The Cantankerous Machine That Won The War
Or, at least, had a major hand in it...
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Once upon a time, somebody took a chance on some very expensive stuff…
The B-29 project, starting in 1941, cost $3 billion by 1945. The Manhattan Engineer District that made the A-bombs soaked the treasury for $1.5 billion. You read that right: the airplane that delivered the A-bombs cost more to develop and build than the bombs did. But, you know what else was more costly than the A-bombs to develop but took twenty years longer? The Sperry/Norden bombsight and its accompanying Automatic Flight Control (autopilot) system cost $2 billion over a 25-year period from 1920 to 1945. The inflation rate between 1945 and 2023 is a little over 1,500%. $1 million in 1945 translates into over $16 million today. Makes the Norden bombsight worth about $24 billion of today’s bucks, about the cost of a squadron of bombers today. This is against a 1945 Gross Domestic Product of $228 billion.
Just under 10% of the 1945 US GDP was spent on a bomb sight system.
While the Navy was the driving force behind the bombsight’s initial research, the Army Air Force became interested when they became interested in precision daylight bombing. The Navy lost interest in horizontal bombing soon after, opting for dive and torpedo bombing, but maintained control of the Norden’s development and inventory. The reason for this division was the personality of the Norden’s eccentric inventor and developer, Carl Norden.
Norden regarded the AAF as uncouth, and the Navy as gentlemen.
Born in Java when it was a colony of the Netherlands, Norden was educated in Switzerland and emigrated to the United States in 1904. He applied his considerable engineering talents to gyrostabilization while working with Elmer Sperry. Answering a call for a device that could compensate for both aircraft and target movement, Norden began working on his bombsight in 1920. The first prototype became available by 1923. The first production bombsight, containing an analog computer and a stabilizing gyro, came out in 1927.
Both the Navy and the Army regarded the device as a grave secret.
The Norden was supposed to enable an aircraft to drop bombs accurately enough to hit a 1000-foot circle from an altitude of 21,000 feet. However, trial and error and experimentation and testing and frustration followed for a decade until they tied an Automatic Flight Control system (an electrical system of solenoids, motors and servomechanisms that manipulated the aircraft’s control surfaces) by Sperry to the bombsight. In 1938, the AAF could finally achieve the "magic" 1000-foot circle accuracy with over 90% of the bombs dropped…on a crystal-clear day with a well-marked target with no crosswinds…once.
The USAAF rarely achieved anywhere near this accuracy in combat.
Now, everyone knows that the Norden bombsight was a well-kept secret, more secret than anything else. So secret Sperry nor Norden pursuit patent protection for their devices. We know this. All the movies tell us this. Well, Sperry/Norden offered this super-secret widget for sale to the Germans, Japanese, Soviets, and Italians (none of whom were interested) and British (who were interested) before 1939 with the full knowledge of the Army and Navy. And Norden filed for patents on his bombsights before and after the war.
But these things were expensive and troublesome.
At about $5,000 each without the autopilot, they were a maintenance nightmare. The gyros were notorious for breaking down, the electrical connections often failed, and the heaters (for the optics) had the annoying tendency to stop heating or catch fire at all the wrong moments…like on a bomb run. Even when they were working perfectly, daylight precision bombing theory didn’t take many things under consideration, like the effects of flak-caused turbulence, target obscuration by the enemy, crosswinds below the bomber that differed from the crosswinds the bomber was experiencing.
And speaking of crosswinds…
The Norden could compensate for perhaps 45 degrees of drift. At 30,000 feet over Japan, the B-29s experienced a drift of 55 degrees or more because they were the first operational aircraft that could reach the jetstreams. That was just one of the myriad issues the AAF had to address before they could bomb Japan effectively.
The Fire Blitz: Burning Down Japan
The Fire Blitz depended less on the Norden than it did on the capacity of the B-29s to carry bombs to Japan…period. Starting in June 1944, the Twentieth Air Force and those expensive B-29s had consistently failed to seriously damage any targets at all. Curtis LeMay hit on a plan to change that…
Expect to see The Fire Blitz on 9 March.
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On 6 January:
1815: The campaign that ended in the battle known as New Orleans begins late this night below Chalmette Plantation, Louisiana, when the British under Edward Packenham arrived on the southern edge of the cypress swamp and started moving north along the river. Traditionally considered the last battle of the War of 1812 (I argue it was not related), the Americans under Andrew Jackson defeated the British on 8 January.
1949: Barbara Jean Beatty is born in Detroit, Michigan, to Hudson U. and Betty J. Tramer Beatty. The first of three children, my sister Barb now lives with her husband Ron Reale in Michigan. Since Barb doesn’t get these, I’m just reminding our sister, who does…so call her, Lo….
And today is NATIONAL CUDDLE UP DAY and, given that most of my readers live in colder climates, not a bad idea.