Wednesday, June 28, 2023

A World Without Lithium-ion Batteries

June 25, 1979 - Fire Breaks Out at Oxford Laboratory

In a tragedy that rocked the academic world, a laboratory researching battery advances was consumed by flames at the University of Oxford's Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory. Numerous researchers were injured and several killed, including visiting professor Koichi Mizushima from the University of Tokyo and John B. Goodenough, head of the laboratory. Professor Goodenough had been a research scientist at MIT previously, contributing to efforts in random access magnetic memory (RAM) that would be fundamental to breakthroughs in computing.

The laboratory had been making efforts to improve upon the research of chemist M. Stanley Whittingham, who had through the 1970s experimented with using lithium ions for a new, and much more energy-dense, rechargeable battery. Exxon had worked with Whittingham to make the batteries commercially available, but the batteries proved too dangerous in overheating and even bursting into flame. Although many hoped for a solution using something other than titanium disulfide in the structure of the lithium-based cathode. The fire soured the international mood on lithium for rechargeable batteries, even overshadowing Rachid Yazami's discoveries with graphite in a lithium battery anode shortly thereafter. The chemistry world turned toward nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for practical rechargeability.

Meanwhile, the world at large was changing radically from a widespread surge in electronics. Improvements in automation caused manufacturing to grow, which supplied an insatiable demand for the next big thing. In music alone, boomboxes gave way to Walkmans, which were eclipsed by disc players, which in turn gave way to MP3 players in the early new millennium. The Internet and gaming fueled a need for more powerful computers, many of which gained portability through adding battery power sources. Although "laptops" today are not uncommon, most computers remain plugged in and situated on desktops. Cell phones are perhaps the biggest game-changers in recent history, allowing people all over the planet to be instantly connected, although they remain fairly large hand-held devices.

Through all of the technological growth of electronics, energy to power them is a major concern. Visionaries like Steve Jobs hoped for a world like something out of Star Trek with readily available portable devices, but length of usable time was a constant battle. Jobs, who led Apple during its heyday, did well competing with other MP3 players with the iPod and promoting additional functionality in cell phones with the iPhone. The iPad, introduced shortly before his passing, however, proved to be a flop as it was too heavy to use comfortably. Later, more efficient tablets became used for gaming, streaming, and social media, but they are most often plugged in during use.

By 2023, most technology remains wired. Most devices abandoned having enough batteries to last for an entire day when people could plug them in overnight while sleeping. Instead, large, multi-battery chargers may be found in many homes and automobiles where people constantly swap out batteries for their handheld devices. Ultimately the rechargeable NiMH batteries become worn out, and they themselves must be replaced, leading to concerns about landfills and recycling.



In reality, there was no fire, and John Goodenough's efforts in energy-storage chemistry helped revolutionize the technological world. Goodenough passed away June 25, 2023, as the oldest living Nobel Prize winner. He shared his prize with Whittingham and Askira Yoshino, who used a carbonaceous anode for the first commercially successful lithium-ion battery. These batteries, with a specific energy density nearly half-again, almost double the lifecycle, and a fraction of the discharge of Ni-MH, made compact, portable electronics much more feasible.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Guest Post: Slippery Sam Signs the Unequal Treaty of Munich

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

30 September, 1938:

Samuel Hoare, our greatest prime minister, though cruelly known to his detractors as "Slippery Sam," was the British Empire's man of the hour once again.

His rise to international statesmanship began three years earlier when he had joined with Pierre Laval, the prime minister of France, to resolve a nasty colonial dispute in East Africa. It was his brilliant partition plan that had averted an Italo-Ethiopian War and, more importantly, kept Benito Mussolini's regime firmly inside the Stresa Front. Due to this overseas policy success, Hoare was the logical choice to step up from Foreign Secretary to enter Number Ten Downing Street after the retirement of Stanley Baldwin. With Europe on a collision course between the Great Powers, he was the ideal candidate for the job because of his masterful diplomatic skills. A prominent member of the pro-appeasement group, the Cliveden Set, his primary mission was to prevent the outbreak of another Great War.

With an ear perfectly attuned to the public mood, he knew two things very well: neither was the Armed Forces ready for such a conflict nor was there any appetite to fight in the electorate that had voted in the National Government. Perhaps the shameless old war-monger Winston Churchill would have railed support from the back-benches, but he was long gone, having died in an unfortunate automobile accident in New York in 1931.

