1951 Through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1951.

The Korean War continued in 1951. The most notable episode, from a British point of view, was the action on the Imjin River just before my birthday. On the 22nd of April, a battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and a mortar unit of the Royal Artillery - about 750 men - were holding a tactically important position controlling the road south from a river crossing chosen by the Chinese. They were attacked by three Chinese divisions - maybe 27,000 men. If the Chinese had got through quickly, they could have outflanked a large part of the UN forces, so the Glosters were ordered to hang on at all costs, which they did with fanatical bravery. They held the position until the 25th, when they eventually ran out of men and ammunition, and what remained of them made a break for it. Of the 750 men, less than 70 made it back to the UN lines. It has to be said that the Chinese fought bravely too, suffering losses totally disproportionate to the size of the defending force.

No visible means of support.
I can remember hearing the anguished voices of war correspondents on the radio those three days as they described the frantic attempts of the UN forces to relieve the Glosters, to no avail. There can have been few men with an accurate understanding of what happened there even on the 25th April 1951, and there may be none now.

The North Koreans and Chinese advanced south, and retook Seoul. Then the Americans, flattening the city in the process, retook it, and forced the enemy back to the 38th parallel. A stalemate set in, and by June peace talks had started, though they were to drag on for a further two years.

This was the year of the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition held mostly in London on the south bank of the Thames. It was nominally the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 - an echo of the glory of empire. In this year its primary function was more to buck up the British population, and give a feeling of recovery and progress.

I remember it mostly for one iconic construction, the Skylon. This was a structure consisting of a pointy cigar shaped aluminium body about 300 ft tall, suspended on steel cables. You saw the image everywhere. It looked a bit like your typical alien spacecraft.

Some wit at the time described it as "A tall thin structure with no visible means of support, rather like the British economy".

The Labour government elected the year before with a majority of 6 seats found the situation unworkable, and called another election in October hoping to increase their majority. This ploy failed, and instead, the Conservatives were elected, also with a tiny majority, and Winston Churchill was Prime Minister again.

In 1951 around my birthday, the US conducted a series of nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific called Operation Greenhouse. One of these explosions - code named 'George' - was the first nuclear explosion shown to induce some degree of nuclear fusion. Basically it was a test of a large 'atomic' fission bomb into which an additional experimental component containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium - fusion fuels - had been introduced.

The idea of this experiment was that during the initial stages of the bomb's explosion, before the core of the device disintegrated, the deuterium/tritium mixture would be heated to a high enough temperature and pressure that fusion would occur. The neutron burst resulting from the fusion event would have a different energy spectrum than the neutrons arising from the fission event, and would therefore be detectable.

Such neutrons were indeed detected, and this result was sufficient to prove that in practice as well as theory, nuclear fusion could be initiated by an existing nuclear device.

At about the same time, a mathematician called Stanislaw Ulam had come up with the idea that a fusion ('hydrogen') bomb could consist of separate components whereby the X radiation from a fission ('atomic') bomb component could be used to compress and heat a separate fusion component to the degree where it would detonate.

This idea was seized upon by the better known physicist Edward Teller, and taking into account the results from the George test, set in motion an irrevocable development effort that would have profound consequences for the second half of the 20th century, and presumably into the unforeseeable future. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that electronic computers had been around for a couple of years, the numerical analysis used to establish these conclusions was still done using desktop electro-mechanical calculating machines and slide rules.

The first commercially available computers began to be available at this time. In the USA, Remington Rand delivered the first UNIVAC, and would eventually manufacture 46. Ferranti in the UK made 10 of its Mark 1 computers starting the same year.

Phone box.

Typical phone.
On November 11 this year an AT&T subscriber in Englewood, New Jersey called the Mayor of Alameda in California, using AT&T's Direct Distance Dialing feature, heralding in the characteristic US 10 digit telphone numbers like 212 555 1212. Prior to then, a long distance call had to be connected by a sequence of telephone operators accross the country each inserting a jack plug into an array of sockets, and it could take half an hour to connect.

It's probably appropriate at this point to describe what telephone equipment was like in the UK at this time. Strange though it now seems, telephone communications were at this time provided by the post office - the GPO. This responsibilty derived from the fact that until his year, telephones had been regarded in law as being a kind of telegraph. Telegrams - printed messages sent by telegraph - had been included in the GPO portfolio because the post office had the existing capability to deliver the paper message over 'the last mile'. A Telephone Act became law in August of this year that for the first time recognized the telephone as a separate entity, and enabled the responsible government minister - the Postmaster-General - to set rental charges for telephones and associated equipment by statutory regulation.

