Do you hear me? Over…

Last posting I mentioned some of my own connection to the steel and steam that features in the Iskander stories. I suggested that those developments have the advantage of being known to work, whereas trying to introduce people from a technologically simpler society to electronics and modern transportation systems requires a huge jump in courage and understanding for those trying to learn. I saw that when I worked in the Libyan Desert in the 60s.

Readers of the series may notice that one modern system that becomes essential for the Iskander people on the 17th century world is radio communication. It became so important to me, putting  stories together for people living in the Internet and cell phone age that I even introduced a primitive spark transmitter radio telegraphy system for the Iskanders’ enemies.

The thing is, people develop a whole different mindset when the only way to communicate is by handwritten letter sent across the ocean, say, by a sailing ship that could take two months on the journey. People in the 17th century had adjusted their lives to this glacially slow means of communication – it would drive us crazy. When I came to write the chapters in Arrival where the difference between the Empire learning of the Iskander’s raid in the new world and the Iskanders’ exploitation of their success stretched into months it threatened to slow the novel down into an excruciating slow pace and push the whole plot into an unacceptable timescale. That was when I had to show the Empire using at least a vintage 1890s wireless telegraph to pass essential communications across their empire.

The radio telegraphy setups that I envisaged and described were based upon the old Naval radio station that existed near Yeovilton airfield in the wartime and post WWII years, and that I used to see when we took the bus to visit relatives who lived nearer to London. The rat’s nest of wires, like a hundred clothes lines criss crossed on high poles, stretched for hundreds of feet – they were the antennae. If you look at a photograph of a WWI battleship you’ll see the same string of antenna wires stretched between the masts. These were needed when a radio operated on a few fixed frequencies and transmitted Morse Code.

My own introduction to radio communication started when I joined my Artillery regiment in Germany in 1959. The army decided I would be most useful to them as a driver-op – I was to drive an officer’s jeep and be his radio operator. The first officer I drove for was the commander of the US Army unit stationed with us – responsible for the nuclear warheads for the missiles we were equipped with in an allied NATO formation.

I suspect he wasn’t impressed with our radio equipment – the same old #19 sets that had been used in tanks 15 years before during WWII. They had limited power and range, were tuned labouriously by twisting dials, and worked with vacuum tube amplifiers. They broke down regularly and the first remedy was to drive the vehicle containing the radio cross country over the roughest track you could find as fast as you could manage. Shaking up the tubes would often jar them into working again. We had more modern radios by the time I escaped the army some three years later, but frequent radio excercises were always necessary to keep the operators on top of their equipment.

One thing emphasized in the Artillery was to pass short, precise messages as quickly as possible, because the Russian army, our presumed antagonist, used a lot of radio direction finding equipment to locate hostile communications – and bring down a barrage of artillery fire onto the hapless operators. Later, when I used field radios extensively in the oil industry, where windbags would waffle for agonising minutes trying to pass the simplest of instructions, I would wince and wish I had a radio direction set and a few field guns to put a boot up their asses.

When I worked in the Arctic I found the radio became such a nuisance that I normally kept it switched off. If I was accessible by radio at any time, the party manager was bound to ask me to check that the drillers were working well and had no problems – his job to watch them but a lot warmer in his office than out on the tundra. If I were to respond to his message I would waste the rest of the day trundling down the line to the drills at the 4mph speed of my tracked survey machine to babysit fellows who were getting a bigger production bonus than I was. After a few days’ of queries why I hadn’t responded to his radio call and I put it down to an inconvenient hill in the way between us, he finally ‘got the message’.

What about training desert Arabs to handle modern technology? It actually varied according to the individual, but only a small percentage we able to break out if the thinking they’d grown up with. I had a survey driver who merely by watching me work began to form an accurate picture of the survey layouts we used to capture the geophysical data. But we also had a mechanic’s helper who, when told to ‘fill it back up’ when all that was left for a truck oil change was to add the new oil, attempted to pour enough oil in for it to appear at the filler cap. When the oil began pouring out of the dipstick hole he ran to get the mechanic crying the motor had sprung a leak. Most of our desert labourers were capable of one, very simple repetitive task, and when they came to the end of their spread would lay on the sand until the truck driver brought them the next string of phones to lay.

I read somewhere that it takes three generations to train a somewhat proficient technical workforce. The first generation are baffled by the challenges, but fascinated enough to encourage their sons to take them on. The second generation can handle the ‘grunt’ jobs needed in a technical society – and see that their kids get a good education. The third generation can handle the everyday technology in society without supervision and advance to supervise others and make competent decisions about the work – about as much as one can expect from the average workforce in the West. This is what I have Henrik Matah and his engineering staff working on in  their industrial setup at Bergrund but, again for the plot pace, he has to find enough above average individuals to train in order to maintain a pace of development that works in fiction.

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