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Science Goes to War: The Radiation Laboratory, Radar, and Their Technological Consequences

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 25, Number 4, December 1997
pp. 643-647 | 10.1353/rah.1997.0150

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Science Goes to War:
The Radiation Laboratory, Radar, and Their Technological Consequences
Robert Buderi. The Invention That Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technological Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 575 pp. Photographs, glossary, notes, and index. $30.00.

The fiftieth anniversary of World War II has produced a lively, ongoing historical reexamination of the events—social, diplomatic, military—of that calamitous epoch. A cottage industry has sprung up dedicated to scrutinizing the biographies of major war personalities, the face of military battles and campaigns, the origins and consequences of political ideologies, the decision-making processes behind important strategic and tactical war choices. Despite the fact that World War II often has been referred to as the physicists’ war, the amount of historical exegesis dedicated to the role of science and technology in the conflict has been surprisingly limited. Robert Buderi’s interesting and well-written study of radar is an exception.

The atomic bomb is widely credited with ending World War II. Among those historians familiar with the technologies of the war, however, radar is generally regarded as winning it. It is with this latter history that Buderi concerns himself.

Buderi commences his narrative with the arrival of the Tizard Mission in the United States late in the summer of 1940, well before the American entry into World War II. The British Technical and Scientific Mission to the United States, headed by Sir Henry Tizard of Imperial College, carried with it prototypes of several critical military technologies. Foremost among them was the cavity magnetron, the effective basis for microwave radar. With their industrial establishment already working at maximum capability, the British hoped that the Americans would help develop and manufacture new weapon and detection systems based on the shared technologies.

Shortly before the British mission’s arrival, Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution, had successfully maneuvered to have the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) established by presidential order. The [End Page 643] new committee was delegated with the responsibility for mobilizing civilian scientists for war research. The members of the Tizard Mission quickly found kindred spirits within Bush’s Committee. An NDRC laboratory was organized to take up development of the cavity magnetron. Thus, the Radiation Laboratory was born, in quarters borrowed from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Laboratory was headed by Lee DuBridge, who in turn reported to Alfred Loomis, an investment banker turned physicist and chair of the NDRC’s important Microwave Committee. DuBridge, on leave as Physics Department chair and dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Rochester, quickly recruited some of America’s leading science talent. Rad Lab staff soon included I. I. Rabi, Wheeler Loomis, Jerold Zacharias, Luis Alvarez, and many others. Five employees would be awarded the Nobel Prize later in their careers.

With the Battle for Britain in progress, the Laboratory set to work developing radars for airborne interception, long-range navigation, and anti-aircraft gun direction. Fighting off both Hermann Goering’s air attacks and the depredations of Donitz’s submarine wolf-packs had become critical to the British war effort. Successful working models of all three radars were in hand by Spring 1941.

As one project was brought to fruition, ready for hand-over to industrial manufacturers, new undertakings were initiated. Air to surface radar was created to aid in the battle against the German submarine threat; centimeter-wave bombing radars followed, as the British and Americans (actively in the war by early 1942) initiated extensive bombardment of German cities. Electronic countermeasures to foil enemy radar and the proximity fuze (a radar-directed explosive that detonated upon close contact) also were added to the Allies’ arsenal.

Not all of this development came out of the Rad Lab. Research remained active at Britain’s Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE). Other American laboratories could boast of important contributions, such as the Applied Physics Laboratory’s development of the proximity fuze under the direction of the Carnegie Institution’s Merle Tuve. But, Buderi argues, a disproportionate share of the war’s radar-based technologies had their origins at the Rad Lab...