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Instrumental in War: Science, Research, and Instruments between Knowledge and the World (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 47, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 403-405 | 10.1353/tech.2006.0156

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Technology and Culture 47.2 (2006) 403-405

Instrumental in War: Science, Research, and Instruments between Knowledge and the World. Edited by Steven A. Walton. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Pp. xxiv+414. $174.

This is a major accomplishment. Never before has a scholarly volume presented the interactions of science, technology, and warfare as a continuum from the Renaissance through the cold war era—not, at least, since John U. Nef's War and Human Progress (1952). Since then, historians and scientists have studiously ignored (and sometimes passionately denied) that a mutually constructive relationship has flourished between science and warfare ever since the sixteenth century. Steven A. Walton's volume suggests how much historians of science and technology have now transcended such ideological bias.

The articles are united by their focus not on weapons, but rather on scientific instruments that are designed to enhance military capabilities. From a tactical perspective, the essays include: editor Walton's study of sixteenth-century gunnery instruments and the rise of military professionalism; Jamel Ostwald's revelation of intense internal military resistance to Vauban's rational system of fortress assault; David Alan Grier's examination of Oswald Veblen's generation of ballistics tables during World War I at Aberdeen Proving Grounds; and Kenton Kroker's analysis of the attempt during World War II to use the electroencephalograph to measure the psychological suitability of aviation recruits. From operational and political perspectives, the essays include: a study by William Lynch of William Petty's managerial innovations that enabled the surveying of Ireland following the Cromwellian reconquest; a description by James Fleming of the development of military telegraphy into a system of meteorology during the 1870s, with considerable strategic implications; and an analysis by Deborah Warner on the growth of gravimetry in response to the guidance and control demands of ballistic missile development.

Finally, there is a series of essays on the use of instruments to enhance military acquisitional capabilities. These include Sy Mauskopf's study of the early development of calorimeters and "crushers" for the thermal analysis of gunpowder following the Franco-Prussian War; Gerard Scharfenberger's description of the archaeological excavations at the Sandy Hook Proving Grounds—a major ordnance testing facility during the nineteenth century; William McBride's narrative of the Annapolis Engineering Experiment Station and its direct influence on naval propulsion technology before World War II; and finally Sebastien Soubiran's comparative analysis of the development of fire-control gyrocompasses in the British and French navies between the world wars. These articles tend to emphasize what scientific knowledge, as manifested by instruments, did to enhance military capability. The final essay, by Peter Galison (a reprint of "Physics between War and Peace," originally published in Science, Technology, and the Military [1988]), confronts the ways in which military demands during World War II profoundly stimulated experimental physics during the cold war.

Taking a cue from A. Rupert Hall's Ballistics in the Sixteenth Century (1952), Walton argues for the professional prestige that quantitative gunnery instruments represented for early modern artillerists. Unlike Hall, however, Walton also maintains that such instruments had practical utility—questions concerning the quadrant notwithstanding. It is problematic, however, to assume the high status of mathematics in the aristocratic circles of sixteenth-century Europe, especially in England, and one should not overlook its largely negative association with demonic magic. John Dee, the famous hermetic magician, took pains to counter these perceptions by emphasizing the utility of mathematics in "natural practical magic" for both military and commercial tasks. Walton thus needs to confront the degree to which artillerists, with their fondness for quantitative measurement, helped legitimize mathematics as a topic suitable for military and therefore courtly gentlemen.

Lynch's essay on Petty's surveying of a reconquered Ireland—to enable the sale of confiscated property to pay off war debts—is a model account of military managerial innovation. Petty managed to achieve that eternal organizational ideal of "cheaper, faster, better" through centralized management and division of labor (especially linear and angular measurement, area analysis, and error determination), along with carefully designed incentives for the military surveyors. Lynch then goes on to show how Petty's surveying system was adopted in colonial domains, especially in North America.

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