Update 1: watch the conference presentation inspired by this article!
Update 2: read the follow-up article, Five Innovations from the Civil War
British psychologist Henry Ellis famously said, “There is nothing that war has ever achieved that we could not better achieve without it.” Certainly one can understand the moral dimensions of what Ellis was saying. It’s doubtful that he had technological innovation at the forefront of his thinking. But if one wanted to argue against Ellis, one need look no further than the boom of new technology that came about during the 1940’s.
As popular entertainment such as the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific have graphically shown, the heroism and determination of individual soldiers working together propelled the Allied forces to victory in both the European and Pacific theaters. Yet technological advantages played a huge role for both the victors and the defeated. The war was a time of incredible innovation driven by necessity.
Let’s look at five kinds of tech that benefited from research and development during WWII.
1. RADAR and SONAR
The US Navy coined the acronym RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging) in 1940, while the Germans and the British were duking it out in the so-called “Battle of the Beams.” Initially, the Nazis used radar effectively to navigate and land bombers at night, while the British were flailing about with aerial navigation by star charts. However, Hitler and his Luftwaffe leaders underestimated the value of radar and it’s counterpart for aquatic deployment, SONAR (Sound Detection and Ranging.) The Brits gained significant tactical advantages in detecting German planes and submarines miles away. Advance warnings saved countless lives and allowed the underdog British to fend off overwhelming German attacks as well as go on the offensive.
Waves emanated far and wide from the massive boom in radar technology of the 1940’s — even into your kitchen! The cavity magnetron sounds like something you might find in a dentist’s office on the planet Cybertron, but you will actually find one in your microwave oven helping to heat up your Hot Pocket. Hooray, cavity magnetron! Hooray, innovation!
Civil aviation and meteorology have obviously benefited from the development of radar. Dr. Robert Ballard famously used sonar to find many significant wrecks deep underwater, including RMS Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and the wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. Most relevant to you and me, perhaps, is the contemporary use of radar guns by local law enforcement to fill the coffers of municipal governments via fines attached to speeding tickets. Boo, innovation!
The ENIAC computer, originally designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the US Army, was heralded as a “giant brain” with computational capabilities at least one thousand times faster than existing machines. To this day, ENIAC represents the single biggest speed increase in computer technology. Compare this to the latest desktop PC performance comparison charts. A fancy new system sporting a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2400S is roughly 33% faster than a comparable new tower equipped with a 2.9GHz AMD Phenom II X6 1065T whatever.
Which is to say: “meh.” Compared to wartime inventors in the mid-1940’s, computer manufacturers have apparently forgotten how to innovate.
The super-secret Colossus machines are even more fun to study. Used to rapidly find key combinations for codebreaking, the ten Colossi were the first-ever “programmable” computers using optical tape readers. The British were understandably concerned about the new computers falling into the wrong hands, so Winston Churchill ordered them destroyed and blueprints burned. However, historians worked with the original designers to painstakingly duplicate the specifications, and a functioning replica of Colossus number 9 went online in 2007. A German codebreaker had glowing words for the ancient machine: “If you scale the CPU frequency… you get an equivalent clock of 5.8 MHz for Colossus. That is a remarkable speed for a computer built in 1944.”
Lest we become too fascinated with the genius behind ENIAC and Colossus, we must remember that sometimes innovation shows its darker side. From a certain perspective, these machines were great-grandparents to the self-aware SkyNet and HAL 9000 systems, which caused all kinds of problems for humanity decades after WWII. Don’t even get me started on the Cylons.
3. Synthetic rubber
By mid-1942 Japan conquered and controlled all of Asia. This meant that the Rising Sun rose over nearly all of the world’s supply of natural rubber.
Guess what the Allies used rubber for? Oh, nothing much. Just tires… boots… umm… practically every single thing soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines needed to get around and do their jobs. Simply put: without rubber, armies couldn’t do much more than hand-to-hand combat. Probably barefoot.
So, the United States went to work on the home front innovating new ways to produce quality synthetic rubber. GRS (Government Rubber Styrene) was born. By the end of the war at least 50 American factories were cranking out a huge quantity of GRS — more than twice that of global natural rubber production before the war’s beginning. We were faking it, and we were making it!
Today, most rubber materials used in manufacturing are direct descendents of good ol’ GRS. Some of them have ridiculous names like “Styrene Butadiene Carboxy Block Copolymer” which is quite a feat all by itself.
Here is a very abbreviated list of some things we make out of synthetic rubber: all kinds of stuff for cars, trucks and other vehicles (tires, gaskets, mechanical seals, hoses, belts); garden hoses; laboratory tubing; inner tubes; diving suits; radar absorbent material; protective clothing; many different kinds of foam useful for wetsuits, gloves, orthopedic braces, and mouse pads; adhesives in liquid, tape, and other forms; and all kinds of things related to space travel. And, yes, “rubbers.”
4. Jet engines
The first working jet engine was already screaming in England a couple years before the war, but the British didn’t invest much in the technology. The Germans, on the other hand, built the Messerschmitt Me 262 which became the first jet-powered fighter aircraft — the fastest, most advanced war plane at the time. The Me 262 was dominant in dogfights with pokey prop planes. Fortunately for the Allies, the Nazis weren’t able to launch many jets until late in the war, when fuel shortages limited their ability to deploy them. The British did finally get their own jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, up in the air at the tail end of the war.
One significant innovation of jet engines was the axial-flow compressor developed by Austrian Dr. Anselm Franz. The axial-flow compressor, like its progeny the flux capacitor, was a big step forward in efficiency and power. Axial-flow compressors are still widely used today not only in jet engines, but also in ocean vessels, power stations, and many industrial applications.
After the war Dr. Franz worked in the United States to build better engines. Most jet engines on fixed wing aircraft today are descendents of design innovations by Dr. Franz and his peers.
5. Multi-track recording
The first true multi-track audio recording system wasn’t invented until years after the war, but the underlying technology came from captured Nazi electronics. At the end of the war in Europe, US Army Signal Corp soldier Jack Mullin took personal possession of two German magnetophon devices, the most advanced magnetic tape recorders in the world at the time.
Mullin was fascinated by the magnetophones. He spend the next several years as a civilian dissecting the tape decks and building his own version for use in sound recording for Hollywood movies. The amazing fidelity of sound reproduction caught the attention of MGM Studios, which led to Bing Crosby investing in further development of the recorders via electronics firm Ampex. Crosby gave one of the first production model Ampex decks to Les Paul, who used it to invent the modern multi-track recording process in the mid-1950’s. Important innovations in four- and eight-track music recording were employed for records by The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the 1960’s (think Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds.) Soon, all the cool kids were doing it.
Next time you’re enjoying a favorite track on Spotify or rocking out in the Big Design room at Turntable.fm, remember that crisp, modern sound was made possible by the spoils of war and an enterprising young G.I. named Jack Mullin.
The five innovations from WWII summarized above are just examples. We could spend hours examining what else was invented or improved during the war: vaccines and other medicine; logistical support; manufacturing, production, and distribution; spying and espionage; communications; weaponry of all kinds… on and on we could go.
Perhaps more important than the individual innovations, however, are the lessons we can learn.
Consider that each important breakthrough in technology or technique required the following:
- tight cycles of rapid innovation and continuous improvements
- advances in scientific knowledge about materials, systems, and the laws of the physical universe
- an experimental environment that anticipates and rewards failure
- synthesis of information and ideas from many inputs
- management and coordination of hundreds or thousands of individual efforts, often across geopolitical boundaries
- break-neck speed of execution from research to development to mass production to implementation
- appropriate levels of information security and secrecy, or openness and sharing to enhance collaboration
Clearly, innovation is not for the faint of heart. But what can we do to ensure we establish a culture of innovation similar to that of the Greatest Generation? Consider how these principles might be implemented in your organization:
- Can-do attitude: a motivating, shared belief that the hurdles between discovery and implementation can be overcome through sustained effort
- Cooperation: allies working together will defeat fragmented, competitive groups with disparate agendas
- Treasuring time: more money can always be generated; lost time is irreplaceable
- Get there first: being first to market is more important than polishing the product to perfection
- Checks and balances: ultimate authority must be held accountable to moral / ethical responsibilities
- Shared purpose: defeating the enemy and saving the lives of troops and civilians were focal points for every project
- Friendly competition: parallel discovery and development stimulates rapid innovation