England expects…

London is the space insurance capital of the world. If you have a £150m satellite to cover then you’ll probably end up talking to an underwriter based at Lloyd’s in the City.

I was mulling this over as I gazed up at Nelson on top of his column in Trafalgar Square the other day - I’d been taking a small detour to see what was going on in Downing Street – it was the morning after the general election.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844 (Science & Society)

As I walked on down Whitehall I thought of the words I had read on the floor of Lloyds just two days earlier: ‘England Expects that every man will do his duty’. This immortal prose - a signal sent by Nelson just before the Battle of Trafalgar - is preserved in the logbook of HMS Euryalus, an observing, non-combatant ship now displayed amongst Lloyd’s Nelson Collection.

Nelson’s flagship communicated to the fleet by a system of semaphore flags hoisted from its masts. It is likely (does anyone know for sure?) that related messages, once reaching land, were hastened to the Admiralty via semaphore towers that stretched from Portsmouth to London. I’m old enough to remember the working model of a similar ‘Chappe’ tower in the Science Museum’s old Children’s Gallery.

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954 (Science Museum/SSPL)

Times moved on and optical telegraph gave way to electrical and then radio.

Today the armed forces use satellites with the Skynet series another of the UK’s unsung space technology successes. But such military spacecraft are not insured at Lloyds: the government (i.e. the tax-payer) picks up the bill should anything go wrong!

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