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Canberra, but not by any other name

Happy 100th birthday, Canberra.

Happy 100th birthday, Canberra. Photo: Karleen Minney

Canberra. Meeting place? Space between a woman’s breasts? Speculation on the origins of our city’s name is nothing new.

An idealist might say that the word Canberra means something different to each Canberran, to every person touched by the city in some way. But what does the word mean to the rest of the world?

Beyond the political headlines, beyond the Australian defence assets (yes, there is a brand new HMAS Canberra in our navy), beyond our nation’s great shores, here are five things that share the name of Australia’s capital city:

Canberra - a special jubilee beer created by a boutique brewery in the Queen’s default home town of Windsor, England.

Canberra - a special jubilee beer created by a boutique brewery in the Queen’s default home town of Windsor, England.

1. Beer

For all those who believe there’s a little bit of Canberra in a lot of people, you might be closer to the mark than you knew. Raise your glasses to Canberra, a special jubilee beer created by a boutique brewery in the Queen’s default home town of Windsor, England.

Willie Calvert from Windsor and Eton Brewery said the celebratory brew, part of a trio cooked up for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, was created to represent the New World, and was made using maple syrup from Canada, as well as hops from New Zealand and Tasmania. So where does Canberra come into it? Willie explains:

Two WB-57 aircraft, part of NASA's WB-57 High Altitude Research Program.

Two WB-57 aircraft, part of NASA's WB-57 High Altitude Research Program.

“We called the beer Canberra because it recognises your capital city - but also because on the day of the Coronation in 1953, newsreel footage of the event was immediately flown to Canada to be watched on TV "as live". It was flown on a Canberra jet (see below), taking off from the RAF base at Northolt, which is close to here.”

Apparently the beer is a darker ale with “a great hop character”. No word yet on Australian stockists, but you can check out the Windsor and Eton Brewery website.

2. Bomber jets and cruise ships

While we all know about NASA’s links with the ACT through the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, which played a part in the recent Mars rover landing, the space agency has a more historical, if somewhat tenuous, link with our capital: the Canberra jet.

According to Wikipedia, the Canberra is a first-generation jet-powered light bomber designed by English Electric and manufactured in large numbers through the 1950s. There was also a US variant, the Martin B-57.

The plane made the first ever non-stop unrefuelled transatlantic crossing by a jet in 1951, and set a world altitude record of 21,430 metres in 1957. The Canberra was used by the RAF, RAAF (an Australian-built version), USAF (including the B-57), and the Indian Air Force amongst others, in conflicts including the Korean War, the Vietnam War and in the Falklands.

Back to NASA’s Canberra links: two B-57s remain in use today, assigned to NASA as high altitude research planes. But the two jets are also utilised by US armed forces in Afghanistan, and, as recently as 2012, were named “America’s most important war plane”.

And, for good measure, there have also been ships named Canberra, outwith our own navy. The US navy ran a Baltimore class cruiser (later a guided missile cruiser), the USS Canberra, named in 1943 in honour of the sunken HMAS Canberra (nicknamed the “Can-Do Kangaroo”), and the only US warship named for a foreign capital city. It was decommissioned in 1970, broken up for scrap in 1980 – the ship’s bell was donated to the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2001. Check out the USS Canberra Reunion Association website for more.

And there was an SS Canberra from Ireland, which was a P&O ocean liner cruise ship between 1961 and 1997 (and a troop carrier during the Falklands War), launched in 1960 by Dame Pattie Menzies.

3. Canberra school, Sembawang, Singapore

The British influence lives on in a group of Singaporean school children. Huzzah! Although from a quick check of Twitter, these kids have very much made Canberra their own.

Canberra Primary and Canberra Secondary School are both located in Sembawang, in the northern portion of Singapore, where you’ll also find a Canberra Road and a Canberra Link.

But before jumping to the conclusion that there’s a special relationship between our two towns, it’s also worth pointing out there is a Wellington Circuit, a Montreal Drive, and a whole host of other tributes to the great British Empire. Sembawang was once home to a major British naval base.

Nevertheless, the students still identify as ‘Canberrans’ and the secondary school sees global outreach as an important part of their education. The school vision is “every Canberran a self-directed learner of exemplary character and responsible citizen with a global outlook” and the mission is “inspiring Canberrans to challenge their potential, conquer their aspirations and contribute to society.”

