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  • 0 Claude Shannon

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 30-04-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I was pleased to see that Google chose on Saturday 30 April to celebrate the birth of Claude Shannon, one of the forgotten geniuses of the age of the computer. His name was unknown to me until I studied the history of the personal computer for my book Eureka: how invention happens (Yale 2015). I had been writing about another genius from an earlier era, George Boole, inventor of "Boolean logic" when I discovered that it was Shannon who had made practical use of this to create the digital age. This is what I had to say about him:  "It was a young American who realised that Boolean algebra could be used to process information electronically. Claude Shannon's thesis, written in 1937, had the unexciting title A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits but came to be regarded as the most influential paper of twentieth-century electronics. As with so much innovation at the time, it was a proposal for solving some serious problems with the telephone networks, which were becoming overloaded. Working for Bell Labs, Shannon used Boolean logic to devise a way of sending information in the form of pulses rather than waves. His revelation had come about because he had, most unusually, taken courses in both logic and electronics. In his history of the microprocessor, The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, T.R. Reid says of Shannon: 'If society allocated fame and fortune on the basis of intellectual merit, Claude Shannon would have been as rich and famous as any rock idol or football star.' Shannon was born in the small town of Gaylord , Michigan in 1916; his father was a judge and businessman and his mother the principal of the high school. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1936. From there he went to MIT, where he had the opportunity to work with Vannevar Bush on a computer rather like a semi-electronic version of Babbage's Differential Engine. Shannon became intrigued by the work of the relays and wrote his thesis on A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits; in it he drew on the logic of George Boole. This work alone, which he completed when he was twenty-two, would have been sufficient to gain him a prominent place in the history of electronics for it showed how Boolean symbolic logic could be used to analyse complex systems such as the switching systems of a telephone exchange.  Later, working at Bell Labs, he went on to propose a theory of communication in which all electronic information could be reduced to a common unit represented as a 1 or 0, what he called a "binary digit" soon shorted to "bit". This became the measure of a computer's memory: more bits, more memory. Though he did little to popularise his work, which is perhaps why he is not well known to the public (like a number of other prominent engineers he has no entry in the American Dictionary of Biography), Shannon is regarded as 'the father of the digital age'. He died aged eighty-four in 2001 after suffering from Alzheimer's for a number of years. His obituary in the London Times captured something of his eccentric character under the heading 'Playful genius who invented the bit, separated the medium from the message and laid the foundations for all digital communications'. [ex] To colleagues in the corridors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who used to warn each other about the unsteady advance of Shannon on his unicycle, it may have seemed improbable that he could remain serious for long enough to do any important work. Yet the unicycle was characteristic of his quirky thought processes, and became a topsy-turvy symbol of unorthodox progress towards unexpected theoretical insights ….  Like Charles Babbage, Shannon was known by his contemporaries as 'the Irascible Genius'. When he returned to MIT in 1958, he continued to threaten corridor-walkers on his unicycle, sometimes augmenting the hazard by juggling. No one was ever sure whether these activities were part of some new breakthrough or whether he just found them amusing. He worked, for example, on a motorised pogo-stick, which he claimed would mean he could abandon the unicycle so feared by his colleagues …." It was Shannon's revolutionary information theory that provided the logic for the digital age.

