Consequences in Alternate History: From Coal Tar to Warp Drive – The Cochrane Effect

By Tom Anderson


The episode "Spock's Brain." We could have been spared this.

Picture this: the President of the United States has had a long, trying set of negotiations with the President of Chile. But finally the ink is drying on the new treaty, and as the Chilean President’s motorcade drives away from the White House along a tarmac road and the national anthem plays, the US President takes some headache pills and settles down to relax by watching an old episode of Star Trek and enjoying Captain Kirk’s antics.

What if I told you that without one event in 1781—the same year the Battle of Yorktown was won and the United States’ existence was assured—there would be no Captain Kirk, no tarmac on the road, no ink on the treaty, no pills, no White House as we know it, no American national anthem—and no nation of Chile at all? It’s time to consider a family whose members collectively spit in the eye of those who would critique the ‘Great Man’ model of historiography, a family of whom Admiral John ‘Black Jack’ Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent said in 1806: “The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family!”

Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald

In 1781, the Cochranes were a family of minor Scottish nobility in an impoverished state—not something unusual for minor Scottish nobility, who had suffered punitive measures after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Their title, the Earldom of Dundonald, had been created in 1647 for William Cochrane of Coldoun, who supported Charles I and the Royalist cause (albeit possibly not very consistently) in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (as the English Civil War should properly be expanded to). The succeeding Cochranes often went on to serve in the British Army or the Royal Navy. By the time the title and associated lands reached Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald, the money was practically gone. Archibald had briefly served in both Army and Navy in his youth but now turned to inventing as a means to support himself and the family. Many of his inventions were unsuccessful, and even the successful ones were often financially mismanaged (he would eventually die in poverty in Paris at the age of 83). But along the way, Archibald invented the first way to successfully extract coal tar from coal, and in 1781 he patented his method.

Coal tar is a complex mixture of organic chemicals—recall that coal is the fossilised product of ancient forests and plants produce many different chemicals for various purposes. Coal tar in itself has historically sometimes been prescribed for medicinal purposes, although question marks have been hung on this by the fact that its composition is variable and may contain carcinogens. Archibald’s main interest in producing coal tar at the time was as a way to coat the hulls of Royal Navy ships to protect them from barnacles, although—as remains the case to this day in matters of military procurement—he had to fight against established interests who preferred the less effective copper sheathing method. This was troubled by the sea water reacting with the bolts according to electrolytic chemistry then not understood. Eventually the RN did adopt Archibald’s tar method, but craftily only after the patent had expired.

However, coal tar’s multitudinous uses did not become apparent until years later. It is a source of countless aromatic organic chemicals used in the production of dyestuffs (like inks), drugs, perfumes and explosives. Even today coal tar remains the primary source for chemicals like naphthalene (used to make dyes, insecticides and napalm, and historically mothballs) and anthracene (the source of more dyes and used as an ultraviolet-active tracer), among many, many more. Coal tar is also often used in the production of modern road surfaces.


Admiral Alexander Cochrane

Despite Archibald’s mixed record at making money from his discoveries, his relatives were able to continue the family tradition of naval service. Archibald’s younger brother, Alexander, served against the colonial rebels in the American War of Independence and then played a significant role in the Napoleonic Wars. Appropriately enough given his name, his ship HMS Ajax helped take Alexandria in Egypt in 1801. A year later Alexander took a Spanish treasure fleet, with the inadvertent (but historically important) effect of driving Spain back to Napoleon’s side in 1804. He fought the French and Spanish at the Battle of San Domino (the modern Dominican Republic) where his hat was blown off by a cannonball that could have taken his head with it—the sort of Point of Divergence common in these wars. Later, as Spain switched sides, Alexander helped Francisco de Miranda in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim rebellious Venezuela for the Spanish crown (a rare case of the Cochrane name being associated with the Reconquista side of the Latin American wars of independence, as we will see later). Alexander also conquered the Danish West Indies and Martinique to deny them to Napoleon’s side.

But possibly Alexander’s most prominent service for historical impact was in the War of 1812 against the United States. He landed the force commanded by Major-General Robert Ross that burned Washington DC, including the Capitol and the White House, in 1814. Both of those buildings survived as shells and were restored—there is a story that the White House only has that name because of the post-burning repainting job, although there is evidence that the name was used shortly before the British attack. Alexander then wanted to go on to attack Rhode Island, but General Ross and Admiral Cockburn preferred to go for Baltimore in Maryland. All these attacks were ordered by Alexander as revenge for American troops’ destruction of British subjects’ homes on Lake Erie (what would become Canada). The Baltimore attack was less successful and Ross was slain. Alexander had ordered the bombardment of the Americans’ Fort McHenry with nineteen ships, including the dedicated rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb-ships Terror, Volcano, Meteor, Devastation and Aetna. Despite bombarding for 27 hours, the British were unable to break the fort’s resistance and an overlarge American flag was raised in defiance to replace the tattered existing one. The poet Francis Scott Key was inspired to write of ‘the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there’. The Star-Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, was born.


