St Kilda’s other stories

I have a bit of past form for being churlish about all the attention devoted to St Kilda.  Last week my persistent grumpiness was put to the test by visiting the archipelago for the first time, accompanied by students on our annual Edinburgh University human geography field class.

It is hard not to be moved by the grandeur. Such vertiginous heights – ‘steep frowning glories’ as Lord Byron might have called them – which are all the more impressive when given occasional perspective given by the tiny spec of an old fowling bothy. No photograph can really convey this scale and it is fair to say that I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

The built environment might have been equally striking had countless images of this abandoned village not already been intimately known to me since childhood.



When I was eight years old, my brother bought an LP by Scottish folk pioneers Ossian. Entitled ‘St Kilda Wedding’, the cover showed a landscape rendered in pen and wax crayon. This evocative image, and the lovely reel from which the album draws its title, had me hooked – though it took me another twenty years to make my own contribution (pdf 0.5mb) to the story.

Maybe it was this longstanding familiarity that left me relatively unmoved by Village Bay. The curation in the village museum didn’t help matters. I think its emphasis on the difference of St Kilda compared to other Hebridean outliers is relentless and misplaced.

For instance, the charge of the islanders’ ‘extremism’ in religious matters is largely unwarranted, at least in comparison with other islands. It comes in part from the gawping ignorance of Glasgow Herald journalist Robert Connell in the 1880s and, subsequently, via uncritical accounts by Tom Steel and Charles Maclean.

I was further irked that the story of St Kilda basically stops with the evacuation in 1930, as if the later occupation by the military doesn’t quite count as a legitimate part of island history. A throwaway line about the Ministry of Defence being a partner in current management glosses over the remarkable Cold War history of the island.


Maybe the fact that this was the tracking station for the world’s first nuclear missile unsettles the wilderness ideal? How can such strategic centrality be reconciled with the island-on-the-edge-of-the-world framing?

My interests are admittedly rather niche but I found the signs of military occupation by far the most interesting aspect of St Kilda. Operation Hardrock, which saw the development of the radar tracking station in 1957, more than made its mark. And those involved in its construction left their own inscriptions.

All archaeologists love the discovery of a coin as a dating device. And doubtless this was in the mind of whichever workman placed a newly minted half penny in the wet concrete road – date side up, naturally. (Thanks to Kevin Grant, NTS archaeologist for pointing it out).

Other traces are less explicit but no less interesting: whose quiff was tamed by this black comb, found half way up Mullach Mòr?














A cement patch provides an enduring memorial.

And then there are inscriptions on a landscape scale: the origin of the materials for Operation Hardrock will not likely be forgotten any time soon. A quarry this size is hard to overlook.

All of this is fascinating but it is not the St Kilda we know.  That story is fixated with a tragedy in which innocent pre-moderns are taken in by villainous missionaries.  As with many founding myths of nationhood, it is a colourful lament for a golden age that is poorly anchored in the available evidence.

Meanwhile, the evidence for other lives and other landscapes remains carefully cropped out of our photos of Village Bay.




On the geopolitics of rocketry in Gaza

In 1983, when the craziness of Reagan-era missile-pointing was at its height, Jacques Derrida gave a topical address to Cornell University. Starting with the wordplay between ‘missile’ and ‘missive’, it seemed to him that, more than other weapons, rockets were particularly concerned with sending a message; this, after all, was the principle of nuclear deterrence. Rockets were ‘fabulously textual’, said Derrida, because ‘the technologies of delivering, sending, despatching’ were unavoidably bound up with the rhetoric of diplomacy and international relations.

The lecture did not prove to be one of Derrida’s greatest hits. But there is something in his argument that might partially explain why rather more modest rockets have remained so important for Hamas. It plainly isn’t because they are effective field weapons. In the eight years before Israel’s last war on Gaza, the 8600 rockets that Hamas despatched had killed 28 people – many fewer than the 600 or so victims of suicide attacks in the same period.

