Future Tense

What Science and Technology Owe the National Defense

A Future Tense event recap.

People stand amid rubble and bombed-out buildings.
The aftermath of a V-1 flying bomb strike in central London, June 1944 U.S. Army Signal Corps/National Archives

Anti-aircraft guns in London during the Blitz of 1940 were mostly for show. It was extremely difficult to shoot down an aircraft. The shells launched to explode in an enemy bomber’s flight path had to be timed to one-fortieth of a second, explained Future Tense fellow Jamie Holmes in a recent online event co-sponsored by Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology.* A timing device a second off would mean an explosion 2,000 feet from its intended target.

It’s no surprise, then, that at the start of the Blitz it took about 20,000 shells to shoot down a single airplane.

Developing a solution to the problem—an electronic sensor within a shell that could detect a nearby aircraft and blow up in its proximity—was simple in theory but complicated in execution, Holmes said. The electronics of the day were extremely sensitive, the transistor didn’t yet exist, and any sensor would have to withstand enormous pressure. The task of creating the first “ ‘intelligent’ bullet,” Holmes writes, was thus akin to “shooting a light bulb out of a pistol.”

The story of the rag-tag group of Americans who took on this challenge, “one of the toughest, most urgent scientific tasks of World War II,” is the center of Holmes’ new book, 12 Seconds of Silence: How a Team of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Spies Took Down a Nazi Superweapon.

This team of scientists, led by Merle Tuve and known as Section T of the Office of Science and Research Development, went from working on a borrowed Virginia farm and buying the wrong blasting powder to creating the world’s first “smart” weapon, itself key to Allied victory. “It’s a story of cooperation and overcoming scientific puzzles under great pressure,” Holmes said, explaining why he was drawn to the subject. Or, as he wrote in a Future Tense piece: It’s a story of “how to organize science in an emergency against a ticking clock.”

Sound familiar?

Today, the threats we face—a pandemic, climate change, cyberattacks—are less visible than Nazi bombs and drones raining from the sky.

Threats such as low-grade cyberwarfare and intellectual property theft in particular are hard to rally against, because they are “most obvious in channels that are very classified and sensitive,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle (ret.), the university adviser on cyber capabilities and conflict studies at Arizona State University as well as a cyberfellow at the school’s Center on the Future of War. A major challenge, said Schmidle, who formerly served as first deputy commander within the U.S. Cyber Command, “is trying to incentivize the electorate and the industrial base to do work for the government when you are asking, in some cases, for them just to press the ‘I believe’ button.”

The bonds between the military, the academy, and industry that were forged during World War II form the basis of the military-industrial-knowledge complex. Those bonds were made closer and more permanent by government spending on science and technology during the Cold War, and are now being tested by a number of factors—lack of leadership, increased globalization, decreased incentives and legitimate moral concerns on the part of individuals being pressed into service.

Back in WWII days, there was no doubt that companies like General Motors were subservient to the national interest. But nowadays, “globalization has escalated such that it can be hard to define the nationality of a corporation,” said Andrés Martinez, the editorial director of Future Tense.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, “in many cases behave as if they were nation states,” agreed Schmidle.

While the military-industrial-knowledge complex has resulted in innovation—and indeed fueled the growth of Silicon Valley and an “extraordinary set of commercial technologies” such as GPS and the internet itself —it has also brought mistakes and tragedies, said Margaret O’Mara, the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. The resulting question is “How can we think about a next-generation partnership that prioritizes a broader public good?”

While “industry is an important partner to certain parts of the government,” O’Mara said, “it can’t be the agenda-setter.” Governments need to develop their capacities to become better partners, recognizing that the most important piece of any partnership is the people.

Scientists and technologists need a mission to do their best work, said O’Mara, who serves as the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington. Complex politics, interrelated tech, and integrated supply chains make it harder for today’s scientists and technologists to “figure out what’s the right stance to have” when it comes to working with the government, she said. Those who do choose to work in science and technology development for the government “do so for the mission, not the money,” Schmidle said.

U.S. immigration and education policies will also make or break the future of national innovation.

“The Americans do not have a monopoly on technological talent. The reason that the U.S. has been such a powerhouse is because of immigration policy, foreign educational exchange, and an investment in higher ed,” O’Mara said. “Looking at this historically, those are foundational.”

Ultimately, Merle Tuve’s team settled on a radio proximity fuse, which would prove crucial to fighting against the V-1, the Nazis’ deadly drones deployed late in the war, which struck terror among Londoners with both their whirling travel sound and the 12 seconds of silence that accompanied their final descent to impact.

As Holmes documents, Office of Science and Research Development Director Vannevar Bush’s vision of mobilizing science for the war effort led to the development and deployment not only of the fuse, but also of Allied landing craft, a blood substitute, penicillin, and radar-jamming technology, to name just a few of the innovations from “Bush’s army of researchers” within the OSRD.

For Holmes, the OSRD’s path to success offers lessons for contemporary efforts to leverage science and technology in the national interest.

Bush believed that “in order to come up with radical innovations, you need to go back to basics,” Holmes said. Balancing the timeless tension between the need for basic and applied research, the government set some parameters of priorities, but granted scientists autonomy to conduct their research as they saw fit. The OSRD was arranged so that the government would hold patents derived from researchers’ work, and designed in order to foster connections between “people who aren’t used to talking to each other,” Holmes said.

Perhaps most importantly, as Holmes wrote for Future Tense in August, Bush and Tuve left us with the lesson “that administrative wisdom can be profoundly heroic. … [I]t’s not just relying on science but the intelligent organization of science that often matters most.”

*Correction, Sept. 25, 2020: This article originally misspelled Jamie Holmes’ first name.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.