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Entries in transportation (16)


the BSA Airborne Paratrooper Bicycle, 1944

Infantrymen of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada aboard LCI(L) 306 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla en route to France on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

On yesterday's photo of the landings at Juno Beach soldiers appear to be landing with bicycles.  I thought when I saw it how far we have come from bicycles to drones in the conduct of war, given that some of those fellows in the photograph are probably still alive: many of them died that day however.  

The bicycles: BSA [British Small Arms, a Birmingham manufacturing conglomerate that made everything from rifles to London taxis] made 70,000 Airborne Folding Paratrooper Bicycles between 1939 and 1945.  As with all things military there are many sites devoted to the most arcane details of this bike, its rifle holder, its pedals, its colour (green).  This one is very complete: Bcoy1CPB  which will mean something to anyone connected with the Canadian Forces: B Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion I think.

BSA was famous after the war for its motorcycles; our geography teacher, Mr Knight used it as a mnemonic for the names and order of the great northern lakes: Bear, Slave and Athabasca — good, eh?

In the D-Day landings, the bicycles were to be used by the second wave regiments to speed their way to the front, but the troops found the roads so congested that they couldn't ride and most were discarded.  B coy reports that they were intensely disliked: probably weighed a ton, and after the war many were sold as surplus: $10 though the Hudson's Bay Company, $3.95 at Capital Iron in Victoria, BC. 

Oh, Capital Iron, a most wonderful weekend tradition of my childhood: huge, dark and gloomy, smelled like metal, oil and canvas, aisles of barrels of nails and tools and incomprehensible metal doodads.  The ceiling was dense with hanging flags.  I suppose it also operated as a reality check, all that metal and machinery, for the men who miraculously found themselves in clean safe jobs with little families and houses with back yards just ten years after the end of the war.


D-day on Juno Beach, 1944

Canadian soldiers from 9th Brigade land with their bicycles at Juno Beach in Bernieres-sur-Mer during D-Day


oil: moving it

Nov. 26, 1939: Oil transported by tank cars. Though oil had been shipped in the United States since the 1860s, dozens of commodities made their way around using tank cars in the 1930s. During World War II, tank cars almost exclusively shipped oil as part of the war effort. Photo: Wood Aerial Surveys. NYTimes Archive.

It was always explained to me that the US Interstate system was primarily a Department of Defense project, meant to extend to all corners of the country with a military-specification super-highway connecting dispersed military bases, plants, installations and depots, rather than concentrating such facilities in one or two key sites in the country.  This was a response to the fear that Chicago during the Second World War constituted a key target as the nation's railways all converged there: take out the Chicago railyards and transportation would be frozen.  Chicago wasn't bombed, but the cold war and the threat of larger weapons with greater reach kept the threat alive.

Above is an image from 1939: oil transported by rail.  Oil is essential to the prosecution of war.  And as Al Gore said in an interview yesterday on CBC oil is oil, once it is on its way, as a commodity, it doesn't matter where it goes (I paraphrase).  He pointed out that when Alberta bitumen gets to the Texas coast, it will be sold on, and that is the critical factor for approval of the Keystone pipeline.  This isn't a great fit with the desire for energy security, which is how pipeline projects are sold to us – no more reliance on dodgy sources in the middle east or the Gulf of Mexico, North America can find and refine and consume its own product.  Gore was suggesting that the raw bitumen is extracted in Canada, refined in Texas and then exported, a different proposition entirely.

On the map the Keystone pipeline appears to go right down I-29 to Kansas and then I-35 to the coast.  I remember this route, there is a little jog on I-70 through Topeka to get from I-29 to I-35.  So not as straight as the proposed pipeline route.  Whatever.  Perhaps rather than going through farmers' fields and disrupting their herds, woodlots and endangered species, the pipelines should go down the already disturbed landscape that is the Inter-state highway system.  Those freeways are like culverts with huge gravel verges, surely a pipeline could fit alongside them.  We might start to think of the interstate system not as a transportation network but an industrial-military network of channels carrying vital resources for the defence of the country.  This actually seems more likely than the Interstate as a traveller's joy.


