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Join us for this Q&A session with Andrew Nahum on his new book Paths of Fire: the Gun and the World it Made, (Reaktion Books, 2021). As Andrew Marr said, 'this is a book about guns which isn't about guns. Instead it's about progress, intellectual and industrial ... from a wholly original and convincing new perspective'.
It is a truism that arms development has an enormous impact on technological development and on social change. But the histories here show that this occurs not just in familiar ways, but often by elliptical and surprising routes.
Andrew began this study, partly, at Churchill Archives Centre, while researching a Science Museum exhibition, Churchill's Scientists (2015). The papers there of A V Hill, physiologist and Nobel Laureate gave a fascinating account of how biologists and civilian scientists established the new science of anti-aircraft fire - a type of 'high angle' gunnery that, of course, did not exist until the aircraft emerged as a weapon in the First World War. Then, in the Second War, the need to make anti-aircraft guns faster and 'smart' produced a new type of machine - almost an artificial animal, with a brain (the small local computer) and a sensory system (the radar) all linked to the guns in a circular way with feedback loops. This seemed to be the real start of artificial intelligence and the post-war flowering of cybernetics with its many outsize characters and propagandists.
So, it seemed that behind every 'gun story' was another that was not about war and combat - although that is necessarily there too. Winston Churchill enters the book largely through his role as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911. He described the consequences of choosing the new untested 15-inch gun for the next generation of battleships:
"From the original desire to enlarge the gun we were led on step by step to the Fast Division, and in order to get the Fast Division we were forced to rely … upon oil fuel. … This led to enormous expense and tremendous opposition. … Yet it was absolutely impossible to turn back. We could only fight our way forward, and finally, we found our way to the Anglo-Persian Oil agreement." In his mind each link in the chain ‘had forged the next’.
But Andrew traces these links in the chain further. The Anglo-Persian oil agreement led to huge geopolitical changes in the Middle East and a deep British involvement in the new nations that emerged after the First World War. Beyond that, it even led to the arming of the Jewish defence force by Orde Wingate, the local British commander. And this force, the Haganah, was the direct antecedent of the Israeli army.
Andrew Nahum is a curator, author and historian specializing in the history of technology and design. He has created numerous exhibitions at the Science Museum including the Science Museum’s landmark gallery on the history of science and technology, Making the Modern World and the aviation gallery, Flight. He also has a personal life-long hands-on engagement with historic transport of all kinds.
He has been a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art with a remit to encourage PhD research in vehicle design and its history. Andrew Nahum’s own doctorate was awarded by the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2003 for a study of the technology, design and economic strategy of the British aviation industry in the Cold War era.
Current position: Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum.
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For all enquiries please contact Amanda Jones, Archives Administrator. T: 01223 336166.