A more open border to the south of Gaza has seen Hamas access longer-range weapons like the Iranian Fajr-5 which, if successfully guided, could reach Tel Aviv. One fell short of Jerusalem last Friday. Most of their rockets, however, are home-grown Qassams – an unguided ‘kitchen’ technology propelled by sugar and fertilizer. The IDF used to mockingly claim that they were made out of the poles stolen from road signs. Improvising materials makes accuracy out of the question. But accuracy was never the point.

The obvious military rationale is still to spread fear and alarm among Israelis. Three people killed in apartment complex in Kiryat Malachi and several more injured in Ashdod will have contributed to this grim objective. But Hamas are clearly not oblivious to the fact that rockets have been part of the accepted language of geopolitics for over half a century. This dialogue may not assume exactly the same guise of Cold War ‘missile envy’ but states these days seem no less fixated with the totem. Drones are handy, but rockets remain the diplomatic big stick.

For Hamas, a Qassam might not often kill the enemy but it does at least speak their language. Against an overwhelmingly superior adversary, the power of the rocket is that it is a message the recipient state has little choice but to receive.

It was precisely this problem for which Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor system was designed as an automated ‘return to sender’. Though it has proven technically effective, the problem remains that Gaza’s rockets are insulting because they don’t need to hit their target in order to hit their target.

The Amnesia of American Astronautics: on the hundredth anniversary of Frank J. Malina’s birth

Yesterday, according to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum twitter feed, was the 99th anniversary of the day Robert Goddard filed his first patent for a ‘rocket apparatus’. I really hadn’t known that. As with many of their ‘This Day in History’ tweets – TDIH for short – it is the little details that are the most fun.

Goddard is plainly an important figure – a pioneer of early rocketry, and the first to experiment with liquid propulsion.  His meticulous paper on ‘A method of reaching extreme altitudes’, published by the Smithsonian Institute in 1919, earned him longstanding public ridicule from which he never really recovered.

At least Goddard would prove his critics wrong in the end. And he now has a lunar crater named in his honour as well, of course, as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. But let’s face it, he never got anywhere near space flight. His first liquid fuelled rocket reached 41 feet, landing in a nearby cabbage patch. Though he had some greater success with later experiments, none of them approached anything like ‘extreme altitudes’ – at least by his own definition.

Nor did he provide any theoretical foundation for modern astronautics. Theodore von Kármán’s judgement was pretty harsh but, as far as I can see, it is entirely accurate: ‘there is no direct line from Goddard to present day rocketry’, recalled von Kármán in his memoir – ‘he is on a branch that died’.

Sometime in 1937, von Kármán and Goddard’s patron Harry Guggenheim tried to encourage Goddard to collaborate with a young Caltech PhD student called Frank J. Malina. The reclusive Goddard was having none of it, and Malina – together with his colleagues in ‘the Suicide Squad’ – followed a very different engineering path.

Where Goddard favoured obsessive secrecy, Malina believed in collaboration and scientific dissemination. Goddard filed patents and got nowhere. Malina and his fellow Caltech researchers openly published their work, encouraged teamwork and made astonishing progress.

One month after Goddard’s death, and just a few miles away across the desert, Malina and his team made the first successful flight of their rocket, the WAC Corporal. It reached 45 miles.

Should we know about this? Yes.

This was America’s first successful high altitude rocket, that is to say, it could travel higher than balloon technology at the time – important if you wanted to study the upper atmosphere.

It was also the world’s first successful sounding rocket. Admittedly, Wernher von Braun’s V-2 preceded the WAC Corporal but then the V-2 wasn’t designed as a research vehicle – its aim was to terrorise civilians. (Von Braun was born a few months before Malina. His recent centenary was hard to miss.)

In 1949, the WAC Corporal was placed on top of a V-2, to become the second stage of the world’s first viable staged rocket – the BUMPER WAC Corporal. On 24th February 1949, it reached the incredible altitude of 244 miles becoming the first human object to reach into extra-terrestrial space – eight years before Sputnik.