  • 0 A surgeon thrown out of Trafalgar Square

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-03-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    While the imperialist Cecil Rhodes survived a recent campaign to have his statue removed from an Oxford University college, a little known bid to have the statue of an internationally renowned doctor returned to its rightful pedestal in London has been continuous for more than 150 years. Edward Jenner was the country surgeon who proposed in 1798 that a safer way of protecting against smallpox was to inoculate with a disease which affected cattle rather than the smallpox virus itself. Though the Royal Society refused to publish his proposal when it appeared as private paper it became an international sensation. Jenner called his miracle medicine variola vaccinae meaning literally "smallpox of the cow". Its use soon became known as vaccination. In Jenner's day it meant only inoculation against smallpox but was later applied to immunization against a great variety of infections in honour of his pioneering work. There were problems with vaccination as there was no scientific understanding of how it worked. Many doctors were opposed to it and Jenner's reputation rose and fell during his lifetime. When he died in 1823 friends and supporters asked for him to be interred in Westminster Abbey but the request was turned down. He was buried in the parish in Gloucestershire where his father had been a pastor and he had his medical practice. Nobody from London attended. From the earliest days of Jenner's promotion of vaccination his fame was far greater abroad, in Europe and America in particular, than in Britain. When in the 1850s the sculptor William Calder Marshall proposed to a group of doctors that he create a memorial to Jenner they were enthusiastic but had difficulty in raising the necessary funds. The money was not found until an appeal was made to the medical profession abroad. The United States, which had introduced vaccination for smallpox soon after Jenner's 1798 paper was published, made the largest donation, followed by Russia and in third place, Great Britain. When in 1858 it was learned in Parliament that permission had been given by Queen Victoria to provide a plinth for Jenner in Trafalgar Square there were immediate protests. In the Commons Thomas Slingsby Duncombe MP was reported as saying: "Cowpox was a very good thing in its proper place, but it had no business among the naval and military heroes of the country. Everybody who heard of the statue spoke of it with ridicule and disgust……he trusted that the House would pass a resolution calling upon them not to pollute or desecrate the ground by erecting a statue there to the promulgator or cowpox throughout the country." Clearly Duncombe was anti-vaccination, but the chief objection expounded in the newspapers was that Trafalgar Square was reserved for military heroes and Jenner had no right to be there. Jenner's statue, covered before its unveiling, had been placed next to that of Sir Charles James Napier an army officer, and a number of newspapers remarked on the incongruity of a mere benefactor of mankind being afforded the same status as a brave leader who risked his life for his country. " Why should Dr Jenner be found in such formidable society? " asked the Times. Nevertheless, the unveiling of Calder Marshall's statue went ahead in May 1858 with Prince Albert performing the inauguration ceremony. It remained there, despite many objections, until early in February 1862. The fact that Prince Albert had approved of the statue being in Trafalgar almost certainly extended Jenner's residence there: his removal would have been seen as a snub to Royalty. Albert died on 14 December 1861 and Queen Victoria went into mourning. Just a few weeks later there were reports of a mysterious appearance of a statue of Jenner on a new site to the west of Trafalgar Square. "During the last few days vistors to Kensington-gardens have been surprised by the appearance of the statue of Dr Jenner, of small-pox vaccination celebrity standing – or rather sitting– with its natural air of placidity on a new pedestal……This statue,it will be remembered, was some time ago, promoted to a distinguished position near the Nelson Column… but it has been furtively removed to Kensingon-gardens without any cause for its 'translation' being assigned". No fuss was made about this quiet act of demotion: most newspapers just remarked on the fact that Jenner gone from Trafalgar Square. The satirical magazine Punch could not resist publishing a few puns on "spots" including a little verse: England's ingratitude still blotsThe escutcheon of the brave and freeI saved you many million spots,And now you grudge one spot for me. For many years Jenner's statue was ignored. But his reputation has risen in recent years to perhaps its most illustrious level. The statue is smartened up and has a proper dedication on the plinth: Edward Jenner MD FRS1749-1823Country Doctor who benefited Mankind In Jenner's time smallpox was a dreaded disease worldwide and caused many deaths particularly of children. Survivors were left badly scarred and often blinded or deformed. In 1769 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps with cowpox and showed that the boy was immune to smallpox. He predicted the worldwide eradication of smallpox. This was finally achieved in 1980. So far efforts to have him re-installed in Trafalgar Square have failed despite the backing of the British Medical Journal and a culture in which a medical man with a world-wide reputation might be regarded by the public and in Parliament as a good deal more worthy of adulation than a military leader.

