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(posted on 21 Nov 2023)

The Cambrian Era of Jet Evolution



Since childhood I have loved looking at pictures and dioramas imagining the Cambrian Era, and the whole idea of the Cambrian 'explosion' of life forms. As well, I grew up looking at pictures of great British aircraft, particularly jets. (Apologies to Hiroshi Sugimoto who took photos of museum diorama's, including the one above, to which I added what I think might be Cambrian looking jet aircraft).

The Cambrian Era, starting over 500 million years ago, was a period of rapid evolutionary growth and evolutionary experimentation of (mainly) invertebrate aquatic animal life forms on a planet whose biomass had previously developed little in the way of multicellular life. What really intrigues me are the experiments the evolutionary algorithm provided by creating very peculiar complex life forms, many of which, either elegant or bizarre, became dead ends. In a way...I'm pushing the envelop a bit here...I see the early days of jet aviation spearheaded by the British after WW2 as somehow analogous to the Cambrian Era. The British, despite careful planning early in WW2 to be foremost in the field of jet technology, lost their edge to the Americans and became an evolutionary spur that might have continued in different circumstances in a Phillip Kl Dick parallel universe. When, teaching occasionally as I did, I wanted to introduce some interesting looking design traditions to a class, and encourage them to look in strange places for design elements, I'd often give them a quick visual tour of early British aerospace. The British used various recurring design features which often look elegant to my eye but which have generally been phased out of aircraft production by processes that might be parallel to evolution. These design features provided advantages at the time but not over time; much like the unusual design features of Cambrian life forms.

My interest in Cambrian life forms and early British aerodynamic forms is perhaps fetishist as a result of early exposure to them in books, and in the case of aircraft, both books and 'Airfix' models; and of course, relentless drawing of these forms. A very early fixation was, of course, the British Supermarine Spitfire, Britain's top of the line interceptor famed, along with the more pedestrian Hurricane, for winning the Battle of Britain. I can't tell you how many hours I gazed at this form as a young child, anywhere I found it. I fondled my Airfix models affectionately. There has to be a kind of eroticism to such a beautiful form, and I must have been imprinted similar to how I was imprinted with an attraction to the form of the human and particularly female body. Look at the beautiful thin monocoque 'elliptical' wings of the aircraft below, which gave it superb speed and handling. The Spitfire is Precambrian perhaps, but a premonition of aerodynamic design cues to come, by way of other slippery and fluidly dynamic British prop aircraft like the de Havilland Mosquito.

Photo for the Comox Valley Record by Ken Lin