Category Archives: energy

Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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Two Major River Projects in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 115-116:

The history of such projects in China has two different aspects. The country has been controlling and harnessing water for centuries—no other civilization on earth has such a long and successful history of turning rivers to man’s use. The development of central Sichuan province was originally sparked by the construction of Dujiangyan, a brilliantly designed irrigation project that was constructed twenty-three centuries ago and even today still functions perfectly, turning the Chengdu Basin into one of the most fertile rice-growing regions in the country. Even the Yangtze has been tamed before, albeit on a much smaller scale; the Gezhou Dam was completed in 1981 on a site downstream from the location of the current project.

But there is also the history of Henan province, where heavy rains in 1975 caused sixty-two modern dams to fall like dominoes, one after another, and 230,000 people died. Although the scale of that particular disaster was unique, the poor engineering was less unusual: 3,200 Chinese dams have burst since 1949. In this [= 20th] century, the failure rate of Chinese dams is 3.7 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in the rest of the world.

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Samurai in San Francisco, 1860

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 119-121:

The International Hotel stood on the corner of Jackson and Kearney Streets in the center of the city. When the samurai alighted in front of the lobby, their strange appearance attracted crowds of spectators, who must have watched their every move. “One wore a light blue gown and trowsers the colors of the sky at sunset, spangled, starred and barred with gold and crimson,” reported the Daily Evening Bulletin on March 20. Each man displayed on his jacket his family crest in white “circular, oval, or square patches,” which were “of an import quite unknown to us.” And each wore his long and short swords in the polished scabbards at his left hip, “almost horizontally.” One of them “carried a fan [in his right hand], in his left a walking cane… Almost every man wore sandals, generally [made] of grass.”

The Bulletin reported on March 19 that the Japanese “through the interpreters kept up such sort of conversation as they could. Fortunately, [California] Governor [John] Downey happened to be in town, and was early at the door. The Japanese could hardly believe that such a modest, unassuming, quiet little man could be a governor.” “It was necessary for … Brooke to explain repeatedly that this was the real Governor, before they could believe it,” reported the Daily Alta California on the same day. “They surveyed him from head to foot, and looked at the door again and again to see the retinue of attendants whom they thought ought to be following him.”

Katsu Kaishū, for his part, made a grand impression on the San Franciscans, who discerned in him a likeness to the former explorer, Gold Rush millionaire, California senator, Democratic candidate for president of the United States, and one of their greatest heroes. “The Captain of the corvette is a fine looking man, marvelously resembling in stature, form, and features Colonel [John Charles] Fremont, only that his eye is darker, and his mouth less distinctly shows the pluck of its owner,” the Bulletin commented on March 19.

By all accounts, the samurai entourage savored their sojourn of nearly two months in the burgeoning silver metropolis by the bay. Certain scenes come to mind. Katsu Kaishū posing for a tintype portrait at William Shew’s photographic studio on Montgomery Street—the two swords and family crest prominently displayed on his person, the hair tied back, the noble expression complemented by dark, determined eyes. The Japanese touring the waterfront, observing with keen interest a convoy vessel of San Francisco Bay and merchant ships from Panama. Kaishū noting that while the larger merchant ships are commanded by military men, captains of the smaller merchant vessels are civilians. Kaishū and Brooke visiting the “gorgeous redbrick” home of a certain naval officer, “the owner of the largest merchant ship, which he commands.” The samurai entourage visiting the San Francisco Baths on Washington Street, because, as the Daily Alta California reported on March 21, they are “desirous of trying the American style” of bathing. Riding the sand cars on the Market Street Railway, “a sight, which being new to them, they [view] with much interest.” Browsing in Kohler’s spacious piano warerooms and bazaar on Sansome Street, where they observe musical instruments, toys, and opera glasses, and inspecting the sewing machines at the Wheeler and Wilson’s store; Kaishū taking note of the gaslights that illuminated the streets after dark so that one may walk about town without a lantern.

And Kaishū marveled at the industrialization of the town—the clamor of steam-powered windmills from the factories; the mechanical saws; the newspaper printing presses; the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint, comprising a three-story red brick building on Commercial Street; the iron foundries where great hammers and iron plating were manufactured; the gas works on First Street; the “Vulcan works, where,” the Daily Alta reported on March 21, “luckily, castings were being run, and the trip-hammer, planing, and other machines were successfully set in motion.” And if Kaishū was enthralled by modern technology, imagine his astonishment at the sight of a factory worker openly engaged with a prostitute during break time, and his perplexity at being offered “the wife of a Mr. So-and-So for a certain amount per hour.”

Keeping to more practical matters, Kaishū later wrote:

All of this machinery was run on steam power, eliminating the need for manual labor and vastly facilitating [production]. Japan [meanwhile] had shunned foreign commerce. As long as we had the means to produce commodities sufficient for our own domestic consumption, we had no need for [such] machinery, but rather depended on the labor of our highly skilled artisans and craftsmen.

In the spring of 1860, then, as Katsu Kaishū walked the streets of San Francisco, he was poignantly reminded of the urgent need to “conduct international trade,” mechanize Japanese industry, and “change Japan’s antiquated ways.”

