It happened today - February 10, 2016

Ah, the wonders of the steam age. On this day in 1906, February 10, HMS Dreadnought was launched and very nearly sank its own fleet.

Not that there was anything wrong with Dreadnought. On the contrary, she was an astonishing technical achievement by the Royal Navy. The brainchild of Admiral Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, First Sea Lord, she carried only large main guns and as the first capital ship with steam turbines (told you) she was the fastest battleship in the world.

All good, right? Britannia rules the waves, pip pip. Except Dreadnought rendered all other major ships obsolete at a stroke, giving her name not just to a class but a type of ship. And, as Britain was the world’s leading naval power, hit her hardest. All the other powers had to do was copy Dreadnought successfully, match Britain in this new category of ship, and they’d have caught up with Britain (Der Tag, German naval officers called that great day which never quite came).

To say so is not to criticize Fisher. If he hadn’t done it someone else would have. There’s no stopping progress. Indeed mighty Dreadnought (the sixth Royal Navy vessel with that name but the only one we remember today) was already out of action, being refitted, during the only clash of “dreadnoughts” that ever happened, at Jutland in 1916. She was then assigned to coastal duties, rejoined the main fleet in 1918 and was put on reserve in 1919, sold for scrap in 1921 and actually scrapped in 1923.

To be sure, she retains the odd distinction of being the only battleship ever to sink an even more ominous weapon of the future, a submarine, by ramming it in 1915 after it surfaced after firing a torpedo at another dreadnought. But the main significance of the ship, apart from its incredibly cool name, is to underline how scary technological progress is in defence matters and how unstoppable. From revolutionary breakthrough to slag in 17 years. And it’s only gotten worse since.

Frankly it’s one more reason I miss the Middle Ages, when a trebuchet stayed a trebuchet for decades at a time. But we’ve gone through steam and gasoline to the nuclear age and are building military drones.

Don’t blink or you’re sunk. As you may well be anyway.

It happened todayJohn Robson