Fortunately, there would be no car crash in Europe because it turned out that the Hoare-Laval Plan was a perfect diplomatic blueprint for settling the festering dispute over the Sudetenland. German Dictator Adolf Hitler was only interested in an agreement, but Hoare insisted upon a formal treaty in the knowledge that an agreement is not legally binding under international law. In theory, this diplomatic instrument was a robust legal barrier that would prevent the Nazis from occupying rump Czechoslovakia and becoming a pariah state.

On 10 March, 1939, Hoare, addressing Imperial Citizens on the BBC World Service, predicted that the policy of appeasement would lead to a new "Golden Age." Yet only five days later, Hitler violated the treaty and sent the Wehrmacht into Bohemia and Moravia. Unlike the Rhineland or the Sudetenland, this occupation was not a territorial readjustment of the Treaty of Versailles but conquest, an unmistakable act of expansionist aggression in Eastern Europe. The Nazis had fallen into a trap carefully laid by Hoare because this egregious act of bad faith created doubt in Stalin's mind and led to his last-minute decision to back out of signing the proposed Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Hitler was stubbornly determined to invade Poland alone, but his generals were strongly opposed and overthrew his regime as Hoare had correctly anticipated.

Author's Note:

In reality, the proposed Hoare-Laval Plan for the partition of Ethiopian land between Italy and Ethiopia drew immediate and widespread denunciation, forcing Hoare's resignation on 18 December, 1935. He was seen as a leading "appeaser," and his removal from office (along with that of Sir John Simon and the removal of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister) was a condition of Labour's agreement to serve in a coalition government in May 1940.

Provine's Addendum:

All eyes in Europe watched Germany as Hitler sought to return to power against the military regime he had led. Many suspected it could go as far as civil war, but fresh parliamentary elections in 1940 kept the turmoil political other than a few riots between the different parties. The Nazi establishment continued to dominate with its effective propaganda, which could drown out even the efforts of Hitler's hastily constructed Freiheit (Freedom) Party. Hitler's health was wrecked by the campaign, though conspiracy theorists suggest he may have been poisoned. Others maintain his regimen of "energy pills" and other drugs caused nonfatal overdose.

With the German issue largely settled, international diplomacy turned back to the questions of ongoing imperialism. Much of the world had been carved up, but new players wanted to enter the game, as seen with Italy's wars in Africa. The Empire of Japan, which already controlled much of China, threatened to move southward and even into French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. India sought independence from the UK, which had dominated the subcontinent after centuries of wars elbowing out other European powers. The Soviet Union, recovering from Stalin's purges, had begun efforts to retake what it saw as lost territory in Finland and the Baltic.

Hoare and his political followers kept up the policy of appeasement, trying to find common ground for all. He staved off Indian independence with offers of more local rights by rolling back the Rowlatt Act and ultimately breaking up the Raj into several states to discourage cooperation in non-violent protests. Elsewhere in the world, the empires butted up against each other and watched for signs of weakness where rebellions could be encouraged and then later stamped out by another empire coming in to "assure peace."

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Guest Post: JFK Survives, Lee Goes Free

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

Nov 27, 2017 - Passing of Robert Oswald

Korean War veteran and former U.S. marine Robert Edward Lee Oswald, whose brother Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for shooting John F. Kennedy in Dallas, died on this sad day aged 83.

Fortunately for all concerned in 1963, first-year surgical resident Dr. Charles James "Jim" Carrico saved the precious life of the president on the operating table of Parkland Hospital. Meanwhile, the suspected would-be assassin was arrested on a local street corner by Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit and taken into custody. Upon hearing the shocking news on the radio that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, his elder brother rushed to the Dallas Police Headquarters, promising to find him a lawyer.

After a protracted legal process, and largely thanks to Robert Oswald's efforts in building a strong legal team, it was finally determined within reasonable doubt that Lee Oswald was not the real shooter. The only beneficiary was their mother, Marguerite Oswald, who wrote a best-selling book Brother's Keeper named after biblical Chapter Genesis 4, verse 9. This publication cleared the legal fees and allowed her to comfortably retire to Wichita Falls, where she died in 1981.