The opening image for Call the Midwife, a BBC drama about nursing at the beginning of the NHS.

The opening of Call the Midwife shows a liner at the end of the street, Saville Road, Silverton, East London.  

There is something so graphic about emigration here: this was the connection to the world, for all those people in East London, who were  completely despised until the 2012 Olympics made everyone realize that here was some prime real estate, cheap. This ship was probably going to Pier 21 in Halifax, below, also visible at the end of a number of streets, such is eighteenth century planning.  

1935: Pier 21, ocean liner, the Nova Scotian Hotel, the combined CNR and CPR railway station, all seen from Cornwallis Park. courtesy Nova Scotia Museums.This aerial, below, shows Pier 21, the Nova Scotian Hotel and the CP/CNR Station lines, angling in at the far right, a triumvirate of immigrant distribution.


Man Ray: underground planets

Man Ray. London Transport poster, 1939. Photo: London Transport Museum


salt mines

Crews work on a new salt crushing unit, deep in the Sifto Salt -Compass Minerals mine in Goderich, Ont., Thursday, December 18, 2008. The Sifto mine, already the largest salt mine in the world has begun a $70 million expansion as the demand for highway deicing salt increases. photo: Dave Chidley

Sifto Canada: produces road-salt, has enough stored and last year laid off a fifth of its workforce because its salt is transported by boat, and a harsh winter meant shipping was difficult.  Sifto's cellars were filled, mining had to cease for the season.

Sifto is in Goderich, Ontario and provides road salt mostly for the Great Lakes region.  It is a Kansas-owned subsidiary of Compass Minerals International, with salt mines in Cote Blanche, Louisiana and Cheshire, England.  Of course.  Nantwich was the salt producer for Victorian England, and Cote Blanche sits in Holocene coastal marshes full of salt domes.  A salt dome, thank-you wikipedia, is formed 'when a thick bed of evaporite minerals intrudes vertically into surrounding rock strata'.  Evaporite: crystallisation by evaporation, in this case, salt.  Oh, it is interesting, the layer of salt is put under pressure where it begins to flow, being 'more buoyant than the sediment above it'.  Eventually it breaks through the layers of sedimentary rock above it and forms excrescences — salt diapirs — at the surface where it can become a salt glacier.  Gosh.
Salt domes, being impermeable, can trap oil above them — the source of most of the oil reserves along the Gulf of Mexico.      

Nantwich salt was used by the Romans; 'wich' means a brine spring and Nantwich's pre-Roman Celtic name indicated a sacred grove.  Do we want to know how old Nantwich's salt reserves are? yes. They are Triassic, 220 million years ago, formed from salt marshes.

Goderich's salt is Silurian (443 million years ago, since you ask), discovered in 1866 by a petroleum exploration crew, 300 m below the surface.  Today, the mine extends over seven square kilometres 500m below Lake Huron. 


insects and flowers

HMS Grasshopper: built by Yarrow Shipbuilders, Glasgow in 1939, operated in a gunboat squadron in Shanghai securing Chinese rivers until the Japanese invaded China when Grasshopper and Dragonfly were sent to Batavia when they were bombed on 14 February 1942.

Locust-class gunboats were shallow-draught river gunboats, deployed on rivers in China during WWII.  Judy's ship, HMS Grasshopper and sister ship HMS Dragonfly were both bombed in 1942  south of Singapore and are used now as dive sites.  
HMS Gnat was built in 1915, used on the Euphrates during WWI and then transferred to China in the 1920s where it remained until 1940 before going to the Mediterranean and being torpedoed in 1941.  Towed to Alexandria, Gnat was used as a fixed anti-aircraft platform and was scrapped in 1945.

