Archive for the ‘History and geography’ Category

Cart before horse

November 4, 2018

Every year our Virtual Organisation students do a workshop on approaches to innovation with David Barry, who draws on the concept of horseless carriage thinking.  He uses as a metaphor for innovation the idea that motor vehicles only really developed once it became apparent that they could do things that horses and carriages couldn’t.  And it has been pointed out that one factor is that you no longer needed to put the horse in front of the cart.

This made me think of a particular episode in the motor industry that does provide a lesson in innovation, and it’s a story of what went wrong when a British car manufacturer put the cart before the horse.

In the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in cars made in continental Europe, it was common for small cars at least to have the horse behind the cart – that is to put the engine at the rear of the car.  The original Volkswagen Beetle was probably the most notable and must surely be the one that’s most widely recognised today.  But Renault, Fiat, Skoda, and long-forgotten continental European manufacturers such as Simca and NSU, made small rear-engined cars for many years.  The catalyst for change came in the late 1950s, when the British Motor Corporation’s famously eccentric engineer Alec Issigonis devised a very small car with the engine at the front, but turned 90° compared to what had been normal practice.  This meant that the long side of the engine ran across the car, thus saving space, and the result was the first Mini.  There are exceptions and the Smart car is a 21st century take on the idea of a small rear-engined car, and there are significant engineering differences between the original Mini and a modern car, but most small and medium-sized cars made today follow the engine layout pioneered by Issigonis sixty years ago.

Another British manufacturer, Rootes, also started developing a small car in the late 1950s, and the resultant product arrived on the market in 1963 as the Hillman Imp.  This was the first British car with the engine at the back, and while it remained in production for a respectable period of 13 years, it sold in limited numbers and didn’t catch the public’s imagination, especially compared to the success of the Mini.  Placing the cart before the horse didn’t seem to have been good for the British motor industry.

In the 1960s automotive companies were encouraged by the British government to build new factories in areas where other heavy engineering industries were declining.  Ford and Vauxhall both expanded on Merseyside, and both factories are still going (the former Ford plant at Halewood now part of Jaguar Land Rover, who somehow pulled off the trick of selling ever-increasing numbers of luxury cars in the years following the 2008 financial crisis).  Rootes built the Hillman Imp in a factory in Linwood in central Scotland, which closed, and prompted a wave of urban deprivation (which is another story) in around 1980.

Rootes, and their well-respected designer Tim Fry, took some trouble to learn from other manufacturers, and the Imp was an ingenious design which, despite using an engine layout which was soon to fall out of favour, had some technically advanced features.  Unfortunately they lacked the financial resources to develop the Imp, and the Linwood plant was beset by fraught industrial relations and poor build quality.  So it is tempting to regard the Hillman Imp as a good idea which was poorly implemented.

But the real lesson from the Hillman Imp in terms of innovation is this: when its development started, and the transverse engine at the front was a wild idea sketched out by Alec Issigonis on a paper serviette, the choice to put the engine at the back was a perfectly rational one.  With hindsight, it was a poor decision.  But when planning for the future you can never tell whether it would be wise to put the cart before the horse.


One type of 21st century workplace

January 26, 2016

Also on the BBC’s tech pages recently was this account of people’s homes being used by freelancers as workplaces.  While the premise seems to be that there is scope for renting out an empty home during the day, if you watch the video report the cases depicted seem to be examples where the occupier of the home is around while freelancers are using it.  In any case, it’s an interesting reflection on the changing barriers between work and home and on the sort of spaces in which people find it convenient to work.

The ultimate elevator pitch

January 26, 2016

It’s been a few months since this entertaining item was published by the Guardian over the summer, but while I’m in the mood for blog posting I thought I’d put up a link to it.  I’ve been fascinated by Paternoster lifts since using one in the now-demolished GEC Marconi building at Borehamwood many years ago.  I’m amused to read about the idea of recording a podcast within the time that it takes to complete a circuit: surely the ultimate challenge in terms of getting an idea across rapidly

Retro no more

January 22, 2016

A few years ago I blogged about Friends Reunited (one of a fair number of online services past and present that I’ve personally never joined) as a ‘retro social network‘. Now it’s being closed entirely, an example of how something which was once popular can disappear completely, and an opportunity to wonder what sort of value first ITV, and then D C Thomson, gained from the network while they owned it.  The founders are still planning new social networks, but they are looking to enter a much more crowded market so I wonder how successful they will be.

Walking in the Chilterns

June 19, 2015

Since our trip around the Capital Ring in 2012 (covered in this blog) I’ve continued to do a fair amount of walking at weekends: I simply haven’t sat down and blogged about it.  So here’s an account of two pleasant walks in the Chilterns, both sections of the Ridgeway National Trail which itself covers a route that has been in use since prehistoric times.

One walk, which we did a few weeks ago while schools were on their half-term break, was from Princes Risborough to Wendover.  It’s easily accessible by public transport, because each end is served by a different arm of the Chltern Railways line out of Marylebone, and runs past Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.  Related to this, there’s a convenient pub at which to stop for lunch – the Plough at Cadsden – a couple of miles into the walk, which makes much of its proximity to Chequers, and which briefly hit the headlines a few years ago when David Cameron’s young daughter was accidentlly left behind when the rest of the family, and their entourage, had returned to Chequers.

Lunch at the Plough was excellent and substantial, appropriately so because this is a fairly hilly walk and a touch more strenuous than might be expected of a walk of this length, 6½ miles, around London.  The walk starts with a significant climb leading to great views across Princes Risborough, and continues with a variety of scenery.