Unfortunately, many historians argue the tragedy averted in Dallas unfolded into an even worse tragedy in South Vietnam. Kennedy's campaigning in the Southern states paid off handsomely, but the main reason for his electoral victory was that the country wasn't quite ready for Barry Goldwater's conservatism and preferred Kennedy's diplomacy and military adviser approach. Over the course of the next turbulent five years, however, the political landscape rapidly changed mainly due to the unwinnable war in South Vietnam. In late 1963, JFK had himself admitted it was beyond his crisis management skills to resolve, "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam.... But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and get the American people to reelect me [in 1964]." This dreadful conflict, and its deep societal consequences, would result in a shift to the right and the election of a Goldwater protégé, the conservative war-hawk Ronald Reagan in 1968.

Author's Note:

In reality, he moved away and died in Wichita Falls. Marguerite Oswald wrote a booklet titled Aftermath of an Execution: The Burial and Final Rites of Lee Harvey Oswald which was never published.

Further Author's Note:

In this scenario, a surviving JFK does not pull out of Vietnam as he intended (and per the conspiracy theory in Oliver Stone's movie) due to fears he would not be re-elected in 1964, and after re-election he's committed, its too late - but the Vietnam tragedy prevents a Democrat win in 1968.

Provine's Addendum:
Reagan came into office in 1969 vowing to be "tough on Communism" and to "clean up that mess" in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive of 1968 had been utterly humiliating for the Kennedy administration, although advisers suggested it was a desperate effort that largely exhausted the North Vietnamese forces. As early as 1965, Reagan was suggesting, "We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas." Voters hopeful to end the war drove Reagan ahead in the polls.

The diplomatic situation in Southeast Asia was delicate, however. China had made clear that they would enter the war if there were any invasion of North Vietnam. Cambodia had sworn passive neutrality, allowing Vietnamese military camps and supply routes in the east along with American bombing of camps and routes, although Chief of State Norodom Sihanouk publicly denounced any Cambodian injuries. Laos was in civil war between the royalists and Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviets, Viet Cong, and People's Army of Vietnam.

While the American public still did not support outright war with China, Reagan pushed his state department to lean heavily on Laos and, especially, Cambodia to drive communist forces from their borders. By 1970, Cambodian neutrality effectively ended, and US troops conducted "hot pursuits" and systematic bombing as far as the central regions of the Mekong River. Without supplies, the Viet Cong in the south began to collapse, abandoning the Mekong Delta. The war in Laos was much more of a seesaw with land constantly being handed and back and forth between the sides. Reagan maintained distant relations with China, mostly focusing on encouraging them to stop supporting military efforts in Vietnam. With the growing Sino-Soviet Split separating USSR and Chinese interests, China became more hesitant to expend resources.

Death tolls and military spending climbed, but overall the American public remained supportive as Reagan's office ensured as much censorship as possible, even in fictional accounts. Following the success of the film M*A*S*H in 1970, Regan leaned on producers to ensure the 1972 television program that continued the story of doctors in the Korean War portrayed their efforts as heroic and the overall environment as something of a "summer camp" rather than allowing any major critique of American military action.

Reagan won reelection in 1972 and focused on "Americanization" of South Vietnam and Cambodia. Aid poured in, as did efforts to encourage American business and trade. While the efforts arguably stabilized the region and repaired much of the literal and figurative damage of the millions of tons of bombs dropped, it became heavily criticized by the American public. Many joked that people in Southeast Asia were living off welfare dollars while hardworking Americans struggled in the growing decline of American manufacturing. Voters decided to turn toward Democrats for 1976, who promised a package called the "Great New Society" with improved worker relations and social programs.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Guest Post: Puppet King

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

28 May 1972 - Death of Edward VIII the "Puppet King"

On this fateful day in alternate history, pro-Nazi puppet Edward VIII, restored monarch of the United Kingdom, breathed his last in Buckingham Palace. A smoker from an early age, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was undergoing cobalt therapy at the time of his unlamented death.

Having reigned since the death of his father, George V, Edward had abdicated the throne after a scandalous summer forced him to make a choice between the divorced woman he loved and the official duties of the monarchy he despised. With an arrogant manner that veered between domineering and disinterested, red boxes were left unread. It was not only the king but the entire establishment that had fallen asleep at the wheel as Great Britain sleepwalked toward a devastating defeat at the hands of a reinvigorated German Third Reich.

