Science, Technology, and Warfare through the Ages

    German V-2 rocket being
    prepared for launch.

For all the role of science, mathematics, and new inventions in earlier wars, no war had as profound an effect on the technologies of our current lives than World War II (1939-45). And no war was as profoundly affected by science, math, and technology than WWII.

We can point to numerous new inventions and scientific principles that emerged during the war. These include advances in rocketry, pioneered by Nazi Germany. The V-1 or “buzz bomb” was an automatic aircraft (today known as a “cruise missile”) and the V-2 was a “ballistic missile” that flew into space before falling down on its target (both were rained on London during 1944-45, killing thousands of civilians). The “rocket team” that developed these weapons for Germany were brought to the United States after World War II, settled in Huntsville, Alabama, under their leader Wernher von Braun, and then helped to build the rockets that sent American astronauts into space and to the moon. Electronic computers were developed by the British for breaking the Nazi “Enigma” codes, and by the Americans for calculating ballistics and other battlefield equations. Numerous small “computers”—from hand-held calculating tables made out of cardboard, to mechanical trajectory calculators, to some of the earliest electronic digital computers, could be found in everything from soldiers’ pockets to large command and control centers. Early control centers aboard ships and aircraft pioneered the networked, interactive computing that is so central to our lives today.

SEEING THROUGH THE CLOUDS AND BEYOND

    Wernher von Braun, with
    the F-1 engines of the
    Saturn V first stage at
    the U.S. Space and Rocket
    Center

The entire technology of radar, which is the ability to use radio waves to detect objects at a distance, was barely invented at the start of the war but became highly developed in just a few years at sites like the “Radiation Laboratory” at MIT. By allowing people to “see” remotely, at very long distances, radar made the idea of “surprise attack” virtually obsolete and vastly enlarged the arena of modern warfare (today’s radars can see potential attackers from thousands of miles away). Radar allowed nations to track incoming air attacks, guided bombers to their targets, and directed anti-aircraft guns toward airplanes flying high above. Researchers not only constructed the radars, but also devised countermeasures: during their bombing raids, Allied bombers dropped thousands of tiny strips of tinfoil, code-named “window” and “chaff” to jam enemy radar.

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