Summit approaching CadsdenBecause it’s part of a long-distance path, it’s well signposted and easy to follow.  And a bonus at the end of May is that we caught the very end of the bluebell season.  Maybe not quite the striking displays which we’d seen a few weeks earlier, but still enough bluebells to create a fine effect in the woodland stretches approaching the attractive small country town of Wendover.

About ten days later we  Bluebell wood near Lodge Hillfollowed this up with a walk starting at Wendover.  From Wendover to Tring is slightly longer than the previous walk (8 miles), though on balance entails slightly less effort, because it’s less undulating.  The easternmost point of the Ridgeway is in fact Ivinghoe Beacon, a few miles beyond Tring, and for anybody walking the Ridgeway in its entirety from west to east, the approach to Tring brings the first sight of their eventual destination.  Another memorable feature of this stretch is a fine arched bridge which takes the path over a the A41 road, which runs in a wide cutting: it’s an unusually elaborate structure for one that only carries people on foot.

This section covers a mixture of countryside and parkland – Tring Park was cultivated in the 19th century by the Rothschild family and the walk runs through the park, above the town of Tring itself.Bridge over A41 (2)  Tring rail station is a couple of miles out of the town but is on the Ridgeway path.  The local historians writing here record that in 1859 a correspondent to the Bucks Herald complained about the lack of a bookstall or catering facilities at the station.  When we were there, the small, functional, station building was closed but there appears to be a coffee stall at some times during the week, which must qualify as one piece of tangible progress in 156 years.

Where the nerdfighters are

May 7, 2015

I couldn’t let another UK general election campaign happen without making some reference to Nate Silver’s fivethirthyeight web site.  Not only for its excellent statistical analysis and for the use of the word ‘nerdfighting’, but also because in their model the constituency where I live is one of the most marginal in the UK.  The incumbent MP has been very active in putting notes through letter-boxes, but the candidate who is challenging her seems to have more and bigger posters.  It’ll be interesting to watch

Re-issuing a classic

November 14, 2014

Somewhere I have an edition of Nairn’s London which has been in the family since it was first published in the 1960s. Ian Nairn was an architectural critic and something of a self-created grumpy middle-aged man – among other things he was incredibly scathing about the Royal Festival hall in London. With his emphasis on wandering around and observing his approach would now probably be classified as psychogeography.

Nairn’s London has recently been reissued and I was amused by this piece from the Independent about the production process. Perhaps most telling is that no artwork, and no digital original, of the cover survived, so for the reissued version the designers at Penguin needed to seek out copies in good condition on the second-hand market.

Centralised or not?

April 29, 2013

Many of my students will have worked through the example of Ocado as a case study in e-business.  There are lots of issues around it, but one of the key issues is to contrast Ocado, which has a fundamental business model based initially around a single fulfillment centre in Hatfield, not far north of London, with the business model adopted by Tesco for internet shopping, which was fundamentally highly decentralised and used local shops as distribution centres.  The aim is not to present one approach as intrinsically superior to the other, although it’s surprising how often some students do defend a preference for one or another as though it’s a religious belief.  Rather, it’s to show that this sort of decision does affect the type of strategy that an Internet supermarket should pursue.  And also that each of these supermarkets chose their strategy in response to a particular set of conditions.

Of course students often point out that the Ocado model isn’t quite as centralised as it looks.  For a start there is now a second major distribution centre in the midlands.  But also the centralised system depends on a hub and spoke approach.  One of the smaller depots that acts as a spoke is in Byfleet in Surrey.  Those with knowledge of the area will recognise this as the sort of affluent, reasonably well-populated territory that Ocado sets out to serve, and those with inclinations towards systems thinking may recognise this as where Stafford Beer lived.

Ocado is also interesting because of the (at times rather fraught) relationship with Waitrose.  But it’s significant that perhaps the partnership with Ocado paved the way for Waitrose own-brand goods to be sold through a variety of outlets.  This move to sell Waitrose products on Eurostar services between London and the continent provides another outlet for their brand, along with the rather entertaining idea that a French or Belgian visitor to Britain could dine on a Waitrose Croque Monsieur on the way.

Where I stayed in Nottingham

April 29, 2013

The ABS conference entailed spending just one night in Nottingham, at the City’s Hilton Hotel, which is a grand red-brick Edwardian building.  Conrad Hilton would have barely left school when it was built, and the business that he started didn’t expand outside the USA until after the second world war, so it clearly wasn’t built as a Hilton…

In fact a clue to its history is from the Victoria shopping centre immediately to the north.  This occupies the site of the former Nottingham Victoria rail station, on the former Great Central Railway opened around 1900 and closed during the 1960s.  Transport historians seem divided on whether the Great Central was a well-engineered but undervalued railway which benefited from knowledge accumulated by the other steam-age lines, or whether it was just an expensive vanity project which duplicated capacity that was already provided elsewhere.  But the Hilton, as it now is, was originally the station hotel: this old postcard image from wikipedia has it clearly visible beyond the station itself

The conference setting in Nottingham

April 24, 2013

ImageImageAs I mentioned in the first post about the ABS learning and teaching conference, the venue is a conference centre built around two separate original buildings of different ages.  The contemporary architects have done an excellent job of giving the spaces a light, airy feel.  To reinforce the centre’s 21st century environmentally friendly credentials, the recently constructed addition has a green roof.

The 1950s component (the Newton building) is intriguing.  It’s grade II listed, and the listing text refers to modernism, but it owes more to the monumental public buildings put up in the 1930s.  No surprise, then, to find that T Cecil Howitt, the local architect responsible, had been responsible for many municipal buildings in the period leading up to world war 2