Delivery in nine days: gut, Senhor?20 December 2000
Every now and then there is a surge of interest in hydrogen as the ideal fuel for the future. Visionaries have argued that the piped or otherwise conveyed gas should be used as a ‘protonic energy vector’, replacing cable-conducted electricity. They admit that the flammability of the element is a hazard but are undeterred by the airship disasters of the early twentieth century. The hydrogen in those cases was of course the lifting gas, not the engine fuel.
Airships also enjoy waves of enthusiasm. For example, their revival for cargo-carrying was eagerly canvassed in Britain around the time of the twentieth century’s ‘energy crises’, when the petroleum-exporting countries created artificial shortages for politico-economic reasons. One of the UK aeronautical engineers’ brave ideas was that airships could be advantageously employed as fuel tankers.
The latest proposal for an airship renaissance has come from Germany, where the pioneering work and achievements of Count Zeppelin (some of whose dirigible creations bombed England during the 1914-1918 world war) have lodged in his nation’s mythology. CargoLifter AG, a company that was founded in 1996, raised many millions of new capital on the Frankfurt stock exchange this year to proceed with plans for a fleet of 160 tonne payload vessels to carry freight at airspeeds of about 90km/h.
The venturers seem particularly keen on such cargoes as power station turbines. They have instanced the movement of generating plant from central Germany to Brazil. This would require a fraction of the time taken by surface transport.
Of course they have specified helium rather than hydrogen for buoyancy but it is not impossible to imagine that some future hero will be inspired to suggest that such airships be used as tankers in the new global hydrogen economy, getting their lift from helium only for return journeys. Non-heroes acquainted with the vivid pictures of history’s airship catastrophes would probably prefer to travel on the return flights only, leaving the hydrogen-lifted outward voyages to autopilots and robot ground crews.
As a non-hero myself I should quite like to complete an entire long-distance round trip in one of the new airships, if (as I hope) all obstacles are surmounted and they do start going into operation in two or three years’ time. I should be travelling (again as I hope) with just the plant and machinery of a power station in the hold for cargo and just helium in the envelope for uplift.
Bubbling stock markets demote us
Many English-speaking stock-market players have taken to using the word technology in their own peculiar way. Likewise, to different extents, may have some of their fellows taken to using the cognate word in languages other than English, eg technologie in French and German and technologia in Italian. Certainly in financial English the term is being attached to a creature one might describe as a cross between those semi-mythical beasts, high technology and information technology.
Technology was derived from Greek roots to mean systematic study of industrial arts. Some dictionaries have defined it with emphasis on manufacturing. Others have broadened its scope to cover engineering and applied science generally.
As latterly employed in financespeak the word is part of a trinity that has been hailed as ‘the new economy’. In this, the so-called TMT ventures have at times overshadowed all other enterprises. The TMT (technology, media and telecommunications) ventures soared to unprecendented capitalisations at unprecedented rates, and even best-earning established enterprises were relegated to ‘old economy’ status. Binned by the ‘new economists’ with the allegedly senescent ‘smokestack’ industries was, of course, our own dear power sector.
In the bin were many mature undertakings that have continued to prosper by exploiting their systematic study of industrial arts yet have underperformed relatively on the stock markets. Bewilderingly, the new economists ‘explained’ that these undertakings’ stocks had fallen out of favour because they were not technology investments.
How sad to see a useful word so abused. But I dare hope that the wider world will not adopt this financial patois. Perhaps collapse of the TMT stock market bubble, or dispersal of some of the froth, either of which may euphemistically be described as ‘market correction’, will be followed by terminological correction too.