Can fruits of war be obtained peacefully? – Twin Cities
Wars are always tragic and destructive, but they can foster technological progress that boosts productivity and improves lives.
That was especially true during World War II and in the ensuing Cold War. Much of the prosperity that baby boomers have known is based on government-funded research aimed at helping us kill our enemies faster. The question is, can governments take the actions that spur technology development in peacetime and get similar results? If not, why not?
Military spending fostering innovation appears in a number of ways. The simplest is that it can create a large market for some problem-solving new technology that would never take off among a fragmented set of small private-sector buyers.
French-émigré Marc Brunel’s inventions mechanizing manufacture of pulley blocks is an early case. The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars kept Europe in conflict for 25 years. By 1800, the British Royal Navy needed 100,000 blocks a year. Handmade ones from small shops lacked uniformity and varied in quality.
Brunel, who with his equally brilliant son, played a huge role in all areas of engineering in the 19th century, installing steam-powered machinery at the massive Portsmouth dockyard that soon turned out 130,000 uniform blocks a year in a genuine assembly line.
The fruits of World War II, Cold War and space race America were similar. The WWII government-funded Radiation Laboratory at MIT, focused on radio and radar waves, not nuclear radiation, had developed solid versions of vacuum tubes. These went into pop-can-sized proximity fuses for anti-aircraft shells, badly needed in the Pacific. The fuse was a tiny radar set that detonated the shell when it passed near an airplane. It had to withstand being accelerated from zero to 3,000 feet per second in the 16-foot length of a Navy 5-inch gun. This perfection of such “solid-state” devices would replace vacuum tubes and become a major breakthrough for consumer and business electronics.
Simultaneously, privately owned Bell Labs had ample funds from a 1 percent internal “tax” on all AT&T telecommunications revenue. With government-granted absolute monopoly power, it simply passed the cost to customers. Among many things, Bell researchers developed the transistor, taking solid-state technology one step further.
The Cold War and space race meant that the Defense Department bought large quantities of new electronic devices and paid almost any price. New companies like Fairchild and Intel formed. With high revenues from a willing captive customer, they made transistors commonplace and developed the integrated circuit and the printed circuit board.
There are similar cases where underlying science already was solved, but no industrial process existed because of lack of demand for a final product. World War I created enormous needs for explosives, but existing raw materials were cut off.
In his lab at Britain’s University of Manchester, Belarus-born, German-educated Chaim Weizmann had discovered ways to produce chemicals by fermentation of organic matter like starch. Cordite, a peculiar British “gunpowder” used as propellant in ammunition from rifles to battleship cannons, needed acetone for production. Weizmann scaled up his process to produce thousands of tons of acetone instead of a few liters and directed all Royal Navy research labs through the war. His work, a foundation of modern industrial chemistry, is still in use for myriad products.
In Germany, hard-hit by the cutoff of Chilean nitrates, Fritz Haber, born in what is now Poland, educated in Germany and a researcher at a large government-funded research institute near Berlin, perfected a method using a catalyst at high heat and pressure, to produce ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen gasses. Ammonia was a feedstock for high explosives such as TNT, used during wartime to fill shells and bombs, but also ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer, 100 million tons of which is now used on some 70 percent of crops grown worldwide. Going beyond fixing nitrogen from the air, Haber’s use of catalysts became important in many areas including petroleum refining. All his work is fundamental to modern chemistry.
Despite also being the father of “poison gas warfare,” Haber got the Nobel Chemistry prize in 1918.
However horrible the end product, the Manhattan Project that produced the fission atomic bomb and the Rad Lab at MIT represent the most concentrated advances in theoretical and applied physics and chemistry in any four years in human history. These are long stories in themselves. The results were not just enriched uranium, plutonium and bombs, but also advanced hydrodynamics, precise relay switches, high speed cameras, scientific instrumentation and other technologies. MIT’s work included microwaves and other elements still in use in virtually all modern communication and navigation plus a way to heat leftovers in just about every modern kitchen.
1950s research included basic materials science, which took off in the Cold War. Titanium was a light, strong metal primarily used as a paint pigment because it was expensive and, “hard as the hinges of hell” — not shapeable with existing casting, forging and machining techniques.
U.S. intelligence agencies wanted an airplane capable of flying at three times the speed of sound 18 miles above earth. Lockheed’s “Skunkworks” design team thus needed titanium for what became the SR-71. Many millions of dollars poured into research at universities and in metalworking companies to learn how to work this amazing substance. The SR-71 flew, and titanium is now used for key parts in all commercial aircraft plus the knees that millions of people walk around on.
The metal still is in the news. From 1918 to the present, the U.S. has had four 155 mm artillery pieces. All did the same thing — hurl 80 pounds of steel and 15 pounds of TNT some 15 miles. The difference is that the first two used in respective world wars weighed 30,000 pounds and the M198 introduced 45 years ago is 16,000 pounds. The newest, the M777, deliveries of which to Ukraine are much ballyhooed, weights 6,900 pounds because it is nearly all titanium.
These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. We have poured billions into national laboratories, universities and private companies through what is now ARPA, the Advanced Projects Research Agency. From the GPS on our cellphones, to the internet, to drones, to iris and facial recognition software, there is defense spending somewhere in its development.
The economic lesson here is that research and development is an important “public good” — something that would not occur spontaneously in a pure free market. The challenge is to continue to invest in it while dialing down our own and everyone else’s propensity to try to kill each other en masse.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at [email protected]