Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Military’s Role in Stimulating Science and Technology: The Turning Point

The Military’s Role in Stimulating Science and Technology: The Turning Point

Fido: The Mark 24 Mine

On May 12, 1944, a torpedo from a Royal Air RAF heavy bomber based in Northern Ireland struck and crippled a German U-boat in the dark waters of the mid-Atlantic. The next day, other Allied forces located U-456, still wallowing on the surface, and sank it. Another torpedo, this time dropped by an Iceland-based US Navy Catalina, sank a U-boat a day later. These were the first successes for the new torpedo, code-named Fido. Fido was the top secret, first-ever, air-launched, anti-submarine, acoustic homing torpedo and it arrived at a critical time in World War II, helping to turn the tide in the Allies’ favor in the hard fought battle for control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

Conceived, developed, and manufactured in America, Fido was the joint creation of engineers at the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) and scientists at the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab (HUSL). The HUSL team was led by Harvey Brooks, a young physicist with an interest in underwater acoustics but no prior experience with torpedoes or, indeed, weapons of any kind. This was the norm for civilian scientists engaged in war work during World War II. In just under a year and a half, along the way mastering new science, these novice weaponeers produced an effective new device for anti-submarine warfare.

The rapid and successful creation of Fido demonstrated the strengths enjoyed by civilian research labs and their unexpected potential for applying basic research to the development of naval technology. Scientific and technological breakthroughs by civilian scientists occurred in many fields during World War II involving every branch of service and altering the course of the war. For the first time, success on the field of battle depended to an unprecedented degree on advanced science-based technologies, making World War II a turning point in the relationship of the military to science. Previously, this relationship – characterized by one historian as “mutual aloofness”1 – had been marked by lack of understanding and regard. Generally, the military – with the possible exception of those in technical branches – had little interest in stimulating science. During the course of the war, however, a revolution took place, one that was initiated and sustained not so much by the military as by science. The civilian National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) saw to it that by the end of the war prewar disinterest was largely reversed. Military stimulation of science and technology became institutionalized, supported by government funding directed not only to service labs but also to industrial laboratories and academic institutions. The Cold War ensured that military funding of science would continue, even in peacetime, changing both academic science and the military.

Brief History of Science and the Military before World War II

In contrast with Europe, where state-sponsored basic science advanced rapidly in the nineteenth century, Americans were mostly preoccupied with practical innovations, such as improvements in surveying and navigation, that furthered national purposes like westward expansion. With the rise in industry came a corresponding interest in, and encouragement for, the science behind technological change. In the late nineteenth century, American Telephone and Telegraph and General Electric pioneered the establishment of major industrial research organizations, but this happened without government funding. Academic science continued to fend for itself in universities that did not receive federal support. The rare exceptions, the land grant colleges that began to appear in the 1860s, focused largely on research in agriculture.

To be sure, during the Civil War, there was a flurry of scientific and technological activity resulting in the first ironclads and submarines. Semaphore signaling took to the skies when it was used from hot air balloons, and the electric telegraph came into its own. The First World War also saw important technological advances, particularly in the development of aircraft and submarines. Physicists worked on radio communications and sound-based methods of detecting submarines, laying the groundwork for sonar, radar and direction-finding. But many scientists remained leery of cooperating with government, fearful that military need would come to dominate research priorities. For their part, many in the military still failed to recognize the utility of science. James Conant, a chemist and later president of Harvard University, recalled that when, on the outbreak of World War I, the American Chemical Society offered its services to the government, the secretary of war noted that the War Department already had one chemist and did not need more. This was a war that has sometimes been called the chemists’ war for its development and use of poison gas, nitrates and high explosives. And yet, at the end of the war, the chief of staff of the war department still wrote that “Nothing in this war has changed the fact that it is now, as always heretofore, the Infantry with rifle and bayonet that, in the final analysis, must bear the brunt of the assault and carry it on to victory.”2 This attitude prevailed among many in the military even well into World War II.

The Great Depression hit science hard. Research in the natural sciences remained largely the preserve of universities and philanthropic foundations, like the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Institute, and their endowments shrank severely in the economic crisis. The New Deal, which came to the rescue of other sectors of the economy, was stingy in its support of science. The military suffered too. The isolationism that followed the carnage of the First World War put a damper on military appropriations whose funding and numbers were drastically cut, leaving little possibility for the pursuit of scientific research for military purposes. Even in the inhospitable climate of the 1930s, however, advances were made in radar and sonar at the army’s Signal Corps Laboratory and at the Naval Research Laboratory. In spite of this, Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer and former vice president and dean of engineering at MIT, wrote in 1949 that prior to World War II “Military laboratories were dominated by officers who made it utterly clear that the scientists and engineers employed in these laboratories were of a lower caste of society….[The] senior officers of military services everywhere did not have a ghost of an idea concerning the effects of science on the evolution of techniques and weapons….”3

The National Defense Research Committee

The mutual mistrust of scientists and the military began to change in 1940. When France fell to the Nazis in May, a group of American scientists mobilized. They were led by Vannevar Bush, by then chairman of NACA and president of the Carnegie Institution. With the support of Bush and a number of prominent colleagues, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee in June 1940. Among those involved from the beginning, in addition to Bush, were Karl Compton, a physicist and president of MIT; James Conant of Harvard; Frank Jewett, an electrical engineer and president of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Alfred Loomis, an investment banker with deep pockets and a passionate involvement in science. These men understood that the military often had little knowledge of the latest trends in science or what science could do. They determined to act as interpreters, linking the needs of the military to scientific and technological capabilities.

The World War II revolution in military and scientific, as well as industrial, cooperation was, to a great extent, the work of the NDRC. Eventually, academic and research institutions across America were drawn into war work. The NDRC organized a massive migration of personnel to the war laboratories it set up, funding these operations through government contracts. Mutual interest in winning the war, reinforced by financial support, permanently linked the military and science in a web of cross-fertilization that continues today. Understanding this World War II revolution is the key to understanding modern military stimulation of science and technology.

Much was accomplished in one year to create a civilian-led mechanism for harnessing the nation’s scientists to the war effort and to cooperate with the military without falling under its control. By mid-1941, Bush had recruited — and the government had funded — some 6,000 physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers, a number that grew to 30,000 by the end of the war.4

The US Navy and Science

People expect stirring narratives from guns and bugles military history but may be surprised that scientific and technological developments can be stirring too. Telling some of these stories to students is the best way to make the new relationship between the military and science both meaningful and memorable. The Manhattan Project is one of the most obviously gripping stories. Yet, this tale is familiar and has been told often and well. So, too, has the story of radar and of the early work in computing used for code-breaking. It might be more interesting, therefore, to consider some less-well-known examples of the way the war changed the interplay of the military and science and technology.

Because of its reliance on astronomy for navigation, and meteorology for weather forecasting, the navy had long had a certain dependence on science. The following stories illustrate how World War II confirmed and vastly expanded that dependence. The driving force behind the creation of the torpedo called Fido, for example, had come from Capt. Louis McKeehan, head of the Mine Warfare Branch of the Bureau of Ordnance. Scientists at the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island had been considering acoustic homing torpedoes for fifteen years but insisted that torpedoes made too much noise themselves to be able to home on any external noise source and until McKeehan came along to challenge them they seemed to have a point. But McKeehan was not a career naval officer. He was a reserve officer, on active duty for the duration, whose peacetime job was director of the physics laboratories at Yale University. Unimpressed by the received wisdom of Navy engineers, McKeehan turned to HUSL and BTL where his idea for an acoustic homing torpedo quickly bore fruit. With support and funding from the NDRC, HUSL and BTL proved Newport wrong and only seventeen months after the beginning of the project Fido had entered service and made his first kill.5

High-Frequency Direction Finding

Between the wars, Henri Busignies, a young French engineer working for the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) in Paris, developed a high-frequency direction finder (HF/DF) capable of locating German U-boats by tracking their radio transmissions. This technology had been used with some success in World War I when, in spite of the rudimentary nature of the equipment, British shore stations detected the presence of German submarines by their radio messages. During World War II Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the U-boat arm, relied on frequent radio transmissions to maintain tactical control of his U-boats and direct them effectively onto convoys in coordinated “wolf-pack” attacks. Dönitz believed that the new, very brief, high-frequency transmissions now used by his submarines — as opposed to the low-frequency transmissions of the previous war — were impossible to pinpoint. This proved a costly mistake.

