During World War II, a small group of British and American scientists employed novel strategies and developed new and improved gadgets to defeat the German U-boats that were wreaking havoc on allied commerce. Armed with mathematics, physics and probability theory, they forged the new field of operational research and forever changed how war is fought and won.
At their head was Patrick Blackett, a former naval officer turned experimental physicist who would later win the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics for his investigation of cosmic rays. Author Stephen Budiansky chronicles Blacketts efforts in his book, Blacketts War.
In March 1941, German submarines the infamous U-boats that were first utilized to such devastating effect in World War I were sinking dozens of freighters loaded with much-needed supplies in an effort to bring Britain to its knees.
In an attempt to turn the tide, the British War Cabinet hired ardent socialist Blackett to wage (and ultimately win) a massive defensive push using tactics ranging from changing the color of bomber wings to reconfiguring the size of ocean convoys.
For Americans who have grown up with national laboratories like Los Alamos and Sandia, the idea of harnessing science for the national good seems commonplace. But in the early days of World War II, it was novel indeed and not always well accepted by a military ruled by tradition.
Blackett and his American counterpart Philip Morse often fought an uphill battle in getting their ideas translated into action. But their dogged determination resulted in noticeable successes and eventually earned the respect of their leaders.
Teams of scientists turned out improvements that ran the gamut from changes to the mechanism that aimed anti-aircraft guns to high-tech code-breaking machinery. One obvious (in retrospect) suggestion completely eliminated the bottleneck that had long plagued mess halls as soldiers lined up to wash their kits (more wash basins, fewer rinse pans).
While many of the men and women who established the field of operational research have faded into historical oblivion, advances made during those years translated into smoother post-war operations in industry. Budiansky does a masterful job illustrating the great debt we owe to their courage and foresight at a time when innovation made all the difference in the direction of world history.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Readers Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Readers Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Budiansky, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.