Later the WAC Corporal was refined and weaponised as the Corporal – the first rocket authorized to carry a nuclear warhead. It became, in other words, the progenitor of contemporary weapons of mass destruction.

America’s first successful rocket brings with it a mixed heritage, though one common to the later history of astronautics – caught, as it is, between the transcendent ideals of exploration on the one hand, and the hard-nosed architects of death on the other.

But, still, it seems impossible to ignore this astonishing success and the engineering genius of its chief designer, Frank Malina.

Does Malina have other claims to recognition from America’s space establishment? Only that, along with von Kármán, he founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Aerojet.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of Frank Malina’s birth. So how is this being commemorated at JPL, the institution he founded? I don’t know. There is nothing on their website or, thus far, on their twitter feed. Maybe they have plans, as yet unannounced, to give commemorate him with a small piece of Martian topography. This would be welcome but a little surprising.

I still hope that the NASA History Office may yet mark the occasion. An earlier tweet, however, was not encouraging: “today is singer-songwriter Sting’s birthday who produced the song “Walking on the Moon”.

No matter. I join with those who admire Frank Malina’s extraordinary achievements: in rocketry, in kinetic art, in international scientific cooperation and in arts-science dialogue (for which purpose he founded the journal Leonardo). With them, I raise a glass to his memory.

SNAP!’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ and the end of the Cold War

I promise not to make a habit of this, but permit me one more time to return to the artistic high water mark that was the age of rave.

It will surely not have escaped your attention that this month marks the twentieth anniversary of the six week chart-topping reign of ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ by eurodance outfit SNAP!

Rhythm is a Dancer is perhaps best known for one of the worst lines in the history of pop. Against his better judgment, the rapper Turbo B was persuaded to say:

Gotta be what you wanna
If the groove don’t get you the rhyme flow’s gonna
I’m serious as cancer when I say
‘Rhythm is a dancer’


Anyway, this lyrical gem had completely blocked any memory I had of the video to this track which turns out to have been filmed at the rocket park at Cape Canaveral.

If you can look past the latex catsuits and robotic dancing, in the background there are a series of missile monuments to twentieth century space exploration and Cold War militarism.

Here stands Thor, once packing a thermonuclear warhead for both the US Air Force and the British RAF; it was also the vehicle that launched the first Corona spy satellite. This somewhat diminished god of thunder is here rendered a background prop alongside a tinsel-encrusted Flying V.

There too is the Mercury/Redstone rocket, representing the first human spaceflight programme of the United States, famously pipped by the flight of Yuri Gagarin.

Marvel at the iconographic resonance between the three white bodysuited figures of Atlas, serenely unburdened by their polystyrene Earths, and the massive Atlas rocket, still going strong today as the workhorse of expendable launch vehicles.

Okay, one can read too much into this. But it is the sheer silliness that is most interesting.

Rhythm is a Dancer marks the fact that this sort of hardware belonged to an earlier age, whose threat had seemingly passed.

It is an anthem to the smugness of 1992, a year when Boris Yeltsin had announced that Russia would no longer target US cities with their nukes; Francis Fukuyama had just published The End of History and the Last Man; and the European Union had been founded by the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

Halcyon Days.

On playing with rockets

Last week Edinburgh hosted the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers, at which I was co-organising a session on ‘Ludic Geographies’ with Tara Woodyer.

My own paper on rocket toys is something I dusted down from two previous presentations some years ago.  It will comprise only a page or two of my rocket book, but the material is interesting because – as with some of the academic literature on popular geopolitics – it re-orientates geopolitical agency from statecraft to everyday life.

Rocket toys, I argue, were part of the means by which weapons of mass destruction were rendered intelligible in, and transposable to, domestic contexts.

Moreover, certain aspects of play – technical improvisation, making, collecting, ordering, strategizing – are seen to be at work in both playroom and stateroom, toybox and silo.

