Today, we try to aim a gun from a rocking platform.
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.
In the war of 1812, warships
fired banks of guns broadside at a nearby enemy. 75
years later, they carried long-range guns that
fired from turrets. Aiming broadside from rolling
ships had been hard enough. But firing at a target
a mile away was a whole different cup of tea.
Elting Morison writes about a test in 1899. Five
American ships took turns firing at a ship's hulk a
mile away. 25 minutes later they'd scored only two
By this time ship's guns had telescopic sights and
mechanisms that let gunners move them fairly
quickly. The standard drill was to set corrections
for the range, aim the gun roughly, and then wait
until the ship's roll put the target in the sights.
In 1898 an English admiral, Percy Scott, watched
his men at target practice. All but one was doing
miserably. That one gunner had evolved his own
aiming tactic. He kept his eye on the sight, and he
moved the gun continually, until he could feel the
synchronization between his aim and the motion of
the ship. What he was doing was subtle, yet it took
advantage of skills that most people already had.
It coupled the man and the machine.
Scott adopted this technique and quickly set
remarkable records in marksmanship. In 1900 an
American Naval officer, William Sims, met Scott in
the Far East and learned all about his new
technique. By 1905, the continuous-aim firing
method had become standard U.S. Navy practice, but
not before Sims had learned a grim lesson about
innovation in organizations.
Sims's attempts to interest the U.S. Navy in
continuous aiming met a brick wall. He was told
that English equipment was no better than ours, so
if our men couldn't hit the target, it was because
our officers didn't know how to train them. And
they told Sims flatly that continuous-aim firing
wasn't possible. Sims finally went straight to
Teddy Roosevelt, who decided to give him a try. He
abruptly made Sims the Chief Inspector of Target
Practice. And by 1905 a single gunner did more in a
one-minute test than the five ships did previously
in 25 minutes.
What that unknown English sailor did was to bypass
method and go straight to the task. He didn't think
about mastering standard technique, but about how
to do the job. Scott recognized the importance of
what he'd done. And Sims championed the idea.
Today, we ask ourselves how to shorten these three
steps toward putting a good idea into play. How do
we escape the mental strait-jackets that keep us
from seeing new possibilities? How do we give our
organizations the capacity to recognize a good
idea? And how do we show people what new ideas can
do for them? Not easy tasks -- not one is an easy
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds