Both miracle and disaster


The idea was that you could win wars by destroying your enemy’s means of war. You didn’t have to kill them, just deny them the means to kill you. If you could blow up the factories where they made their weapons, if you could choke their supply lines, then their war machine would stop.

The Air Force believed in it; between the two world wars there was a period of extreme optimism, in large part thanks to a device invented by the Dutch-born Swiss engineer Carl Norden. The Air Corps bombers believed they possessed a secret weapon, a precision sight that would allow them to “drop a bomb into a barrel of pickles at an altitude of 30,000 feet.”

It was hyperbole, but the Norden sight represented a huge leap forward from the rudimentary type of airstrikes that took place during WWI. At the start of the war, pilots dropped small bombs in their hands.

Later, bomb racks were attached to the bottom of the fuselages, but there was no way to aim. Dropping a bomb was like throwing a baseball from a moving car, only the plane was moving at 300 feet per second. Maybe you would get better with a little experience, but it was art, not science.

Or you can dive towards your target, simplifying the equation by pointing your plane almost straight at it. If you were a pilot willing to play chicken with the ground, plunge your plane 70 degrees towards the target, drop your bombs at low altitude, then back up sharply, risking fainting as blood flowed from it. your head. , well, that was much more specific.

It could be done. The Luftwaffe did it; the US Navy did it in the Pacific Theater. The Japanese suicide bombers basically did it. But Norden thought he had a better way.

He was educated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where one of his classmates was Nikolai Lenin. He came to the United States in 1904 to work for Sperry Gyroscope Co., the forerunner of the Sperry Corporation (which later became part of Unisys). But Norden clashed with his boss Elmer Sperry and set up his own engineering workshop on Lafayette Street in New York’s lower Manhattan.

Those who worked with him described Norden as a proud, domineering and conceited, relentless perfectionist who was difficult if not impossible to please. But he was also very ethical and a committed Christian who insisted that he was a designer rather than an inventor because “only God could create”. His name was nowhere on the patent application for the sight.

Norden started working on the device after WWI because he believed it would save lives and shorten wars. If fighter jets could accurately hit military targets at high (safe) altitudes, a lot of collateral damage could be avoided. Civilian lives and homes could be spared. Norden’s motivation for “designing” the sight was to reduce human suffering.

It took him about 20 years to get something achievable, and even then it was unwieldy. Some have called it “the most complicated mechanical device ever made”. It was even more complicated than necessary because, like Thomas Edison, Norden did not trust alternating current and preferred to use mechanical rather than electronic systems.

So he proposed an analog computer that uses physical phenomena governed by equations identical to real world problems for which he wanted to calculate solutions. Theoretically, with the Norden sight, all a bomber had to do was lock the reticle on the target and let the machine do the rest. It would calculate and adjust the air density, wind drift, air speed and ground speed of the bombers.

The US military was incredibly enthusiastic about the sight; it would spend about $ 1.5 billion (in 1940 dollars) on its development. That’s half of what was spent on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.

Some believed that the Norden sight would make a difference in the war the United States would soon join; he dictated American policy in the early years of the war. While the British engaged in carpet bombing at night, the United States advocated daylight precision bombing, a tactic made possible by the Norden sight.

It took months to train the bombers to use it. They had sworn to secrecy and each of the sights was equipped with an incendiary device that would destroy it in the event of an accident. It was not to fall into the hands of the enemy at all costs. This was to be the key to the Allies’ victory.

And it worked. In theory.

But the problem was, the bomber had to see its target to use the sight. Which meant it wasn’t good at night. Which meant the bombers had to stay under the clouds, well below the four or five miles they hoped to fly. Which meant the smoke was a good defense against her.

And even under ideal conditions, bombers could still ruin everything.

It didn’t take long for the US military to abandon the dream of precision bombing in the light of day. We bombed working-class neighborhoods in Japanese cities that had no particular strategic value simply because we knew we could set them on fire with our napalm bombs. Another way to shorten the duration of a war is to demoralize a population.

The only way to really win a war is not to fight it. But sometimes you have to fight, because there are bellicose forces in the world that threaten our way of life, those creature comforts that we have become accustomed to.

Sometimes we can find a noble justification to explain our adventures, sometimes it is enough to demonize our enemies. But we wage wars because we see an advantage in fighting them, because the old people believe that something could be won by the sacrifice on the battlefield of the younger ones.

Even with our best computers, we can’t take everything into account.

We can move a joystick and blow up a car halfway around the world, but we can’t say for sure if that action makes us safer. Once the flak starts to fly, the variables multiply. Foreign policy is implemented by frightened 18-year-olds. We can talk as much as we want about our righteousness and courage and how the world might look to us for their example, but the world sees us and will pass judgment.

What is well intentioned can be madness; one thing can be both a miracle and a disaster.

The Norden sight was not a failure; it just wasn’t the magic solution it was being touted to be. The US military continued to use it during the Vietnam War. When they dropped the atomic bombs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were seen by Norden sights.

No one told the good Christian Carl Norden that, however. It would have pissed him off.

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