  • 0 Harold Wilson's Cigar

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 12-11-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    All the fuss about Jeremy Corbyn's image has brought to a mind an incident from long ago when smoking was quite acceptable in public and a puff on a pipe could be regarded as avuncular and reassuring. In the run-up to the general election in February 1974 I was given an assignment by the group of newspapers I worked for to follow Harold Wilson and his entourage in the hope of getting an interview. I sat with fellow reporters below a platform somewhere in south London ( Putney I think ) while Wilson complained bitterly about the political bias of the Press, stabbing the air with his pipe stem. He puffed away the whole evening so that by the time the meeting was closed the place was wreathed in smoke. I tried to get my interview backstage but a BBC Panorama crew got him into a car to drive back to his home in Lord North Street, Westminster. I managed to get a lift in the car behind with Mary, his wife. I recall her worrying about whether their son Giles would have a hot water bottle when they all went to Huddersfield, Wilson's constituency. It was February after all. When we got to Lord North Street Wilson had gone upstairs. I think it was his sister who came downstairs in a dressing gown. It was around midnight by then. There was excitement because the following days newspapers which had just been delivered headlined the fact that Enoch Powell was urging everyone to vote Labour. After a few minutes Wilson appeared and stood at the bottom of the stairs. He called across the room: "You can interview me if you don't mention this". It was a large Havana cigar, not yet lit, held between two fingers. Meekly, I nodded my consent to self-imposed censorship. I followed Wilson upstairs where he quizzed me about my politics and I rolled out my Labour credentials: chiefly the fact that, during elections, my grandmother in Northumberland provided the Party committee room in her little terraced house. We chatted briefly and inconsequentially and I have no memory of what I wrote but I am sure if I could find it again it would be banal. Wilson asked if I smoked and when I said I did he got his "bag carrier", a chap called Alf Richman, to cut a cigar for me. All his public life Wilson was a pipe smoker: the image of the cigar was too potent for a staunch Labour man. It has been said, too, that the pipe came in handy for interviews as he would relight it whenever he was asked a difficult questions giving himself time to consider his answer. Now, of course, the pipe would be banished. I wonder when was the last time a senior politician has been seen smoking in public.

  • 0 Corbyn and the Pseudo Baldwin

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 06-11-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium. At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the "Pseudo-Baldwin." When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ( Istanbul ) in 1204 they made one of their number, Baldwin IX, Count of Flounders as Emperor of a large area around the city. In less than a year Bulgarians invaded and put him to death. Back in Flanders Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess but she could not resist the power of Philip Augustus of France and the lands she hoped to rule were annexed by the French. This domination was resented and when Philip died in 1223 the scene was set for an uprising. " At this point, " Cohn wrote "the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour." In the popular imagination the slain Baldwin became superhuman "half demon half angel". A belief arose that he had not been killed at all but had been serving a penance imposed on him by the Pope for some terrible misdeed, living as a wandering beggar and hermit. Now he was close to expiation of that penance and would soon be back amongst his people. This belief grew when a stranger appeared announcing Baldwin’s imminent return. Sure enough a begging hermit appeared looking the part with his long hair and flowing beard. Tracked down to a hut he had made of branches in a forest in the region of Valenciennes, France, close to the border of what is now Belgium, he revealed that he was the long lost Baldwin and that he had a year to go on his penance. Cohn wrote: " Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation." Not everyone was convinced. Joanna, Baldwin's daughter, demanded to see the man who was said to be her father. But the Pseudo Baldwin refused her invitation and instead gathered an army together to take over her territories by force. By now a Christ-like figure people fought for a lock of his hair, a scrap of his clothing or a chance to sip his bathwater. He was crowned not only Count of Flanders and Hainaut but Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica.. The poor worshipped him believing he would bring them riches. He began to believe that he really was an Emperor and when King Louis VIII of France invited him to visit he accepted. This was his downfall. Louis had agreed a treaty of alliance with the banished Countess Joanna who knew very well this was not her father but an imposter. In conversation with the Pseudo Baldwin it soon became apparent that he could remember nothing about events that the real Count of Flanders would have known. He was, in reality, a serf by the name of Bertrand of Ray from Burgundy, who had gone on a Crusade as a minstrel and was a notorious imposter. At his audience with King Louis he realised he had been unmasked and he made a run for it. But the Pseudo Baldwin was no longer a wandering hermit but de-throned Emperor and he was soon captured and hung. This is just one of many such stories told in Cohn's book. Why should these medieval tales be evocative of the the elevation of humble Corbyn to the front rank of politics? He is not an imposter, of course, but there is something of the "Sleeping Emperor" about him, a long lost soul who has suddenly and miraculously come back to life. The belief that he might turn the clock back and create the kind of utopian Britain left-wingers dreamed of in the 1980s has a touch of the " pursuit of the millennium" about it. And there is a feeling that his celebrity will be short lived and it will not be long before he is denounced as a liability by his own followers and returned to his position as a recalcitrant, humble backbencher: "hung out to dry" as the saying goes.