Edward and "Mrs. Simpson" as the press referred to her despite their marriage toured the Reich the following year, socializing with prominent Nazi figures including Joseph Goebbels, Herman Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer. Additionally, they had a tea meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden, his "eagle's nest" residence in the Bavarian Alps. It was this private meeting that fed persistent rumours that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser, apparently a discussion that set the stage for his later restoration. Ironically, it was his shortcomings in personality that made him the perfect choice for Head of State of a protectorate of the Greater German Reich when the UK fell to German forces. The most controversial aspect of the restoration was Operation Willi, the kidnapping which induced Edward to plead with the German dictator for a peace settlement with Great Britain in 1940.

Working initially with the puppet Prime Minister Samuel Hoare, Edward would reign for three more decades of continuing national decline while the Nazi rule of Europe slowly began to crumble. Counter-intuitively, what actually stabilized the Third Reich was Hitler's assassination in an early 1941 secret mission code-named Operation Foxley. Former members of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) had continued clandestine operations, discovering that the German dictator took a walk alone at around 10 am every morning to the Teehaus on Mooslahnerkopf Hill from the Berghof residence. The signal was that when Hitler was at the Berghof, a Nazi flag visible from a cafe in the nearby town was flown. SOE parachuted in a German-speaking Pole and a British sniper into Austria, and, against the odds, they successfully executed the mission. Hitler's successors trod with a great deal more caution, scrapping his crazed plans to invade the Soviet Union and instead consolidating Nazi rule of the territories that had been conquered in 1940.

Inadvertently, and despite the very best intentions, the SOE had damned the British Isles to decades of darkness. It was their preservation of the status quo that allowed Edward to continue on the throne. Childless, his likely long-term successor Elizabeth, the Windsor Pretender, lived at the British Government-In-Exile's compound in Washington, D.C. Although the British Empire retained control over its territories in Africa and Asia, the predominantly white dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand broke away, recognizing his niece as the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms. Unfortunately Elizabeth "II" would die without returning to England, which remained under Nazi control until her son Charles' triumphant return in 1982. In one of his first significant actions, the Luger that killed Hitler was placed on display at the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon, Essex.

Author's Note:

In reality, Edward abdicated and was appointed governor of the Bahamas, but, after the war, he spent the rest of his life in France. Evidence of his complicity was revealed in the Marburg Files, a series of top-secret documents that was discovered in May 1945 near the Harz Mountains in Germany but not released in full for over fifty years. It is known that the Duke had an extended private conversation with Hitler, but the specific details of their discussion remain uncertain, as the minutes of their meeting were lost during the course of the war. SOE actually feared that Hitler's assassination would extend WW2, shelving plans for Operation Foxley that had been written up. In 1969, Edward declined an invitation from Elizabeth II to attend the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales, replying that Charles would not want his "aged great-uncle" there.

Provine's Addendum:

As Winston Churchill, the prime minister of the British Government-in-Exile, described, an "iron curtain" fell across Europe between the spheres of German and Soviet influence. While the USSR and Germany stared one another down the increasingly militarized border of Eastern Europe, the British G-i-E and their American allies did much the same with a fortified Atlantic Ocean. The United States carried its own quasi-war with Japan, jockeying for superiority between the Philippines and Indonesia, though much of America's diplomatic attention was put into the Monroe Doctrine to shore up the allegiance of Latin America to keep fascism out of the Western Hemisphere.

A "Cold War" carried on with paramilitary actions to maintain the balance in Finland and Iceland as well as extensive international intrigue causing as much disruption as possible to each government's plans. Germany was kept busy trying to control its extensive gains and profit from the satellite colonies in Africa and South Asia along with their Vichy French and Italian allies. Initially economies boomed with extensive spending on military buildup and infrastructure, but the weight of the upkeep proved increasingly costly as the years went on. The rigid, government-influenced economies fell into slumps, inflation skyrocketed, and unrest turned violent so periodically it was nearly expected.

