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The Optical Munitions Industry in Great Britain, 1888–1923 by Stephen C Sambrook (review)
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The Optical Munitions Industry in Great Britain, 1888–1923. By Stephen C Sambrook. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013. Pp. 272. $99.

In the late nineteenth century, battleships, submarines, and long-range artillery all reshaped warfare. While historians have dedicated considerable attention to these destructive technologies, they have written much less about the delicate optics without which the new weapons would have been useless. In this well-researched book, Stephen Sambrook details the establishment and growth of the optical munitions industry, its response to World War I, and its adaptation to disarmament after the armistice of November 1918. In the process, Sambrook addresses several themes of interest to historians of technology, including the ambivalent relationship [End Page 497] between private industry and the state, the changing role of science in industry, and the complex relationship between technological production and consumption.

Sambrook traces the origins of the optical munitions industry to the late-nineteenth-century development of more powerful “nitro” propellants for artillery, which required greater accuracy in order to be useful. In 1888 the British War Office invited designs for a range finder. The poor placement of the ad enticed few respondents, but two of them—British academics Archibald Barr and William Stroud—eventually formed a company that became a dominant player in the optical munitions industry. Although the War Office was the first mover, the Admiralty proved much more willing to adopt range finders. Barr and Stroud began manufacturing after winning a contract to build six range finders for the Admiralty in 1892.

By 1914, the British optical munitions industry could successfully meet the peacetime demand of both Britain and several other countries. However, the army’s rapidly increasing demand for optical munitions created shortages shortly after the outbreak of World War I. In contrast to previous accounts of the industry, which have characterized it as “antiquated” (p. 86) prior to World War I, Sambrook argues that the chief obstacle to meeting wartime demand was the ineptitude of the War Office, which neither properly quantified its need for equipment, nor requested equipment from the most able and appropriate firms.

In 1915, the Optical Munitions and Glassware Department (OMGD) was established within a new Ministry of Munitions in order to facilitate industrial mobilization. The technical head of the OMGD, Frederick Cheshire, and his administrative counterpart, Alfred Esslemont, played a key role in promoting the idea that wartime shortfalls in optical munitions were a result of the dismal state of the industry. While previous historians have accepted this government depiction, Sambrook argues that Cheshire and Esslemont had strategic reasons for depicting the industry as if it were in disarray. Cheshire had earlier expressed admiration for the German optical instruments industry, and concern about the inferiority of its British counterpart. Cheshire thus viewed the wartime shortage as an opportunity to strengthen the optical instruments industry in the long term, in hopes that the British industry would crush any remaining German competition after the war.

Unfortunately, the OMGD’s efforts backfired, in no small part because the optical munitions industry shared very little with the civilian optical instruments industry. The optical munitions sector was more similar to the armaments industry, both in terms of engineering challenges and customers. Although the OMGD conscripted optical instrument makers into producing munitions, it “was often unable to make sword-smiths from tinsmiths” (p. 131), who fled back to civilian work at war’s end. And most [End Page 498] optical munitions companies were left in dire straits. Having committed to wartime production, the sudden cancellation of contracts following the 1918 armistice, combined with an inability to convert to civilian products, led to the liquidation of some firms. Barr and Stroud was one of the few companies that emerged from the war in stronger condition than when it started.

Historians of technology, business, and war will all find interesting lessons in this book. However, they may need to dig a bit. The text focuses narrowly on the optical munitions industry; connections to broader themes in the history of technology are not drawn out explicitly. Nonetheless, historians can benefit from a close reading of this meticulously researched and well-written account of Britain’s optical...