feel slightly better, somehow. The anger much TV inspires, by it’s being shit made for idiots, is missing in me, and that’s nice. Other people are alright on a face-to-face basis, or at least bearable. En masse, very not so.

      I’d still have every last one of the fuckers die in screaming agony, given the choice, of course. But that’s not as much on my mind as it used to be, when I watched TV regularly.

      1. Greenaum – I feel your pain mate! Here in that states we pretty much eliminated analog TV. It’s mostly all digital TV now. You need really good antenna too. Rabbit ears just wont do. And don’t even think about mobile dtv. They do have some mobile DTV rigs but the station must transmit in that format too. When on the road I prefer NETFLIX or something like that over 3G. They are commercial free. I even have a black military medic bag with a car-battery operated DVD player with a pocket for my favorite DVD’s (And you know me you can guess what the subject matter is – I’m a frickin’ junkie for that shiat! :D ).

        I’m glad you say you have a TV. I don’t trust people who say “I don’t have a telly in my flat…” Yeah right! I use my cable TV to watch CNN almost 24 x 7 complete with mind-bending adverts for stuff I would never buy. With today’s events happening fast and furious you actually have too watch CNN. I’m now watching Houston TX floating away due to a 1,000 year storm Harvey! How is that possible?

        1. I DON’T OWN A “TELLY”!!!!
          The internet is too interesting to bother with that lot…

          In layman’s terms, UK legal definition of a “Telly” is something that can receive TV programmes as they’re being “Aired” (Via antenna or PC/internet/mobile/recorded-around-a-friend or any other attempted workarounds).

          Thus, simply a matrix of dots and sometimes a light-bulb hooked up to a control board containing a software controllable (Tunable) band-pass filter is not a “telly” as where is the receiving component prior in this sentence. So where is the Antenna/external-receiver-box (SKY box or similar) fully described in the sentence prior to this?

          The full kit has to be installed to be classed as a “Telly”. In the case of a SKY-Box, having one present is a blatant give away you’re trying to blag the OFCOM/BBC.


          Also it is up to the OFCOM and/or BBC to collect/get evidence (not fabricate) when a person claims to be anti TV, usually by court order to look at your history and possibly via your ISP…


          I stated my opinion to the TV Licensing on the state of TV and explained what I’d wish will happen to the BBC and other TV infrastructure… Essentially I was told I won’t be needing a license, I got blacklisted from calling back… and… As long as I let them know I still live at my address (As I get hung up on when calling, the online form is the only way)… They won’t ask for another two years.
          Thinking about it though… It’s been three and a bit years since they last checked I still live here…Hmmm.

          Funnily enough, There is an option on the online form for to state that you don’t need a license… And… if you link-dive through the site, you finally find the link to the legal info including the relevant sections in the Communications Act (2003 version with only 5 or so amendments, last I checked), Also the wording of the TV licensing gives an impression that a license is needed for anything and everything… however, when read carefully, there are a lot of word play going on… and thus only if you’re using your shower, your IoT toilet-handle or your IoT LED 1-pixel projector to watch Live TV then you need one… else you don’t

          1. Oh, both paper and online newspapers, use of forums and underground sources… All compared together with past facts to get an image of what is truth and what is BS (Load of that these days)
            Seems like people a week later say they saw on TV news something I already knew… And I show my sources sometimes… especially if it’ll likely become headline news worthy on TV in a few days.
            Heck… Even long term predictions through multi-path behavioral, societal and interaction predictions layered on a simulation of most likely events based on attitudes of majority and so on and so forth:

            I predicted Britexit and that David Cameron and his friends would use that as a get rich quick scheme since Europe wasn’t foreign enough to call the “foreign business affairs” David got called out on… Until the Britexit vote… He and his team will milk it to the end where they’ll own a chunk of previously foreign invested money and thus when the final A50 is called… They’ll own a huge chunk of UK value.

            So far… Most of said predictions have come to bear fruit… it looks like they lied and they are better off for it… We on the other hand…. Well lets give up British sovereignty to our failing and faulty “government and Monarch” and make India an empire with us as their first far away Pradesh!

          2. Mr Mannering – Do you blokes still have to get a TV permit to watch the telly from your local POST OFFICE? We don’t. We only need a license to transmit RF on some but not all frequencies from our FCC. Getting a permit to watch a limited amount BBC channels seems quite problematic for me. I watch BBC America for no extra charge except my cable company is robbing US blind ($200/month USD! 154 GBP). I watch NETFLIX and others via my expensive cable provider. We have something called NET NEUTRALITY coming up. I don’t even begin to understand it.

          3. Quote:
            “Do you blokes still have to get a TV permit to watch the telly from your local POST OFFICE?”

            Simple answer: Yes…


            A little more detail:
            Also for those who wish to receive any form of licensable broadcast in any form, a license can be gotten online.

            For a much more in depth answer, see above.

  8. Although all the Soviet/Russian spacecraft have been primarily designed to land on solid ground, Soyuz can also survive a water landing just in case.
    This was particularly handy for the crew of Soyuz 23, who ended up landing on/in a frozen lake, but all escaped unharmed.

      1. A Soyuz capsule isn’t exactly simple. The one used on Soyuz 23 was probably more complex than an Apollo capsule with it’s automated radar docking system.
        In fact, due to the Soviet tendency to distrust the crew, much more of the Soviet space program was automated, and consequently there were many, many failures. Most of them weren’t mission ending, but it was a rare Soyuz mission where the spacecraft worked correctly throughout. Solar arrays would fail to unfurl, docking radars would refuse to acquire, star finders would malfunction. Really, looking at the US vs USSR space programs, the only place where the Soviets were noticeably more simple was in their choice of materials and electronics, and that was more due to necessity than anything else.
        In short, the old stereotype of Soviet kit being crude but robust compared to the US doesn’t really hold for their space programs. Space is hard, and spacecraft will always be complex.

        1. The failures were less to do with being automated, and more to do with how Stalin killed most of the engineers capable of overseeing and ensuring that things were made and assembled correctly during the Great Purge, out of paranoia that he had become too dependent on these people. He tried to divide and conquer his engineers, which lead to everyone working blindfolded on narrow tasks – they trained new engineers to know just enough to do their appointed lot, and no more, which is the reason to why Soviet tech became so crude.

          What worked, worked because the parts happened to fit together, and where they didn’t, it didn’t. Hence the old joke about a tractor assembly plant where they were carting transmission out and then back to the warehouse because half of them would fit half of the engines, and the punchline “Small country, small tolerances – big country, big tolerances.”

          They even sent Sergei Korolev to a death camp, which he survived, but then died suddenly in 1966 due to injuries and organ failures sustained during his imprisonment. With him the Soviet space program pretty much fell apart to mismanagement and incompetence, and lost them the moonshot.

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