Why didn’t China invent the hybrid airship?

Keith Hudson

There’s a beautiful photo of a Lockheed Martin hybrid airship in my business supplement this morning against a backdrop of forest clad mountains.  The airship is beautiful in its own way, too — in between a classic airship and an aeroplane wing.

This will be able to lift very heavy loads across long distances of difficult terrain unable to be approached by road or rail.  Much less expensive to run than helicopters, this Lockheed Martin product will undoubtedly have ready sales to many businesses in many countries.  And in China particularly — with its large regions of mountainous country — I’d have thought.  But why hasn’t China already developed such a very useful transport?  There’s nothing revolutionary about it — airships have been used for almost a century, particularly the German Zeppalins (including bombing us in the First World War).

So why now?  My guess is that helium has now become cheap enough and plastics technnology advanced enough for airships to be fully economic now compared with former times.  Mind you, I think there’s also been a Eureka! moment in one Lockheed engineer’s mind.  As always — after the event — it seems trivial but it probably made all the difference.  This is that the airship is more of an airplane — a single-wing airplane — rather than a vertical lift-off balloon-like Zeppalin. It will normally need a long take-off just like an aeroplane (though it can land vertically).  German engineers, more than anybody else, will be kicking themselves that this appafrently trivial idea didn’t occur to them.

And, considering China’s great need, why didn’t a Chinese engineer invent this?  After all, they train ten times the number of engineers every year than America does. The point is that, like Japan, China is not an inventive culture at present.  The Chinese used to be, of course.  When the Silk Road across Asia opened up at around the 800s, Chinese merchants were secretly bringing instructions and sketches of scores of inventions (e.g. silk worm breeding, differential gears, seed-planting machines, water-mills, canal locks, even the wheelbarrow which Europe didn’t have at the time!) along with their normal wares (e.g. silk cloth, porcelain, lacquered boxes).  If Europe hadn’t been ‘seeded’ with this basic range of engineering kit, it’s debatable whether the industrial revolution would ever have had anything to build onto.

China was highly creative (e.g. stainless steel, seismometers, gas-drilling) for hundreds of years even before the Silk Road opened up.  Why the difference in creativity between then and now?  In former times only a handful of children every few thousand — the brightest children or those pushed forward by ambitious parents — learned to read and write.  Many further years of preparation were required to study a huge repertoire of classical philosophy and poetry in order to sit the Imperial Examination.  If they succeeded then they could hope to be chosen to be a mandarin in due course.  It wasn’t these literary-type mandarins who were the innovators, of course, but they could certainly write to other mandarins about any useful inventions that arose in their own locality and from which they could then earn a royalty.

But today in China, all children attend schools — apart from those in the most isolated rural parts — and everything is taught by rote. The high deference to authority of more than 2,500 years of Confucianism plus the added supervision by the Communist Party since the 1950s means that there’s no frivolity or children’s questions in Chinese state schools — nothing but hard grind. This is why Chinese children score the highest in international contests —  but only, it should be noted, in carefully prescribed areas of learning such as mathematics.

Chinese officials, even at the highest levels, are fully aware — and speak publicly — that, generally, their mode of teaching squeezes out any potential creativity in their children and, subsequently, university graduates. But even they can do nothing about it.  Cultures take generations to change. This is why thousands of post-grad students (those with parents who can afford it), particularly since Deng Xiaoping’s time in the 1980s, were allowed to take up further training abroad, and scores of thousands of younger people every year do so today.  It’s also why good schools and universities from abroad are encouraged to set up campuses and franchises in China. This will continue for many decades until China’s own teaching culture changes to the freer, more relaxed mode of the West.

There are some signs, particularly in the biggest scientific sector of them all — biology — that original discoveries are now being made in China (unlike Japan and Singapore), but these are invariably by post-doc researchers who’ve already spent years in America and Britian and have been able to absorb a less authoritarian culture.  Even so, if will be a very long time before a sufficient number of ‘sea turtles’ as they are called, return to China and start to make a difference.  Until then, even though China turns out something like 800,000 engineering graduates a year, it’s still unlikely that any great breakthrough will be made and why China, like Japan, has not yet invented any new technologies or established any new industrial sectors.

Even in the northernmost rim of Europe, furthest away from the heavy mental conditioning of the Medieval Church of Rome, it took 400 years to break away fairly completely.  In the case of China, although its ‘sea turtles’ will undoubtedly shorten that time period, it’s still going to be a very long time before new inventions, even as modest as the hybrid airship, will be Chinese-made.

2 thoughts on “Why didn’t China invent the hybrid airship?

  1. A quick off the cuff amateurish reply to your question: I have often been struck by the fact that conservative cultures, I would say China is a good example, do not feel the need to find new solutions because they are satisfied with doing things like they have always been done. My simple example, since I hail from ME origin, is yogurt. No one in the ME felt the need to either package yogurt differently or make variations of it (low fat, no fat, fruit at the bottom, whipped…).

  2. Keith,

    Helium prices are rising, not falling. But they are not rising fast enough. It is artificially low. It ought to be 20x times more expensive than it currently is.

    Helium is one of the most valuable elements there is and is becoming scarcer and scarcer (because it is so light, obviously). It is ridiculous that helium is so artificially cheap that it is wasted on rubbish like party balloons rather than saving it for much needed things like MRI scanners.



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