Perhaps we could adopt those ideals for our city as well?

4. The Canberra distance

On the topic of education, our capital has also lent its name to a mathematical measure of distance, putting it up in the same league as New York, which has the Manhattan distance named after it due to the grid layout of the city's streets.

Well, maybe not quite the same as Manhattan. 

According to CSIRO mathematician Bob Anderssen, the terminology “Canberra distance” was invented by two CSIRO scientists (Bill Williams and Godfrey Lance) working in the ACT in the 1960s, and does not relate in any way to Canberra's geography or layout. From a strict mathematical perspective, it is not a distance measure like that used to define the distance between home and work. In a colloquial sense, it is a measure used to cluster things on the basis of their similarity.

So what is the role and purpose of the measure “Canberra distance”? It is one of a number of algorithms for comparing and clustering objects on the basis of similarity. Dr Anderssen says biologists use it to compare plant properties, and points to CSIRO Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics chief Bronwyn Harch's PhD studies, which used the Canberra distance measure in the classification of peanut plants to make breeding more efficient.

Or, for the proud tomato-growing Canberrans (of which we know there are many), Dr Anderssen has suggested the following example:

Imagine trying to understand the relationship between the weeds and tomato bushes in your garden. The location of the plants might be recorded as big black dots on a map of the garden. One then uses the “Canberra distance” to differentiate between the tomato bushes and the weeds based on some chosen biological characterisation, cluster them into similar groups, and colour the tomato dots green and the weeds red. This would allow you to better understand the growing pattern and relationship between the two species.

If you've a good head for maths and geometry, you can check out the formula and more information here.

5. Planet Canberra, from Vernor Vinge’s sci-fi novels

Not having read all of Vernor Vinge’s Hugo-winning space opera A Fire Upon the Deep, it is difficult to get a full sense of the complexity of the universe he has created and the plot of the novel.

But, having now read page 33 of the e-book (which has been enough to entice a more complete reading), Vinge’s Canberra doesn’t sound anywhere near as nice as our own.

One of the key characters, Pham Nuwen (who, it appears, may end up saving the fictional universe), hails from the medieval planet of Canberra – in Vinge’s own words:

“For Pham Nuwen really was a barbarian. He had been born on a fallen colony world- Canberra, he called it… He’d grown up with swords and poison and intrigue, living in stone castles by a cold, cold sea.”

The Canberra Science Fiction Society has touched on Vinge’s Canberra once before, speculating that the name was more likely derived from the Canberra distance (Vinge was a maths professor) than our city. With the bleak description of Canberra above, we’d like to think that was the case.

Have you come across anything that shares the name of our capital? Leave your comments below.

A late addition: We know we said five things named Canberra, but online editor David McLennan has pitched in with a sixth - the Hotel Canberra in Selcuk, a coastal town in western Turkey.

Dave, who stayed at the hotel, asked why the hotel was thus named, to which the owner replied he had a brother who lived in Australia. Ironically, the brother lived in Sydney.

Hotel Canberra

5 comments

  • Re: Hotel Canberrra. Sure his brother may have lived in Sydney, but Canberra is the place you want to be.

    Commenter
    YS
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 2:27PM
    • Oxley Park, in Sydney has quite an important looking Canberra Street linking Australia Street with Melbourne Street.
      We have a Sydney Avenue in Barton, though sadly it was severed from New South Wales Crescent some years ago.

      Commenter
      Saddington
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 2:45PM
      • Sir David Butler's phrase (and book by the same name): The Canberra Model -- which is not about a thin, leggy female on the catwalk, but about distinctive aspects of Australia's government.

        Commenter
        Karina
        Location
        Belconnen
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 3:11PM
        • There is a philosophical school that centres at ANU, called the "Canberra Plan", in which the objects that are thought to exist in the world are those required by our best theory of the world. It has nothing to do with the fact that Canberra's streets go in circles.

          Commenter
          jswilkins
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          April 15, 2013, 3:57PM
          • The 'federal capital' architectural style, most notably used by John Smith Murdoch in his buildings around Canberra, is also known as the Canberra style.

            Commenter
            peitab
            Date and time
            April 15, 2013, 4:58PM
            Comments are now closed
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