Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1418:
THE INFLUENCE OF WAR

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1418.

Today, we wonder how war influences technology. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The common wisdom has always said that war speeds up invention -- that airplane performance, ship technology, and engine design all raced ahead during World Wars I and II, that governments can speed the creation of ideas. All that, the common wisdom accepts. Only it does so without a shred of supporting evidence.

Proponents often attribute one invention in particular to war, the invention of radar. Yet that concept is almost as old as radio itself. Radio pioneers Marconi and Tesla both noted that we could locate metal objects by bouncing radio signals off them; and as early as 1904 a German engineer named Hülsmeyer patented a radio echo device for locating ships at sea.

However, I shall use airplane speeds to explain my doubts. We all know how important it was to speed up airplanes during World Wars I and II. Yet World War II airplanes like our B-17 bomber, or the German Messerschmitt 109 and the British Spitfire fighters, all existed before the war. The Spitfire, adapted from a peacetime racing plane, flew (like most fighters at the start of the war) at about 350 miles per hour. By 1945 the advanced American fighters, the P-38s and P-47s, reached 420 mph. The early German jet, the Messerschmitt 262, used in the waning days of the war, reached 585 mph. But even it had been on the drawing boards before the war.

The remarkable fact is that, throughout its history, the speed of flight has doubled every nine years. The rate of increase was perfectly steady from the first primitive airships in the 1880s until orbital flight made speed records a non-issue. That nine-year doubling was absolutely untouched by war, depression or government.

The same story also holds throughout World War I. In 1914 the first scouting planes flew around 80 mph. By the end of the war in 1918 the advanced SPADs could fly 134 mph, and that is consistent with a simple doubling every nine years. In other words, once our creative energies were turned loose on the airplane, those energies went right on expressing themselves, war or not.

What a government's commitment does increase during war is production. And, make no mistake, our miracles of production during World War II were dazzling. When we needed freighters, the Kaiser steel company set out to make an out-of-date, but serviceable, freighter. They sped up the process until they were able to make a complete ship, keel to launch, in as little as four days.

But that was production. Human ingenuity is quite a different creature. It is remarkably impervious to external pressure. We are told that necessity is the mother of invention, but history does not bear that out. The true mother of invention is our powerful driving internal need to invent. We invent because we want to invent. The parents of invention are those inexorable internal needs for pleasure, self-satisfaction, and freedom.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Lienhard, J.H., Some Ideas about Growth and Quality in Technology. Technology Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 27, 1985, pp. 265-281.

The converse to the argument that war drives technology is built by Martin van Creveld. Van Creveld argues that the form and shape of war is strongly formed by the availability of technology. (See Creveld, M., Technology and War: From 2000 BC to the Present. New York: The Free Press, 1989.)

For quantitative evidence in support of these ideas, see Episode 559. For additional illustrations, see episodes 1492 and 1562.

This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 35.

Industrial engineer Albert Swarts points out that production should not be separated from creative invention as I have seemingly done in the second-to-the-last paragraph. He is correct. Kaiser was enormously creative in developing the means to build Liberty Ships so rapidly. However, creativity can no more be driven by external forces upon production than any other creativity can be driven. In other episodes, I encounter many stories in which such driving resulting in disaster (e.g.: 67, 199, 1387, 1190) and few where it was a success (e.g.: 391). The need for high production soars during war. That need in turn spawns many disasters and a few successes as well.





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.