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Modernizing Hamhung, 1920s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 82-83:

When Japan took formal possession of Korea, in 1910, Hamhung was a medieval city steeped in just these sorts of myths and folk traditions. But in the mid-1920s, as the Japanese tightened their grip on the country, modernity began to arrive. A team of Japanese engineers struck upon an ambitious idea: They would build roads into the mountains northwest of Hamhung and harness the might of the Changjin River—Chosin in Japanese—an important tributary that flowed north toward the Yalu. In the highlands, some seventy road miles from Hamhung, the engineers would construct a large dam that would flood the valley floor. The Changjin waters would rise, swallowing the wrinkled country, and the resulting reservoir, with all its scallops and appendages, would extend southward for more than forty miles. It would be a deep lake splayed out in the mountains, practically on the rooftop of Korea.

This scheme alone was considered a nearly impossible feat, but then the engineers envisioned something bolder: They would effectively reverse the course of the river by building a network of pipes near where it entered the lake on its south end. The pipes would snake along, often underground, carrying cold lake water from the mountains to the coast. Thus, a river that had once flowed north would flow south, through man-made conduits. Working with gravity, these tubes of racing water would feed into a series of hydroelectric plants down on the plain that would supply Hamhung and its neighboring port city of Hungnam with enough power to transform the area into a military-industrial center, perhaps the largest in Korea. Some said it was quixotic.

Some said the engineers were tempting fate, manipulating sacrosanct forces of nature. But the immense project worked as planned. The Chosin Reservoir was completed in 1929, the year Lee was born, and, with dizzying speed, Hamhung-Hungnam underwent a metamorphosis, much of it under the direction of the Noguchi Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate founded by a chemical engineering mogul named Jun Noguchi, who was said to be the “entrepreneurial king of the peninsula.” A nitrogen fertilizer plant, the largest in the Far East, was quickly constructed, and the area became one of the world’s largest producers of ammonium sulfate. Then came oil refineries, chemical concerns, textile mills, metal foundries, munitions works. They produced dynamite and mercury oxide powder and high-octane aviation fuel. It was a grinding, stinking, spewing complex of industries designed to fuel Japan’s expansionist aims across Asia.

Thousands of peasants, many of them displaced by the new lake, moved down from the mountains to work in the factories. Schools sprang up, a train station, a city hall, suburbs, all of it stitched together with streetcars and underground sewer systems and electricity and telegraph wire. It was a modern marvel of civil planning and central design—at least that was how the authorities portrayed the region’s transformation. Through Japanese ingenuity and Korean sweat, men had built a lake that built a city.

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Battle of Britain Advantages, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1849-76:

The whole theory of fighter defence was created to avoid what they called “standing patrols.” If you were guarding the country by having aeroplanes up all the time, you ran out of engine hours and you were on the ground when the attack occurred. So the RAF developed a system of reporting incoming raids. First, he used radar to plot the aircraft as they were approaching Britain and then he used the Observer Corps to spot them when they’d crossed the coast. All the information was fed to a filter room and then to an operations room where you got a picture of the developing raids plotted on a table. That picture would be three or four minutes old but it was sufficiently up to date to get the fighters off when they were really needed.

Thus the characteristic image of the Battle of Britain that we have today is of young tousle-haired pilots lounging near their aircraft, not flying but ready to go aloft at a moment’s notice. In historical retrospect, the British air defense system was the equivalent of a human-powered computer, a remarkable real-time information-processing system that worked so well in conserving British aerial resources—aircraft, pilots, and staff attention—that it was one reason the Royal Air Force actually grew more powerful with the passage of time in 1940. A second reason was that British aircraft factories finally swung into high gear.

The third reason that the British prevailed in the Battle of Britain was German incompetence in waging an aerial offensive. Contrary to the Teutonic reputation for martial skill, the Luftwaffe’s approach was “astonishingly amateur,” concluded Bungay, amounting to “little more than flying over England, dropping some bombs on various things to annoy people, and shooting down any fighters which came up as a result.” It is no accident, Bungay adds, that the military service operating so incoherently was the only one of the German armed forces led by a Nazi politician, Goering, who before going into politics had been a pilot during World War I. Hitler supposedly liked to say that he had a conservative army, a reactionary navy, and a Nazi air force. That politicized air arm flew into English airspace unprepared for what it would encounter. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, who flew a Messerschmitt 109 fighter, recalled being surprised on a fogbound day: “I experienced a Spitfire formation all of a sudden coming up from behind, having a clear line of fire and I wondered how this was even possible. Having no visibility whatsoever, from above nor from below, how was it possible that an enemy formation was able to get into a firing position from behind?” The answer, of course, was the well-tuned British radar and early warning system.

