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1938 - A Year To Remember by Harry Turner

— by Harry Turner

It was a truly crowded year for me. I visited Leeds SFA HQ during March, together with fellow Manchester fan Stan Davies, I visited Liverpool, I attending the second national convention of the British Science Fiction Association in London, I was drawing covers for Novae Terrae, the monthly journal of the Science Fiction Association...

In Leeds, I made the acquaintance of Frank Dobby among the resident fans, finding a common interest in Surrealism; then a hot topic after the Surrealist exhibition of 1938 when Dali nearly suffocated in his diving suit...
   We were also lucky to meet Maurice Hanson, up from London with Ken Chapman. As I'd already been roped in by Maurice to provide some cover designs for Novae Terrae, which he edited, we had lots to talk about.

1938 was the year when control of the Science Fiction Association passed from Leeds to London, on the occasion of the first national fan convention held in London on April 10th at the AOD Hall. I travelled down with Fred Tozer for the great occasion, and took a bundle of artwork.

I met Bob Truax back in July 1938 when he was guest speaker at a London meeting of the British Interplanetary Society. At that time I was secretary of the Manchester Interplanetary Society and he was Midshipman Robert C. Truax of the US Navy, conveniently over here on a training cruise, and raring to tell us about recent research work with rocket motors he'd carried out at the experimental station on Chesapeake Bay. He turned up in uniform, smart, confident, in his early twenties, bringing data and equipment, and bowling us over with his know-how and infectious enthusiasm.

British Interplanetary Society members, 1938

Group at the home of R.A. Smith, in Chingford , then HQ of the British Interplanetary Society, on Sunday 17 July 1938. left to right: J.H. Edwards, Eric Burgess, Harry Turner, Guest of Honour Midshipman Robert C. Truax, USN, R.A. Smith, Maurice Hanson & Arthur C. Clarke

At that time Britain lagged behind when it came to serious support for rocketry and the prospect of space travel. While extensive work had been carried out by groups in Europe and the States during the twenties and thirties, practical experimental work here was hindered by a law dating back to 1875, which effectively prohibited any rocket tests by members of the general public.
   The British Interplanetary Society cautiously confined its activities to theoretical matters, so it was exhilarating to hear from Bob about the advantages of training at the Annapolis Academy, with machine-shop facilities on hand, and being able to indulge his strictly do-it-yourself approach to rocket motor design problems.
   As one of a group of enthusiastic teenagers captivated by the idea of space travel, who formed the Manchester Interplanetary Society, I found myself on the wrong side of the law when we organised a meeting in 1937 to launch several experimental models of rockets built by members.
   One of the rockets exploded on launch. and we promptly found that our audience included several plain clothes detectives from the Explosives department of the local police authority. I mentioned this to Bob, and he laughed and confessed that when he was a boy in Alameda, California, he and a fellow Buck Rogers fan fired solid fuel test models of their own design. and most had exploded, but there had been no repercussions.
   When he won an appointment to the Naval Academy, where there was access to shop machinery, he spent all his time out of classes working in the machine shop. He'd been able to make a variety of thrust chambers, using liquid fuels. and test them out at the naval experimental station and found he'd made progress. None of them exploded.
   He told the meeting in detail of his research on cooling problems, kept the experts happy by answering questions on refractory linings used to line exhaust nozzles, and emphasised that nearly all the equipment was hand-built or adapted from whatever he could lay his hands on at the time. I came away from the meeting impressed by this pragmatic approach to problems.

There had been no Journal published that year, partly because the design plans for the British Interplanetary Society Cellular-Step Spaceship were still being finalised, and partly because of the need to build up an Experimental Research Fund.
   But there was some compensation for those unable to join in the heady delights of London meetings, in the form of monthly Bulletins, produced by those indefatigable publishers of the SFA organ. Novae Terrae – Clarke, Temple and Hanson – who took over the editorial and publicity duties from Ted Carnell.
   It was intended to carry more popular material of general interest to provincial members, who seemed neglected. News of the BIS spaceship design appeared later in the year, when the Society got all the publicity it could handle over the impracticality of its design. There was a lot of criticism about the ratio of theorising to practical experimentation behing so high. J.H. Edwards (described by A.C. Clarke as "the nearest thing to a mad scientist I have ever met outside fiction") was forever getting into arguments with the practical-minded R.A. Smith.
   The outbreak of war terminated all activities of the Society.

I was not entirely surprised, some 35 years later, to hear that Bob Truax was the moving spirit and technical backing for Evel Knievel's projected death-defying leap by rocket across the Snake River canyon. ■

from the Guardian, 22 May 1999

GRAND CANYON JUMP - Evel Knievel's son breaks record

Robbie Knievel, son of the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, became the first person to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorbike when he cleared a 60-metre (200ft) chasm to break his own distance record. Officials said Knievel travelled 68.4 metres (228ft), beating the record he set in the early 1990s by 1.5 metres. He crossed the canyon at its narrowest point, 600 metres above the floor at the Hualapai Indian reservation.
   Knievel, 37, careered off the ramp on landing but was not seriously injured.... His father wanted to jump the Grand Canyon but failed to get permission from the park authorities.

© Harry Turner, 2005.

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