Why these boats were named after insects is difficult to find out.  However there is a class of delightfully named Royal Navy ships — the Flower-class corvettes, such as HMS Buttercup, HMS Larkspur, Peony and Crocus, used in WWII as anti-submarine convoy escorts in the north Atlantic.  They were relatively slow, armed for anti-submarine operations and some had anti-aircraft weapons.  There were 225 of them, 80 of which were in the Royal Canadian Navy and not named after flowers but after Canadian towns and cities, such as HMCS Timmins, HMCS Quesnel, Calgary, Chilliwack and Orillia.  

HMS Chrysanthemum, built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast in 1940 Transferred on 26 January 1942 to the Free French Navy as Commandant Drogou. Returned to the RN in May 1947. Sold on 7 August 1947. Resold in 1948 as mercantile Terje 10. Resold in 23 May 1959 to Portugal as hydrographic survey vessel NRP Caravalho Araujo (A524) until 3 September 1975 when she was transfer to Angola's Navy.
Ships have inevitably desperate biographies: if not sunk during a war, they are traded away for more pedestrian and workaday lives: HMCS Battleford, built in 1940, was sold in 1946 to Venezuela and renamed the Libertad; HMCS New Westminster, built in 1941 in Victoria was sold in 1950 as mercantile Elisa, resold in 1952 as mercantile Portoviejo, resold again in 1954 as mercantile Azura and scrapped in 1966 in Tampa.  HMCS Nanaimo, built in Esquimalt in 1940, was sold in 1952 to the Netherlands where it became the whale catcher René W Vinke. In fact a lot of them, both from the RCN and the RN seem to have become whale catchers.  How horrible.


Gabriola Island brick

Stacking brick at the Gabriola Brick and Shale Products, ca 1914. GHMS Archives 1996.040.006

So what are bricks made of.  Easy, I thought, clay. Ha. Not exactly. Gabriola Brick and Shale Products that operated from 1910 - 1954, used Gabriola Island blue and brown shale.  While fireclay, a glacial clay that produces a much harder brick, was found in conjunction with coal seams near Victoria and Comox on Vancouver Island, Gabriola brick used shale, crushed by millstones made from local sandstone, plus diatomaceous earth and sand.  There are perfectly round basins on Gabriola, clearly where the millstones were drilled out.  I leave that purposely vague because I don't know how they could do that.   

Cretaceous shales of ceramic value are from the Pleistocene era, are sedimentary, have a low fusion temperature and a short vitrification range.  All the deposits in British Columbia turn out pink to red building brick.  In the nineteenth century, every city had a brickworks, just as they had a lime kiln. Evidently there is either shale, clay shales, or clay throughout the western provinces, but it is only deposits near cities that were developed – it says something about the cost of transportation in the early to mid-twentieth century: punitive relative to the cost of developing a local brickyard.  China and stoneware clay, rare in BC, were the basis of the large pottery industry in Medicine Hat, Alberta, which, unlike local brick production, was given a national reach facilitated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

It seems obvious to say it, but the colour of local brick gives a specific and often unique colour to a city that derives directly from the kind of shale or shale clay the city sits upon.  Today, in Canada, all brick comes from one source of brick manufacture in Ontario.  Even I-X-L of Medicine Hat, the once dominant brick manufacturer in Western Canada, is gone.  According to the 1952 BC Department of Mines bulletin (No. 30): Clay and Shale Deposits of British Columbia, clay and shale are everywhere in abundance – it is impossible that it is mined it out.  There must be some other economic equation in operation that makes one vast centralised brickyard with extreme delivery costs more efficient than a local industry.  Personally I don't get it.



Metalled road, Reinga, New Zealand.

Aggregate, in general, is mined, either as gravel or as stone which is then crushed to roughly 10mm sized pieces for concrete.  Historically this rock was called metal, from the Greek, metallon, or quarry/ore/metal, from which comes the term, a metalled road, something one finds in John Buchan novels where the hero and his invariably boyish girl companion hurtle across Scotland in their roadster on narrow tracks and if lucky, a metalled road.  Which merely means a gravel road.  The term is still used in New Zealand evidently.