Escaping from Nazi-occupied France, and smuggling out plans for his direction finder, Busignies made his way to America where his device, superior to anything then produced in the US, was quickly adopted by the Navy. So it happened that the strategic, land-based HF/DFs deployed by the US Navy to locate distant U-boats by their radio transmissions were the creation of a French engineer. More importantly, Busignies also had ready an HF/DF set that was designed for tactical use at sea. By mid-1943, the US Navy deployed Busignies’s shipborne HF/DF and used it to good effect. It had been produced by ITT and tested and refined by the Naval Research Lab using a destroyer and crew lent by the Navy. From then on, the high-frequency direction finder took its place — on a par with radar and sonar — as a tactical way to locate nearby U-boats.6


The tale of a Frenchman who, for much of the war, was denied full clearance by the Office of Naval Intelligence on the grounds that he was an alien of questionable loyalties, while at the same time — under the auspices of the Bureau of Ships — producing highly classified equipment for the Navy, is not the only strange tale of the military relationship to science. Who would think, for example, that a short, arthritic, shy, forty-year-old Harvard-trained specialist in a species of minute plankton could influence the combat effectiveness of the US Navy? Perhaps just as surprising, this planktonologist was a woman. In April 1943, Dr. Mary Sears was ordered from her work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to Washington, DC, to collect, organize and present oceanographic intelligence required for planning combat operations.

An interest in the possible military uses of oceanography had begun to develop in America even before the start of World War II, particularly in anticipation of anti-U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. By the end of 1942, amphibious assaults like Operation Torch in North Africa and sea-borne attacks on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific indicated further uses for oceanography. Costly mistakes continued to occur in the amphibious assaults of 1943, particularly at Tarawa, in November, where unusually low tides grounded landing craft on the surrounding reef, forcing troops to wade slowly ashore in the face of devastating enemy fire. The losses at Tarawa highlighted the need for strategic planning based on intelligence assessments that included the best hydrographic information — information about the physical characteristics of bodies of water and their adjacent shores.

In 1942 Sears had tried to join the WAVES — as women in the Navy were called — but she failed the physical, rejected because of an earlier bout with arthritis. Resuming her work as a marine biologist at WHOI, she was surprised one day to find Lt. Roger Revelle, an oceanographer from the Scripps Institution now serving in the Navy reserve, leaning against her doorjamb. Revelle was there to recruit Sears to help him at the Navy’s Hydrographic Office (Hydro). Because the Navy wanted a serving officer to head its oceanographic effort, Revelle had already managed to get Sears a waiver for her medical disability. So it was that a “prim WAVE lieutenant, j.g.,” became — according to Revelle — the “first Oceanographer of the Navy in modern times,” directing twelve women and three men in the application of oceanography to war. This predominantly female group of marine biologists — none of them with any previous experience in military planning — was given practically free rein to do the work that came its way from the Navy, and from whichever other of the armed services needed oceanographic information.

The most crucial task of the Oceanographic Unit was to transform research data from oceanographic centers on the East and West coasts into intelligence reports demonstrating the main hydrographic factors — including sea, swell, and surf forecasting — that might affect the location and timing of long-range operations. Data from the unit was used by decision makers at the highest levels for planning strategic and tactical operations, particularly in the Pacific. In early 1945, for example, the unit put together a report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicating which Okinawa beaches would have the least surf during the invasion of the island planned for 1 April. While many know of the meteorologist on whose weather forecast Eisenhower depended for his decision to go ahead with the D-Day landings in Normandy, few are aware that a woman working at her desk in Washington was responsible for compiling a report indicating where the Okinawa invasion forces could land with least danger from currents and surf.

Oceanographic intelligence proved so important to the Navy that, after the war, it established a permanent Oceanographic Division within Hydro, headed by Sears until her retirement from active duty in June 1946 when she returned to WHOI. In 1962 Sears saw the evolution of Hydro into the Naval Oceanographic Office headed by an admiral. Navy support for oceanography had come a long way since Sears’s tiny group was formed in 1943.


With the support of the Navy, meteorology, too, played an increasingly vital role in military operations, growing rapidly to meet new calls on the young science. Vice Admiral Bill Halsey’s January 31, 1942 raids on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands were the first offensive action by US naval forces in World War II. Two carrier task forces approached the islands, subjecting them to coordinated air attacks. With unlimited visibility, the planes from the northern task force were able to bomb targets all morning; but, by early afternoon, the same clear skies enabled Japanese planes to locate the northern carrier and begin to attack it, just as it was recovering its last planes. Given the speed of the Japanese planes, it seemed impossible for the task force to escape; but Halsey’s weather officer on the carrier Enterprise had the answer. His weather map showed a cold front nearby with a cloud screen pointing towards Pearl Harbor. By steaming at high speed into the frontal zone and then moving with the front, the task force managed to hide in the drizzle and low clouds. They could hear Japanese planes buzzing overhead, but were so effectively hidden that they were never found. Once out of range of Japanese air patrols, the task force emerged from the front and headed safely home to Pearl Harbor.