Now, and in the earlier years of my childhood, my exposure to telephones was limited to what you could see in a British 'Phone Box' - phone booth in US terms. GPO mail boxes were traditionally red, and phone boxes had followed suit. The design you see in the picture was introduced in 1936, and would be around for several decades. Inside it there was a telephone similar to the one in the other picture - attached firmly to the structure, plus a coin-box mechanism to pay for calls. The phone had a carbon microphone, and an electromagnetic earphone, roughly a small loudspeaker. There was a rotary dial to select a phone number, which sent sequences of 1 to 10 pulses over the phone line by rapidly connecting and disconnecting the line as it rotated from the selected number to its rest position. You could simulate this rather unreliably by tapping out the number on the contact under the handset cradle, and it was possible in some cases to make free phone calls that way.

The phone was connected by a twisted pair of wires to the telephone exchange - in my case, this would have been in Bingley. And you could use the dial to connect directly to other phones on the same exchange via an electromagnetic switching system driven by the dialling pulses. To reach phones that were further away, you had to contact an operator at the local exchange, which you could do by dialling a single zero (actually 10 pulses). The operator (usually she - such jobs had been taken over by women during WW2, and had remained to a large extent as their domain) would then connect manually to the required remote exchange, where she would ask another operator to dial your target number as a local call, and then manually complete the connection.

The call was connected between the two exchanges either by twisted pair lines for short distances, or by coaxial cables that 'multiplexed' a number of calls simultaneously over four wires (two for each way) or a coaxial cable. Such connections were driven by vacuum tube electronics.

We will keep up with phone technology in future years as it develops.

Other Earth-shaking inventions of the year included Superglue, power steering, and the video tape recorder.


In Cottingley, our next class was Mrs. Graham's class. Mrs. Graham was probably about 20, but she was a grown up as far as I was concerned. I developed a secret crush on her that lasted for a couple of years. She liked to use the cane, and she beat me with it in front of the class once for something or other - mildly kinky in retrospect! It was not clear that there was a Mr. Graham. A handsome young man whose name, as far as I can remember, was Jim Ireland, used to pop into school occasionally for a quick conversation with her, then he'd flash a charming smile at us all and leave. Perhaps the 'Mrs.' was just an honorary title in her capacity as a teacher.

New residents moved into houses in the new estates, so our school got new middle class children from there. This was balanced by a further influx of Bingleyites from the council estate. I can't remember much about what we did in Mrs Graham's class. Probably the beginnings of natural and national history, writing exercises, and simple arithmetic problem solving - if a bath tap delivers 2 gallons of water a minute and so on, and so on.

I think that I was much into reading at that point, but beyond much of the Biggles series, I can not tell you exactly what I read, I think my reading gravitated toward nature and the details of the plants and animals in my environment. I probably started to visit the grown-ups library upstairs in the latter part of that school year, but I would not have got books from there at that point because I didn't have a grown-up's library ticket.

Mill steam engine.

I know that I explored the central areas of Bingley. There was an area, not far from the library on Main Street, that was quite industrial. One street - imaginatively named Mill Street - had a couple of interesting features.

There was a large joinery works, with noisy machines chewing up wood to produce window frames or whatever, and creating huge piles of sawdust and shavings.

Further up there was a mill that was driven by a steam engine and the door to the engine room was usually open, so you could see the monster in operation, and the fireman shovelling coal into its boilers. When the boilers were satiated he would wander round the engine with an oil can applying oil to presumably critical bits. At the same mill, if the appropriate door was open I could look into the weaving shed and see the looms doing their noisy methodical work, shuttles flying backward and forward.

At this time, my dad had formed a business partnership with two other men he used to work with, to do contract wool sorting.

That way he could make more money when there was plenty of work available, but of course he was subject to fluctuations in the trade, and there could be lean times as well. Sometimes in the summer holidays he'd take me with him for a day. It wasn't very exciting, but I enjoyed climbing about on the bales, and jumping up and down on top of the wool to pack it down in them.

Every working surface in the place was covered in a thick layer of lanolin, the fatty waterproofing substance that occurs in sheep's wool. It gave the place a very characteristic, but not unpleasant smell.

American in Paris poster.

In the US, the award winner was "An American in Paris", a romantic musical comedy directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The film is set in Paris, and inspired by Gershwin' music of the same name. Box office wise it did not do particularly well, the leaders in that respect being "Quo Vadis" and Disney's "Alice in Wonderland".

Another popular movie was "The Great Caruso", about the famous tenor. I believe that my mother, who was quite into Italian opera arias, took me to see it, though I don't have any recollection of what it was about.

Big hit records in the US were "Cry" by Johnnie Ray, establishing this singer as a favourite heartthrob,

and "How High the Moon" by Les Paul & Mary Ford, a guitar virtuoso and singer couple.

British recordings were almost totally absent as chart toppers in these early 50's years. This year the only one to make it was "Beloved, Be Faithful" by Teddy Johnson. I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

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