Following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the new Spanish king Juan Carlos began transitioning the government toward democracy. This spark set off a powder keg of revolution throughout the fascist world, overthrowing one government after the next as colonies declared independence and formerly unquestionable political parties fell out of public favor. Britain's government-in-exile was cheered as it arrived back in London, prompting the British Union fascist government to flee into exile in South Africa.

Trade reopened across the Atlantic, causing a new spike in economic activity. As the millennium came to a close, the "Western World" leaders began to wonder if they might be able to wait out the USSR and Japanese Empire in a similar fashion or if a new war might start between them.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Guest Post: The Unlamented Death of the Jacobite Rascal John Churchill

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

16 June, 1722 -

The discredited, untrustworthy English general John Churchill died in exile in Bourbon France. He was seventy-two but had been inactive from a stroke he suffered six years earlier. This medical condition had brought an abrupt end to his failed career of court intrigue and military conspiracy.

His father, Sir Winston Churchill, was a member of Parliament that possessed moderate property but was sufficiently influential at court to be able to provide for his sons there and in the armed forces. Despite this head start, John's life and times would be one of great turbulence, during which he fought two duels and constantly struggled in a changing political landscape. He had to try to navigate his way through the Commonwealth, then the Stuart Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution seeing English, French-backed Scottish, and finally Dutch heads of state. At various times he fought in or alongside all of these armies, and, by necessity, he earned military and political advancement through his courage and diplomatic skill. However, his downfall was precipitated by his Protestant religion, the historical banana skin of the era.

Under slightly different circumstances, Churchill might have arisen to Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Like General George Monck before him, he was not so much an enthusiastic pro-royalist as a pragmatist who had supported the restoration in order to avoid the country from collapsing into anarchy after Cromwell's death. In contrast, just across the English Channel, the French nation benefited from the political stability of seven decades of rule by the Sun King, Louis XIV. It was the Churchill family's tragedy to be crushed under this emblematic of the Age of Absolutism in Europe, a procession of English heads of state, and the inevitability of getting caught trying to play both sides of the room.

Having served under the Duke of Monmouth in the French siege of Maastricht, the French War Minister recommended a lieutenant colonelcy in a French regiment. Louis XIV responded with the withering assessment that he would rather give "more satisfaction to a rich and faded mistress, than to a monarch who did not want to have dishonourable and dishonoured carpet knights in his armies." Ironically, Churchill was to play a leading role in defeating the Monmouth Rebellion that temporarily secured the House of Stuart. Following Monmouth's clumsy execution and the persecution of his followers, he alerted French Protestant Henri de Massue to Charles' obstinacy, warning him that "If the King should attempt to change our religion, I will instantly quit his service."

This would actually happen four years later when Churchill was a key player in the military conspiracy that led to the Glorious Revolution. In his farewell letter to James, he explained that "This, Sir, could proceed from nothing but the inviolable dictates of my conscience, and a necessary concern for my religion." Despite his elevation to Earl of Marlborough, he faced persistent charges of Jacobitism. He was appointed a member of the Council of Nine to advise Queen Mary on military matters in the King's absence, but she made scant effort to disguise her distaste at his appointment. "I can neither trust or esteem him," she wrote to her husband. Unfortunately, the farewell letter was not the last he wrote to James, and this unwise correspondence was to prove his undoing. This led to his fall from office and imprisonment in the Tower of London.

When Churchill was released, he fled to France where the Bourbons considered his usefulness as the figurehead leader of a Jacobite invasion army. The crowning victory of Louis XIV over a disorganized alliance led by the Holy Roman Empire saw his feint hopes of fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession come to naught. In one sense, their ambitions were closely connected because Britain would remain a third-rate military power, and the Churchill family would emigrate to the Americas to rebuild their fortunes in the new world.

Author's Note:

In reality, he went through several changes of fortune in a long career under five monarchs but is considered by many to be the greatest British military leader. He led British and allied armies to important victories over Louis XIV of France. On his legacy, historian John H. Lavalle writes, "Marlborough's place as one of the finest soldiers Britain ever produced is well deserved."

Provine's Addendum:

Through the centuries, the Churchills would remain a noted family in American history, such as the revolutionary and amateur astronomer George Churchill, friends with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, as well as William Churchill, the fiery Congressman who argued for American naval superiority through his long career in the first half of the twentieth century.

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