Weather played a critical role in the extensive, two-ocean naval operations of the war. Accurate weather forecasts were necessary at sea for decisions about refueling, avoiding storms, and launching air offensives. Weather had to be considered for small boat operations — especially, amphibious landings — for aircraft operations, gunnery practice, and action against the enemy. Major naval vessels to which aircraft were assigned needed weather specialists on board to make forecasts on which the safety of the ship, of the aircraft, and of the pilots depended.

After Pearl Harbor, the Navy trained increasing numbers of weather personnel, including several hundred women, to meet the demands of a rapidly expanding force. Among the first group of women trained as aerological engineers — as the Navy called weather forecasters — was Dr. Florence van Straten, a New York University professor of physical chemistry. After receiving a commission in the WAVES, Lt. van Straten — also with no previous military experience — spent the war at Weather Central in Washington, initially analyzing the use of weather in combat operations in the Pacific. It was she who wrote the report on Halsey’s island raids. The purpose of the reports was to “form a basis for a better understanding of the applications of weather information to future operations.”7 Later, van Straten transferred to the R & D section, where she worked for the rest of the war on radar and other new technologies.

Post World War II

After the war, the scientists at Bell Labs who had worked on Fido returned to telephone work, Captain McKeehan returned to Yale, and Harvard — like some other universities — anxious to shed the military connection as soon as possible took back its buildings and ended its classified work. ITT retooled for the civilian market. On the other hand, many scientists had been energized by the huge projects, seemingly unlimited funding, and exciting research possibilities opened up by the war. It seemed obvious that government neglect of science would no longer be possible in the nuclear age. Vannevar Bush believed that continued government funding for the sciences after the war was vital and he wrote a report to President Roosevelt published in 1945 as Science: The Endless Frontier, appealing for public support for research. The outstanding success of the NDRC meant that science had become an essential adjunct to the military, irreversibly tied to it through government funding. The Navy recognized this. In February 1945 James Forrestal, the secretary of the navy and soon to be the first secretary of defense, sent a memorandum to President Roosevelt in which he said: “The problem… is how to establish channels through which scientists can [contribute to the nation’s security by carrying on research] in peace as successfully as during the war.” 8 The frosty peace of the Cold War made the problem critical.

One solution was found in 1946 when Congress established the Office of Naval Research (ONR), making it responsible for funding basic science at the country’s universities in fields of interest to the Navy. When NDRC closed up shop after the war, ONR became the chief government office subsidizing scientific research. It soon established the postwar pattern of federal support for academic science. Having learned from its war experience, the Navy was inclined to be broad in its interpretation of what might be of military interest, and ONR secured financial backing for a wide range of basic, as well as applied research projects, at universities all over the country. In the early postwar era, the ONR also channeled Navy funds to help develop computers for the Census and Weather Bureaus. It provided general support for the development of the computer industry, as well as supporting two major academic computers: John von Neumann’s at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the Whirlwind computer at MIT.

Many civilian scientists, like Roger Revelle, the oceanographer friend of Mary Sears, worked directly at ONR. Others in the scientific and technological community, however, were wary of the influence that military funding might exert on the development of science. They supported another of Vannevar Bush’s initiatives that, in 1950, led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an alternative civilian source of government money. Nevertheless, the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of science and the military has remained dominant. The Department of Defense still accounts for nearly 70 percent of all government funds directed towards research and development, while the NSF is responsible for less than 5 percent.

When she left active duty, Mary Sears had been afraid that the Navy would lose interest in oceanography, perhaps cancelling its wartime contracts with WHOI and Scripps. But Operation Crossroads and the need to understand the effects on Navy ships, and on the environment, of atomic testing at Bikini Atoll made oceanography even more essential to the Navy. Today, the Office of the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy has an important place in innovative navy science. After the war, van Straten continued to work for the Naval Weather Service as a civilian atmospheric physicist where her analytical work on the conditions of the upper atmosphere assisted in the development of long-range missile technology.

The war also saw the beginnings of whole new fields of scientific research — most with peaceful as well as military uses — that the military continues to fund today. The most obvious of these is nuclear power. Among many other advances, World War II also spawned operations research — the mathematical analysis of situations to determine optimal courses of action — and game theory — a mathematical framework for studying conflict. Work on rocket science during the war led to today’s space program.

The vast scale of military funding of science since World War II has led to a debate among historians about its effect. Some argue that military funding of science caused a shift in direction towards applied research and that, inevitably, it also affects the focus of basic science. Others, however, believe that military funding has dramatically expanded opportunities for research without seriously undermining the autonomy and independence of scientists. Whichever view you take, it is undeniable that since the Second World War both the military and scientific establishments have been irreversibly altered by their many intertwining interests and shared preoccupations. The stimulation continues to work both ways.