Thomas Cochrane

Despite this major role in history, Alexander Cochrane arguably had an even bigger impact just because he connived to get his nephew, Archibald’s son Thomas, into the Royal Navy by a common practice of inserting him into ships’ records at an unrealistically young age (even for the 1800s) so he had the years of service needed later on. Thomas Cochrane was one of the greatest Royal Navy sailors of all time. His first command, the small brig HMS Speedy in the Mediterranean, he led into the ‘Action of 6 May 1801’, where Thomas and his men captured the Spanish frigate Gamo through guile despite it being three times the size. After a number of other successes (capturing or destroying 53 enemy ships!), a superior French squadron chased the Speedy and caught her despite Thomas ordering the guns, boats and provisions thrown overboard to lighten the ship. He was eventually forced to surrender to the French ship-of-the-line Desaix, but Captain Christy-Pallière refused to accept Thomas’ sword in recognition of his exploits.

After his release following a prisoner exchange, Thomas went on to have a number of other successes in other ships, notably HMS Imperieuse. On this ship, one of his midshipmen was a young Frederick Marryat, who went on to write the first novels of this era of the Royal Navy (a genre sometimes described as ‘Wooden Ships and Iron Men’) and inspired many other later authors. Perhaps reflecting his father’s commercial interests, Thomas was also one of the first advocates of chemical warfare, both in the Napoleonic Wars and in later conflicts. He somehow also found time to be elected to Parliament as a Radical politician, advocating Parliamentary Reform, which made him an enemy of established interests. In 1814 he was imprisoned for his alleged role in a stock-exchange scandal based off spreading the false rumour of Napoleon’s death; both then and now there is much debate about whether Thomas was guilty of this or whether his conviction in court was politically motivated. The people’s sympathy was with him. He left Britain in disgrace, but then went to Chile in 1818. The Chileans were rebelling against Spanish control under the leadership of Bernardo O’Higgins, the descendant of an Irish exile in Spain. Thomas was tasked with building up the rebel nation’s navy, bringing in other experienced British officers and the techniques he had learned during the long war with France. He successfully took the city of Valdivia with just 300 men and two ships. In 1820 he managed to capture the Esmerelda, the most powerful Spanish ship in South America, which led to Peruvian independence along with that of Chile.


Chilean frigate Almirante Cochrane at sea, June 2016

In his honour, the Chilean Navy named five ships Almirante Cochrane (Admiral Cochrane) over the years. The most recent one, perhaps appropriately, is an ex-British ship, a Type 23 frigate formerly known as HMS Norfolk.

After a brief and probably untrue rumour that Thomas planned to break Napoleon out of exile in St Helena to lead a United States of South America, he then helped the Brazilians break away from Portugal by leading their own Navy. He also helped the Greeks with their successful rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, albeit not as prominently. His public popularity in Britain at this point had grown to the point that in 1832 he was restored to the Royal Navy lists, and later his degraded knighthood was belatedly restored. As if that was not enough, he also patented the ‘tunnelling shield’ with engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) which was used to dig the Thames Tunnel, and he continued his father’s interest in inventing by being an early advocate of steamships for the Royal Navy (unlike many of the conservative admirals). In his seventies, the British Government considered putting him in command of a naval fleet during the Crimean War (which Thomas was keen to serve in) but it was decided he was too likely to risk the fleet in an audacious action! He finally died in 1860 at the age of 84.

Thomas Cochrane’s impact on history did not end with his death. As noted above, Frederick Marryat had served with him and used Cochrane’s larger-than-life exploits as inspiration for his naval fiction, which was then passed on to later writers in the same genre. One of these was C. S. Forester, whose Horatio Hornblower novels were initially written in part to encourage American readers to support Britain in the then-ongoing Second World War. Later, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is more directly inspired by Thomas Cochrane’s life—to the point where some of them (notably the first, Master and Commander) are effectively just accurate descriptions of real events with a few names changed: Captain Aubrey (not Cochrane) commands HMS Sophie (not Speedy) and surrenders to...Captain Christy-Pallière (evidently not all the names were changed!)

Just over a century after Thomas Cochrane’s death, Gene Roddenberry was creating a new TV series envisaged as ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’. Roddenberry had served in World War II, but in the Army Air Force not the Navy, and his knowledge of naval practice was as much driven by fiction as experience. After the first pilot (with Jeffrey Hunter playing Captain Christopher Pike) was rejected, Roddenberry conceived a new captain character inspired by Hornblower (who was in turn inspired by Cochrane and Marryat’s stories of Cochrane, as noted above). Roddenberry debated between a number of names (including Thorpe, Boone, Hamilton and, oddly January) but eventually settled on James Kirk. William Shatner was cast, and the rest is history.

Were Roddenberry and the rest of the Star Trek team aware that Kirk’s conception descended from Thomas Cochrane? Perhaps; writer Gene L. Coon, who wrote the episode “Metamorphosis”, gave the name Zefram Cochrane to the inventor of warp drive, the fictional faster-than-light drive in Star Trek. The character later reappeared in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which he was portrayed by James Cromwell. Coon may also have been thinking of others by that name (such as Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier), but intentional or not, it is a fitting tribute to a family who changed the world so much (and this article has barely scratched the surface!)


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Tom Anderson has written the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions) as well as The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, Not An English Word, The Twilight's Last Gleaming, and The Surly Bonds of Earth.

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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