  • 0 It's probably on page three

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 14-09-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible. They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was the problem. Flicking through the pages they had presented to me and wondering how on earth I was going to help them in the brief hour of the tutorial I found myself relating something my father had said years earlier and which, if properly understood, could be a way to arrange their thoughts and lend their essay some coherence. What they needed was not a firm conclusion but a clear idea at the outset what their essay was about. If they could find that then everything else would fall into place. My father was an academic who had a reputation as a fine essayist and reviewer. The longest pieces he wrote were no more than three thousand words but he laboured at them for days and sometimes weeks. He made extensive hand written notes before he moved to his ancient portable typewriter to begin his first draft. I remember asking him how he decided what the opening paragraph of an essay should be. Had he worked it out in advance? He thought about it and said: "I usually discover what I want to say on page three. Everything before that is just dross which I have to get out of the way." This casual remark my father made years ago became for me a mantra in my writing tutorials. I liked the fact that it puzzled the students at first so that I needed to explain it. What it emphasized was the fact that whenever you begin to put down in writing the thoughts milling about in your head you start a dialogue with one part of your brain which has all the information and another part which is attempting put it into some kind of order. What was fluid is now there in black and white, solidified as it were. You can therefore examine it closely. In my experience those first attempts to get down what you think are always clumsy but I don’t throw them away: I keep going. I always find I am attempting to say the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way. Eventually I get a sense of what is not working and discard certain ideas and bring in new thoughts. It feels like a process of discovery which can only unfold because I emptying my thoughts onto the page. With luck, after many attempts, I will write a paragraph which gets at the essence of what I want to say. This is what I have come to think of as the "page three" revelation. With a number of students I was able to flick through their draft essay and to find, some way into their text, a “page three” paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised how often it worked. With the student sitting alongside I would take that paragraph and put it at the beginning of their essay jettisoning everything that went before. We could then work together to smarten up their opening paragraph confident that we were now "getting off on the right foot." A student of English Literature suggested that my father’s "secret of page three" was perhaps a bit like E. M. Forster’s much quoted "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" The student believed Forster was describing his own approach to literary discovery and at first I thought it might be a witty way of encapsulating the belief in the my father’s belief in the revelations of page three. In fact, Forster was writing tongue in cheek, gently satirising an approach to creative fiction in his book Aspects of the Novel. When the French novelist Andre Gide said he would discover what his fiction was about in the process of writing he was no different from an anecdotal elderly lady, taunted by her nieces about the meaning of logic, who exclaimed "how do I know think until I see what I say." If that were to read: "how do I know what I think until I see what I have written" then I think I would go along with it. All writing, whether of fiction or factual books and articles ,involves a certain amount of "discovery". In the case of the non-fiction books I write it is about finding a way of encapsulating what you want to say in a creative way. The magic of page three says you cannot achieve that without finding out what you think by examining what you have written and throwing away the dross. This is not the same as editing, which comes at a later stage when you are happy with the structure of what you are writing and you are discarding text which you feel is irrelevant or re-working what you find clumsy or not as eloquent as you would like. I found I could not begin to edit student essays if it was obvious they had no idea what the whole thing was about. Vocabulary and grammar were irrelevant. What I looked for was always something that might serve as the “secret of page three” and if it was not there I would go looking for it by "interviewing" the student about what they had discovered in their research and what conclusions they had drawn. When you teach you rarely discover if you have been of any help but I like to think that somewhere a former student of mine at Queen Mary College has benefited from my father’s casual remark and looks to page three of their drafts to discover what it is they really want to say.  

