Retrotechtacular: Using The Jet Stream For Aerial Warfare

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are all the rage these days. But while today’s combative UAV technology is as modern as possible, the idea itself is not a new one. Austria floated bomb-laden balloons at Venice in the middle 1800s. About a hundred years later during WWII, the Japanese used their new-found knowledge of the jet stream to send balloons to the US and Canada.

Each balloon took about four days to reach the western coast of North America. They carried both incendiary and anti-personnel devices as a payload, and included a self-destruct. On the “business end” of the balloons was the battery, the demolition block, and a box containing four aneroid barometers to monitor altitude. In order to keep the balloons within the 8,000 ft. vertical range of the jet stream, they were designed to drop ballast sandbags beginning one day into flight using a system of blow plugs and fuses. In theory, the balloon has made it to North American air space on day four with nothing left hanging but the incendiaries and the central anti-personnel payload.

Although the program was short-lived, the Japanese launched some 9,300 of these fire balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. Several of them didn’t make it to land. Others were shot down or landed in remote areas. Several made the journey just fine, and two even floated all the way to Michigan. Not bad for a rice paper gas bag.

Thanks for the tip, [theonetruestickman]!

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

17 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Using The Jet Stream For Aerial Warfare

  1. In fact, in all of North America, there were only six casualties during WWII due to direct enemy action. All of them occurred because some hikers in Oregon stumbled across one of these balloons and managed to set it off. They didn’t know what it was because there was a news blackout that was put in place to deny the enemy intelligence and propaganda value. After this incident, bulletins for the population of the west coast were quietly issued to prevent further casualties.

  2. I saw one of these at the Canadian War Museum, what else could you expect from the land of Hello Kitty and Used Panty Vending Machines, ingenious and insane in equal measures.

  3. I never would have imagined all of that could be done with a few lengths of fuse wire. Hard to believe that was just 70 years ago, considering military technology now.

    1. A logic machine made with fuses and barometric switches. It reminds me of how washing machines were made in the old days with a clock driven cam wheels and temperature and pressure switches.
      In retrospect, the micro controllers of today are just a upgrade in hardware. Programming was invented before computers.

      Today some 1/4 square mm processor die would be able to preform the same functions. A size reduction magnitude of 1:500.000. The amazing thing is that the original system used so little power: The single lead-acid cell looks like it’s 2-3 Ah, which suggests that the balloon used around 1Wh a day, which gives 41mA average draw on the power supply. Thats comparable to micro controllers today. Of course a modern day exact clone of the balloon mechanism made with silicon would be in the nA regime with super caps and a small solar panel. Do anyone know how the “modern” leaflet dropping balloons from south Korea works? Do they also have barometers or maybe GPS?

      1. According to the film, the baloon used no electrical current, unless it was actually igniting a charge. Very clever. Once a charge to drop a bag was ignited, it also ignited a time delay fuse, which fired another charge to close a switch, which enabled the next bag-dropping chrge. The time delay was to allow the baloon to ascend, so the barometric switch would open again.

  4. John McPhee wrote about forensic geology in a book of his called “Irons In The Fire”, and talked about these. Initially, everyone thought they were being released from subs just off the coast, but geologists looked at the sand used in the ballast bags. They easily identified exactly what beach it came from, and once they had three or four samples, they concluded that the launching site for all the balloons they’d found must be there, which turned out to be right.

    1. I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, but quite frankly, it *is* an ingenious minimalist solution. I can only imagine the monstrosity that would be the result if Northrop Grumman was contracted to do the same thing instead.

      1. I think the balloon bombs were characterised in US news reels as a coward weapon killing indiscriminately. However times have changed and murder halfway around the globe by remote, or A.I. is perfectly politically acceptable! However, as the prevailing winds on the Northern hemisphere are western, the US would only be able to bomb countries to the East. The Northern jetstreams passes over western Europe, Norway, Sweden and our new (old) foe Russia. Eastern Russia would be safe though, as Oregon.. OH wait Portland is kind of an eye sore!

    1. The DIY cruise missile people were told to stop their project, and seem to have listened.. there are, however, several DIY spaceship projects, some with substantial development done.

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