Metalling is a process developed by John McAdam in 1820 where layers of ever-smaller sized aggregate are laid down on the road bed and with wear the sharp edges will pack together making a dense and weatherproof surface.  It is made even finer if the surface is coated with a mixture of stone dust and water, filling up any gaps between the stones.  Coating the lot with tar (tarmac) reduces dust as the surface stones break down with excessive wear.  

Asphalt is a name for bitumen, something we know a lot about here: originally called the tar sands of northern Alberta, the scientifically neutral term is the bitumen sands, the industry term is the oil sands: it is all heavy semi-solid petroleum.  Whatever, an asphalt concrete road which is what most of our roads are, is a gravel road topped with a layer of aggregate mixed with bitumen as the binder, rather than cement.

None of this is exotic, the basic materials seem to be everywhere, and evidently aggregate mining is what most of mining consists of.  There is a nasty history to rock breaking however, considered hard labour and done by prisoners well into the 20th century – including Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, and it is still done by women and children in the more benighted parts of the world.



Oil: highway 63

Employees work at the new Devon airport near Conklin, Alberta. October 28, 2011. Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail

On the news this morning was how Highway 63 to Fort McMurray has become a no-drive zone for engineering and oil companies.  The Alberta Construction Safety Association has had a no-drive policy for a couple of years, and the major oil sands companies such as Suncor, Statoil, Devon and Syncrude have either their own airstrips at their operations or airports capable of landing a 737.  Suncor flies 25,000 passengers a month; collectively all the airports in the oil sands move 750,000 people a year.  Add that to the 750,000 people that move through Fort McMurray's airport and one starts to have an inkling of just how vast the oil sands region is, not just in area but in personnel.

So, who is left travelling the deadly Highway 63?  Trucks, equipment, ordinary people (it is the only all-weather road into Fort McMurray), families, busses of oil sands workers too lowly to fly, cars, pickups, lots of Newfoundlanders: search the accidents on Highway 63 and CBC St John's always has the report.

The Alberta government regularly announces the twinning of this road, now scheduled to be completed by 2016, but it seems to be waiting for the Oil Sands Development Group to pony up much of the financing.  Meanwhile, clearly there is a wide economic class division growing between those who safely fly, and those who drive.  The fact that there is an official no-drive pollcy amongst corporations and their ability to completely bypass the issue by building their own airports indicates just how autonomous they are.  As the Alberta government is fond of saying that this is the economic driver of Canada, the industry must be kept sweet.  The twinning of Highway 63 for all the people forced to drive on it seems way down the list of priorities. 

It's a class thing.

A roadside memorial stands along highway 63 near Grassland Alberta on May 2, 2012, where three people where killed in an accident along the dangerous highway to Fort McMurray. Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail


Bang on a Can: music for airports

Brian Eno's Music for Airports, in an airport, perfomed by Bang on a Can, 18 September 2011, part of the Altstadherbst Festival.


Maracaibo: oil city

Riccardo Morandi. construction photo of bridge over Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela from - The Concrete Architecture of Riccardo Morandi by Giorgio Boaga & Benito Boni. Praeger, 1966

Maracaibo was isolated from the rest of Venezuela across a large lake and closer therefore to Colombia, until  El Puente Sobre el Lago was built by the Jiménez regime of the 1950s.  A competition had been set in 1957, and won by Riccardo Morandi, an Italian structural engineer, who designed it in concrete. It was the longest prestressed concrete bridge at the time, 8.67km.

Maracaibo is the oil city of Venezuela; the lake is attached to the Maracaibo Basin, part of the Gulf of Mexico and the site of Venezuela's oil reserves.  In 1964 part of the bridge collapsed after being hit by an Esso oil tanker. There wasn't a resultant oil spill, however there is no such thing as failsafe oil transport.

Puente Sobre el Lago de Maracaibo visto desde el paseo del Lago

The Esso Maracaoibo II, the tanker, had been the US Navy gasoline tanker, USS Narraguagas.  It had been bought by the Compania de Petroleo Lagos in 1947, so the US Navy must have been decommissioning its support fleet after WWII.  It ferried crude oil from Lake Maracaibo to a refinery at Aruba.  At the time of the accident it had 236,000 barrels of crude on board; an electrical failure occured and the tanker drifted, smashing into the bridge and a 248m section collapsed.  Seven people, in four cars, fell off the bridge and died. 