My interest, unsurprisingly, lies in those toys which replicate JPL’s Corporal missile, the weaponised version of Frank Malina’s WAC Corporal. You can see some of the adverts for these here.


The indistinction between military hardware and its analogue plaything is nicely illustrated in these two sets of instructions, one from the Corgi’s Corporal missile and the other from preliminary operating procedures from now declassified British Army files.

One is formal, earnest and technical; the other is … well … a bit rubbish.

The academic argument of my paper – no need to thank me – goes something like this:

  • That play is constitutive of the Cold War.
  • That we can think of sovereign nation states, like all subjects, as the ontological effects of practices that are performatively enacted – in this case, through object play.
  • That play is not something that happens on the surface of geopolitics, far less as a response to it; geopolitics is itself, in part, a ludic enterprise.
  • That there is no meaningful distinction between missiles and their toy correlates: the rocket is entrained in the ludic activities of both children and adults.

All I need to do now is buff up these bullet points into 8000 words of persuasive argument in academic prose with appropriate citations. Oh dear.



Ray Bradbury and the pioneers of American rocketry

Ray Bradbury died today. He may well have been the greatest sci-fi writer of the twentieth century.  I really can’t say as I haven’t read his work. You read that right; and it is an ignorance that also extends to the rest of science fiction. I do at least have the decency to recognise this as a failing. Despite my interest in rocketry, sci-fi is just not a genre that moves me. I have resolved however that the next time I’m in the National Library of Scotland, I will dig out Bradbury’s ‘R is for rocket’. The title alone is a triumph.

My passing interest in Bradbury was kindled a few weeks ago coming across a letter that he wrote to Frank Malina, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who remains the primary focus of my own book. Malina is not exactly a household name but he certainly should be: he designed and oversaw the construction of the world’s first successful sounding rocket, the WAC Corporal.

Robert Goddard has carried the acclaim for the first liquid fuelled rocket. It rose to a height of 41 feet. Malina’s rocket, by contrast, was the first American rocket to reach space. And when it was grafted on to a V-2 to form the BUMPER WAC Corporal, it became, in 1949, the first human artefact to reach into extra-terrestrial space – an astonishing altitude of 244 miles, eight years before Sputnik.

Bradbury knew all this. He visited Malina in Paris in 1980, just a year before he died. They must have been reminiscing about the early days at JPL in Pasadena, and certainly talking about Malina’s colleague Jack Parsons. (A self-taught chemist who perfected a castable solid rocket fuel, Parsons is perhaps better known for his libertarian writings and devotion to the Thelema occultism of Alesteir Crowley).

In Bradbury’s letter, he writes that on returning to his hotel he had a sudden memory of being at a Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meeting in 1939 or 1940 listening to a young scientist talk of rockets and the future. In an instant he realized that this young man was in fact Parsons. ‘I was stunned and touched’ wrote Bradbury, ‘to think our lives almost touched, so long ago’.

In closing he wrote to Malina that

There is a ‘long and glorious history behind you, one that will have changed the destiny of people on Earth forever, and this is not said idly. A million years from tonight, when future historians speak of the most important years in the history of the thinking beasts, your name will be there with von Karman’s and the rest. What a glad knowledge to have of yourself’.

In the intervening thirty years, Malina is known to a comparatively small community, mostly historians of science and – given Malina’s art practice – historians of art.  But Bradbury’s prediction may yet be proved correct.

‘A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience…’

It’s impossible to write about the history of rocketry without writing about Wernher von Braun. Von Braun is, alas, the dominant figure. His V-2 rocket is certainly the most important progenitor of modern launch vehicles but it is not the only one. And it bothers me that von Braun has become such a hegemon in historical studies of rocketry that other characters and other rockets struggle to get the attention they deserve.  Still, if Weapons of Mass Destruction have a Genesis account, it is probably the story of von Braun and the V-2. Easily the best rendering is to be found in the outstanding scholarship of Michael Neufeld at NASM. But if you need the one minute version it is hard to beat the Tom Lehrer classic.