Friday, February 25, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XI: A New Nation?


By early February of 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Six of them would meet in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4 to draft a provisional governing document for their new confederation. Delegates from Texas, which had only approved its secession on February 1, would not attend this meeting.

Now, time was short and the task was huge, so the assembled delegates in Montgomery decided to take a bit of a short-cut: most of them were more or less happy with the Constitution of the United States, so after a very brief discussion it was decided to use that as a basis. The delegates made a handful of quick changes, such as giving the President a line-item veto and changing a few procedural matters, and on February 8 the freshly-completed document was ratified unanimously by all delegates present. The next matter on the agenda was the choice of a provisional President to lead their new nation.

The debates became rather heated. Georgia was the most populous state then in the Confederacy, and could easily be expected to sway the convention to select a Georgian as President. However, Georgia's ambitions were thwarted when a well-respected Senator from Mississippi's name was thrown in the ring. He was a West Point man, had seen honorable service in the war with Mexico, and had been Secretary of War in a previous administration. The only problem was, he didn't particularly want the job. He had, in fact, argued against secession when Mississippi's legislature had taken up the issue. But he eventually came around, and came to believe that duty demanded that he take the office that was offered. And so, on February 18, Jefferson Davis took the oath of office, and became the acting President of the Confederate States of America.

Now, the Confederacy took up the job of drafting a formal, permanent Constitution to take the place of the hastily-drawn provisional document. Again, it would be mostly based upon the United States Constitution that they had previously lived under, but with a few key differences.

J. J. McCullough has gone through an exhaustive line-by-line comparison of the CSA Constitution versus the USA Constitution, as it existed in 1861, and it's a quite interesting read, if also quite lengthy. Apart from the purely cosmetic changes -- substituting "Confederate States" for "United States" for example, or the "modernized" use of language -- there were several important differences.

One is that the Confederate Constitution specifically bans the government from interfering in the institution of slavery. I don't really want to belabor this point, but so many people insist on believing that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. To believe that, you have to ignore virtually everything written about secession by the men who were there and actively supporting it. You'd have to ignore the very laws they wrote, to engrave the institution in stone, at the heart of their Republic. There can be no mistake: when these men wrote, in Section 9 Paragraph 4, "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed," they were very much in earnest about it. This was why they left the Union, full stop.

Another ... is that Southerners had, and still have, a weird idea about public works projects. They didn't like them. At all. This is another thing that's readily visible from the Tale of the Tape. In the North, you have the Erie Canal. You have miles upon miles of railroads. You have a web of commerce veining the land, from the sea inland. In the South ... you have rivers. Navigable rivers. And a scant handful of railroad lines. And, Southerners liked it that way. Anyway, they wrote it into their Constitution that it would be outright illegal for the Confederate government to do that sort of thing. (It's still kind of this way. There are probably more toll roads and bridges in Dallas and Tarrant County than in all of, say, Minnesota.)

The delegates to the framing of the Confederate Constitution wanted a governing document that would guarantee the supremacy of the States over the Confederate government. And the Confederate Constitution would give it to them, good and hard. Time would tell how well, or how poorly that would work.

In the meantime, a train had pulled into the station up in Washington. Abraham Lincoln had arrived, to prepare for his inauguration on the fourth day of March. He would assume leadership of a Union riven by secession. But there were still a few who held out hope that it need not end in bloodshed. But only a few. Most could see the powder train burning steadily, and all eyes were turned not upon Montgomery or Washington, but on Charleston harbor. Major Anderson and a hundred-odd Union troops still held firm at Fort Sumter.

But supplies were beginning to run low. Something had to give.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XL

In honor of National Engineers Week (February 20-26), here's what happens when someone with more mechanical skills than sense gets his hands on a VW Beetle and a surplus Sea Knight gas turbine engine.

Friday, February 04, 2011

How Did Sputnik Happen?

On October 4, 1957, the United States received a rude shock. The Soviet Union, a nation that had been thought of as technologically backward, had beaten us to putting an artificial satellite in Earth orbit. As the simple satellite soared overhead, emitting a radio ping, Americans below were asking themselves, "How did this happen?" They called for massive increases in funding for science and engineering education, and for massive increases in military spending, fearful that they had somehow fallen behind.