The Germans in their days of pride also consistently overestimated the damage they were doing, believing in mid-August 1940 that the British had only 300 working fighters available. In fact, they had 1,438—which was twice as many as they had on hand just six weeks earlier. The kill ratio always favored the British, who lost a total of 1,547 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German ones. On top of that, because most of the aerial combat took place over England, British pilots could fly many missions in one day, with their aircraft reloaded with ammunition in under four minutes. And when they were shot down, they often could parachute to friendly soil and fly again, while parachuting Germans who survived became prisoners of war, and those who ditched in the frigid waters of the channel often were lost either to drowning or hypothermia. (For the same reasons, the RAF lost more bomber crew members during this period than it did fighter pilots—801 from Bomber Command versus 544 for Fighter Command.)

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Utility of U.S. Aid to Soviets, WW2

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1676-90, 1702-16:

The most valuable aid may have been in the 1941–42 period when the Soviet war industry was moved to the Urals and beyond to keep it from falling into German hands. This was an achievement which contributed immeasurably to the ability of the Soviet Union to stay in the war and begin turning the tables on the Germans. However, production in 1941–42 was at its lowest and insufficient to meet the demands brought about by the enormous losses. Victor Kravchenko, who was involved in the Soviet armaments procurement industry during the war, claims that aid played a prominent role.

It may have been in the areas of logistics, transportation, food, communications, raw materials, and the more sophisticated equipment that the aid had its greatest importance. Bellamy points out that the Soviet armed forces had 665,000 motor vehicles at the end of the war but their own production between 1942 and 1944 was only 128,000. It is therefore obvious that most of them came from American factories and that they provided the Soviets with the capability to motorize their forces. The 436,087 vehicles, received mainly from the United States, enabled the Soviets to motorize their troops, their logistical support, and their command and control.

The 8,701 tractors, including half-tracks, provided by the US allowed the Soviets to motorize their artillery to keep up with the advancing troops. Without this the Red Army could not have kept its offensives rolling deep into central Europe. The accessories and spare parts provided to keep this vast transportation fleet running, for example, included 3,786,000 tires for the vehicles. In their final drive on Berlin the northern wing of the Soviet forces under Marshal Rokossovskiy crossed the rivers in East Prussia using General Motors Corporation DUKW six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicles.

Joan Beaumont believes that perhaps the most important contributions of the Lend-Lease program were in the fields of communications, command and control, and railway equipment. The program provided the Soviets with almost one million miles of telephone cable and about 247,000 field telephones. The US aid included half a million tons of railway tracks that were important in rebuilding the 65,000 kilometers of railway tracks and 2,300 bridges destroyed by the Germans. The aid in this area also included 1,155 railroad cars and 1,981 locomotives.

The Soviets have ridiculed the 2.67 million tons of petroleum received from the US in view of their own output of about 30 million tons per year. What is left out of their commentary is the fact that much of the US-provided petroleum consisted of high-octane aviation fuel, a type that was in short supply in the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease program also provided much-needed raw materials, including about 75 percent of the aluminum and copper needed by Soviet industry between 1941 and 1944.

On the subjects of food aid and the provision of raw materials, Khrushchev writes:

In addition we received steel and aluminum from which we made guns, airplanes, and so on. Our own industry was shattered and partly abandoned to the enemy. We also received food products in great quantities…. There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good nonetheless. Without Spam we couldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands—the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.

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The Era of Canals, Cable, and Coal

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1992-2009:

The Suez Canal also encouraged a far greater Atlantic presence in Southeast and East Asia, stimulating the development of intercontinental port cities, a phenomenon hitherto rare in the region. Before the Europeans, local polities had placed their capitals inland for greater security. Europeans brought an ocean-consciousness that many Asian elites had previously lacked, with Singapore typical of the newly created seaport city, part of a network that would spread along Asian coasts, from Mumbai (Bombay) to Yokohama, cities forming spearheads for modernization on Atlantic models, linked to one another and to a wider world by cable and the coal-burning ship.

Everyone dreaded the inevitable time-consuming and dirty task of loading and stowing coal on shipboard, a task grueling for the worker and disagreeable for all aboard. On warships, officers as well as enlisted men were obliged to participate. Moving coal raises a gritty dust, throat-choking and eye-stinging, leaving a dark film on every surface it touches. To handle the coal aboard, ships carried among their crew a “black gang,” which was divided into two groups. Typically firemen on most ships watched and fed three fires, burning down one at the end of each watch, shoveling the coal into the furnace, using long pokers to aerate the flames and periodically cleaning it of clinkers. Trimmers kept the firemen supplied, wheeling coal in steel barrows from bunker to furnace. They called it “being on the long run.” Often these men were Bengali or Gujerati but the British shipping world applied the term “lascar” to them and uniformly to Asian seafarers, from Chinese to Yemeni.

Fireman or trimmer, the tasks were difficult and dangerous work in an airless environment thick with dust. In the tropics the temperature could soar to excruciating heights. The men wore heavy leather boots and not much else except a rag around the neck to mop sweat and grime from eyes and noses. Burns were frequent as was heat exhaustion. Working on the black gang was comparable to the arduous labor of the coal miner in the pits but at least the miner got to go home every night. A black gang might be away at sea for an entire year.

By the time the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, oil was replacing coal as the source of energy on steamships.

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