Hace 44 años el Esso Maracaibo se estrelló contra las pilas20 y 21 del coloso sobre el lago 259 metros de la estructura se desplomaron El capitán español Avelino González Zulaika no pudo controlar el barco debido a una falla eléctrica . Ocho meses y una semana se tardó la Creole Petroleum Corporation en reparar el Puente Rafael Urdaneta. Hasta 1985 el Esso Maracaibo estuvo navegando aguas venezolanas.


hubris titanicus

Adding the cladding. Todd Architects and Civic Arts/Eric R Kuhne, Titanic Belfast, 2011

Wreaking triumph out of disaster.  From Todd Architects' description of the Titanic museum:

Titanic Belfast, the iconic centrepiece of the Titanic Quarter regeneration – 75 acres of waterfront to the south side of the River Lagan and adjacent to Belfast city centre. Designed with leading international practice Civic Arts/ Eric R Kuhne & Associates it is a multi–functional world–class tourism and leisure attraction, housed within a dramatic sculptural form, overlooking the birthplace of the world famous ship ‘Titanic’. With financial backing from government and Belfast City Council completion is targeted for the first quarter of 2012, to coincide with the centenary of the launch.

Oh, why not.  Valourise the iceberg that knocked the Titanic to pieces. 

What sort of narrative is going on here with the architecture?  Of course an iceberg offers a more contemporary museum-buildings-as-dramatic-sculpture look than piles of rusty steel plate, but isn't the whole Titanic brand a bit tainted?  a bit emblematic of a doomed over-confidence?  The 'world famous ship Titanic' was only world famous because it sank.  Its sister ship, Olympic, ploughed the seas in dazzle paint throughout WWI, and continued as a working ocean liner until 1935, but didn't sink and isn't famous.

It has its fans though:



Iso IsettaThere used to be an Isetta parked on my street, perhaps the most minimal car possible.  Generally known as micro-cars and big in postwar Japan and Europe, the Daimler Smart is our current version, which, no surprise somehow, was originally developed by Swatch in the late 1980s and taken to Mercedes-Benz.  Smart fortwos are okay, but lack the charm of the Isetta, which was at least pretty.  Isetta was originally developed by Iso SpA in Turin in 1953, and then licensed to other manufacturers such as BMW.  They are 90" long by 54" wide, 770 lbs. 
Best site for pictures is the Microcar Museum

The micro-cars of the 50s used 2-stroke motorcycle motors and were essentially enclosed motor scooters, but with a steering wheel rather than cycle handles.  One got in and out of the Isetta through the front which was one big door with the steering wheel and dashboard panel attached.  Gina in Heartbeat used to have one before she got her pale blue VW Beetle.
The Isetta had four wheels, but there were many other lines of tiny cars with three-wheels – reportedly the earliest of cars from the 1880s.  Three wheels have a few stability problems, this is why the Isetta put two wheels quite close together at the back.   Three-wheelers are still being developed, including the Campagna T-Rex in Montréal which is too obviously a muscular motorcycle with a ghastly fibreglas carapace pulled out of a computer game. 

Much has been on the news lately about speed, accidents and Calgary roads.  I would hesitate to take a microcar onto Deerfoot Trail, in fact I don't even take my very nimble, very fast saab onto Deerfoot Trail – it is a suicidal road.  But there are plenty of other roads with less pressure on them.  Speeds are 50-60 rather than 110; you get there.  Although contemporary microcars have normal-car running speeds, little cars like the Isetta had 50kph as their top speed: they are cars for cities, which, last time I heard, most of us live in.  


the Holzweg

Arndt Menke-Zumbrägel. Holzweg, 2008Arndt Menke's wood bike uses wood as a sophisticated material, rather than a low-tech material that shows its vegetative lineage.  There is a standard set of images of the Holzweg, found on several design websites, that show its details, parts and assembly.