  • 0 Sex in Blackpool

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 16-05-2013
    0.00 of 0 votes

    One of the brief fifteen minute talks I gave recently at the Southbank Centre as part of its The Rest is Noise festival was on the extraordinary organisation Mass Observation which was founded in 1937 in London. Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, Humphrey Jennings a film maker and Tom Harrisson a self-styled anthropologist decided, as part of a project to monitor the mood of the nation, that the English working classes should be studied as if they were a tribe of savages. Harrisson, a keen bird watcher had got a taste for social observation while living with cannibals in the South Pacific and on his return to England camped in Bolton, Lancashire to live amongst the natives. Known to Mass Observation as "Worktown" it became the focus of some intense scrutiny when volunteer "observers" arrived to study the social habits of the locals. The idea was to publish the results in a series of books but only one, The Pub and the People, got into print before the war broke out. Which is a shame, for Mass Observation's astonishing and eye opening study of the sexual antics of Worktown at play in Blackpool in 1937, which is held in the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University, has only been peeped at by researchers.  However, a taste of it can be found in a book by Gary Cross called Worktowners and happily the survey was the subject of an article by social historian Peter Gurney published in 1997 in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. My piece here is based entirely on Gurney's article which begins with a quote from one of the Blackpool observers, John Summerfield: "Walk about a bit; by now observer Wickham and myself are convinced that it isn't just bad luck on our part, it's true, all the girls are ugly, not some but everyone. . . " The following is a description of the unorthodox approach to Anglo anthropology taken by the team of observers who set out to mingle with the Blackpool crowd: "When we began work in Blackpool we expected to see copulation everywhere. What we found was petting, feeling, masturbating one another. Observer units combed the sands at all hours, crawled under the piers and hulkings, pretended to be drunk and fell in heaps on located sand couples to feel what they were doing exactly, while others hung over the sea wall and the railings for hours watching couples in their hollowed-out sand pits below." As Peter Gurney summed up this enterprise : "Thus, Mass-Observation systematized voyeurism and legitimated it as scientific 'observation.' Observers set out, we are told, 'with wild cries.' Eventually the quest was successful. All cases of necking seen in one night were recorded at the height of the season (length of contact was timed with a stopwatch). Of a total of 234 couples, 198 cases of 'em-bracing' were recorded, but only thirty-six couples were lying down. The results were tabulated and it was noted that: 'The most significant fact is that against 234 recorded cases of love-making skilled observers could find only four cases of copulation. It is difficult to say whether this result is not biased on the high side since an Observer was himself responsible for one of the cases considered. 'The observer was one of the few working-class participants, Jack Longford, who sent in a full and lurid report of his sexual encounter (standing up, against a wall) with a married woman from Leeds whose husband was a neurasthenic and who had come to Blackpool in search of 'fun.''"  What sort of people were these mass observers? Mostly lower middle class by all accounts and perhaps, as Gurney suggests, the kind of disaffected intellectuals described by George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: " Since about 1930 everyone describable as an "intellectual" has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed or falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be "clever" was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties." The founder members of Mass Observation, Harrisson and Madge, were brought together by the letters page of the left wing New Statesman and Nation. A schoolmaster wrote to say he would have liked to have known what the general public thought of the "sexual situation" of the abdication of Edward Vlll and Charles Madge responded with a reply under the heading " Anthropology at home" that an organisation to find out had just been formed in London. Alongside Madge's letter was a poem by Tom Harrisson, the only one he ever had published, with the title Coconut Moon about the philosophy of cannibals. Harrison contacted Madge and in no time the new organisation Mass Observation was despatching an enthusiastic cabal of film makers, poets and literary critics to Bolton and Blackpool. When war broke out Harrisson kept Mass Observation going and worked with the Ministry of Information to monitor the mood of the nation as the bombing began. Madge and others thought this was a betrayal of their detachment from government, but Harrisson and his observers did not sign the Official Secrets Act and in time he produced a vivid account of the experience of the Blitz in London and the bombings in other towns. After the war the organisation kept going with income from market research and eventually found its home at Sussex University. One strand of its "anthropology at home" was to ask observers to keep a diary for one day, the first being the Coronation Day on 12 May 1937. This has recently been revived and Mass Observation is, to some extent, back in business.