They were both right and wrong. The Soviet Union had achieved a clear advantage in long-range missiles. What wasn't obvious at the time was that they were forced to seek that advantage, due to a fundamental disadvantage that was at least two decades in the making. It was a disadvantage born of the fundamental qualities of both nations involved, and of the fundamental qualities of specific individuals working for them.

Back in 1935, the United States and the Soviet Union were both planning for war, but not against each other. And they were equipping for different wars entirely: the Soviet Union only envisioned wars against enemies they could reach entirely by land, and the United States only envisioned large-scale wars against enemies that they would have to reach by sea or by air. Soviet weapon development focused on armored vehicles and artillery; American weapon development featured heavy warships and long-range bombers. It was to this end that, on August 8, 1934, the Army Air Corps issued a request for a long-range bomber to reinforce the air forces at Hawaii, Panama, and Alaska. This bomber would become the B-17 Flying Fortress.

The Soviets more or less ignored long-range bombers as being irrelevant to their needs. They had designed and built a four-engine bomber, the Pe-8, but only built 93 of them. As an operational consideration, they judged bombers to be inferior to artillery, at least as far as their needs were concerned.

The events of the European Theater of WWII would cause them to re-evaluate this position. German industry was being relentlessly hammered, both by RAF Bomber Command at night, and by the U.S. 8th Air Force by day. As the Soviet armies advanced westward, they saw for themselves the effects of this bombardment. And then, in August of 1945, a new weapon appeared on the scene that changed everything.

The United States had the ultimate weapon, and the means with which to deliver it. By 1949, the Soviet Union also had this ultimate weapon -- but still lacked a reliable means with which to deliver it. They wanted -- they needed -- a bomber like the Boeing B-29 that could deliver an atomic bomb, but didn't yet have one. They wanted -- they needed -- a bomber with intercontinental range, like the Convair B-36, but didn't have that, either.

Desperation, as it often does, drove them to transcendence.

Another new weapon made its first appearance in the closing days of WWII: the long-range ballistic missile. The United States was able to secure Wernher von Braun and most of his engineering team, but the Soviets were able to capture a fair number of scientists, engineers, and technicians who couldn't run West fast enough. They were able to give critical advice on the finer points of liquid-fuel engines, boot-strapping the work of the Soviets' own home-grown experts, Korolev and Glushko.

The American missile program never had that kind of feverish priority. Von Braun had work from the Army to keep him busy, most of the time; but still he had plenty of time on his hands to fool around with things that, strictly speaking, weren't in his portfolio. His famous series for Collier's comes to mind, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell. For one, America always had the means to deliver nuclear weapons on target, as demonstrated in August 1945. And for another ... American missiles didn't need to be all that big.

Which brings us to the other disadvantage ... American warheads were smaller.

The exact details are still stamped excruciatingly secret, but Edward Teller had figured out a way to shoehorn atomic weapons into improbably small and light packages. That meant that for the same yield, an American warhead was lighter and more compact than its Soviet counterpart. This meant that, to throw it a similar distance, the American warhead needed a much smaller rocket than did the Soviet one. So, the Soviets were forced to build huge rockets, first because they lacked any meaningful strategic bomber capability, and second because their warheads were huge, heavy behemoths.

These disadvantages, paradoxically, turned into advantages in the early years of the Space Race. Their bigger, more powerful rockets made it far easier for them to loft spacecraft into Earth orbit. That advantage would win them several early firsts: in 1957, the first artificial satellite; in 1961, the first man in orbit; in 1964, the first multi-man orbital spacecraft; and in 1965 the first spacewalk.

The glory days didn't last. They hit a run of bad luck, starting in 1967, with the loss of Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1. The humiliation continued in 1968, when they were forced to watch as spectators as an American crew made the first circumnavigation of the Moon, and was made complete in 1969 with the successful landing and return of Apollo 11.

But in another sense, Korolev got the last laugh, after all. Its rivals are all long since retired. The B-29 and B-36 only survive in museums, the American Atlas V only shares a name with its predecessor, but the R-7 variants still soldier on, carrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station.

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXIX

Granted, it's not a true, free-flying jetpack, but it'll do. It'll do.

MSRP is a low, low $139,500. Get one now, while supplies last!