Arndt Menke-Zumbrägel. Holzweg. Laminated bentwood back wheel strut.It is possible that this too is mainly a bamboo bicycle as the photos show wood tubes for the frame pieces.  Reamed wood wouldn't be as strong as bamboo with its hollow integrity.  The most interesting part, a bentwood, laminated back wheel strut, is not, as far as I can find, discussed at all. The bentwood piece is laminated from four shaped pieces and then shaped to fit into the tubular metal lugs.  This would give it both strength and spring, giving some suspension movement in the back wheel.

Arndt Menke-Zumbruagel. Holzweg. Forming the bentwood back wheel strut.The frame weighs 2.3 kg.  A comparably responsive ride, a full suspension frame, ranges from 2kg to 5kg (2.8 for aluminum might be typical). 

We've gone through a long period of time where as individuals we have been told we can't make anything ourselves.  We certainly can't fix our own cars, where once everyone was his own mechanic.  What I like about all these wood bikes is that one could actually make one without a metal workshop, without welding equipment and a welding ticket.  These bikes are about assembly of parts, rather than sealed monolithic units, bought ready to go and only repairable by professionals.  That just seems so disengaged now.



Having been away from my home and native land for four months, in my other home and native land, I have been surprisingly disoriented since being back.  After looking at  a small house project Saturday in the far south west, I came back with the contractor I generally work with when I do such things so he could collect his old Sawsall which I borrowed four years ago to hack out some joists set too high for a floor I was replacing.  It was a long story and brute violence was needed to solve it.  Anyway, my front room was a mess: half unpacked, stacks of papers everywhere.  I bleated 'magazine', 'moving', 'ill', 'too much', etc.  and then spent the rest of the afternoon simply clearing my work table.  I now have a tidy stack of little notes of ideas.  I have similar stacks in each room – neat things I read, or hear on the radio, or think of, fascinating bits of news.  What to do with these little notes, each worthy of a dissertation at least.  If I work through them here for a bit, I can throw them away.  It won't be a series of dissertations, but I can air them and let them go.

This is the danger of misc files: they are brilliant, and unwieldly, and provocative, and oppressive, inducing much guilt that one is not pursuing them, working them out, making connections.

So.  Bamboo bikes

First patented in 1894, bamboo frames are lightweight, responsive and quiet. Bamboo is evidently 17% stronger than steel in certain directions.  Craig Calfee in Santa Cruz has been producing high-tech bamboo bikes for several years and is the acknowledged expert, although bamboo bikes have long been built in China.

Calfee Bamboo Cargo bike, built in Ghana. The back wheel is bamboo-reinforced and capable of carrying 640 lbs.The straight pieces are heat treated bamboo.  Instructables has step-by-step  instructions on how to build such a bike: it mortices the bamboo together at the joints and then makes hemp and fibreglas reinforced wrappings around the joints.  Better pictures are here.

The other way to join the pieces is to use carbon fibre, steel or other metal pre-formed lugs into which the bamboo poles fit.  Otherwise, one needs all the rest of the parts: chain, wheels and brakes recycled from ordinary bikes.  The front fork is often metal it seems, rather than bamboo: something to do with stability.

The Bamboo Bike Project in Ghana, Kenya and other African countries was started by several people in different research units at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. BBP is setting up bamboo bike production in local workshops, with local bamboo, that are sturdier than metal bikes and more suited to carrying loads over rough roads. 

There are, of course, obsessives who are working to make everything out of bamboo as a kind of pure design exercise.  Flavio Deslandes is a Brasilian industrial designer living in Denmark. His bike uses a back brake which is much more elegant than all those cables.  Evidently there is much research into bamboo spokes, but couldn't find any pics except for the bamboo reinforcing on the cargo bike above.

Flavio Deslandes. Bambucicleta. Rio de JaneiroIt's all quite exciting, and there are pages of websites, so it must be quite a common project.  I just hadn't heard of it.