Every generation thinks it has unique problems and, I suppose, sometimes it is true. My great-grandfather didn’t have to pick a cell phone plan. However, a lot of things you think are modern problems go back much further than you might think. Consider Kickstarter. Sure, there have been plenty of successful products on Kickstarter. There have also been some misleading duds. I don’t mean the stupid ones like the guy who wants to make a cake or potato salad. I mean the ones that are almost certainly vaporware like the induced dream headgear or the Bluetooth tag with no batteries.
Overpromising and underdelivering is hardly a new problem. In the 30’s The McGregor Rejuvenator promised to reverse aging with magnetism, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet light. Presumably, this didn’t work. Sometimes products do work, but they don’t live up to their marketing hype. The Segway comes to mind. Despite the hype that it would revolutionize transportation, the scooter is now a vehicle for tourists and mall cops.
One of my favorite examples of an overhyped product comes from World War II: The Norden Bomb Sight. What makes the Norden especially interesting is that even today it has a reputation for being highly accurate. However, if you look into it, the Norden–although a marvel for its day–didn’t always live up to its press.
About the Norden
The Norden could adjust for air density, wind drift, the bomber’s airspeed and groundspeed while controlling the bomber’s final run on the target. Carl Norden invented this analog computer and felt like it was a moral invention since it would allow bombs to hit their targets and not hit civilians.
The military was primarily interested in being able to hit ships and other pinpoint targets from high altitudes. In fact, because of technical limitations, the Norden didn’t work for low altitude bombing.
A conventional bomb sight used a slide rule calculator and depended on the operator to make measurements. The operator didn’t have much time to make the measurements, so errors and inaccuracies were common. The Norden was a two-part device. The sighthead has a 20X telescope held vertical by a gyroscope. No matter how the plane moves, the telescope remains vertical. A mirror under the telescope rotates so that targets in front of the plane show up in the sight. The crosshairs (made of spider silk) marked the center of the scope.
A series of adjustments for airspeed, bomb type, and other factors means that once the target is in the center of the telescope and the other settings are correct the target will stay in the sight no matter how the plane moves. The other part of the device–the stabilizer–adjusts the plane’s motion to account for factors like the wind. In some versions, an indicator told the pilot what to do, but in many cases, the Norden flew the plane up to the bombing run.
The Army training video below gives an excellent explanation, but the main idea is that when correctly adjusted, the mirror under the telescope will rotate to keep the target in sight. When you are far from the target, the mirror’s motion will be slow, but the closer you get, the faster the mirror has to turn. When the rate of turn reaches a certain level, the bombsight automatically drops the ordnance, presumably hitting the target. The measurement of rate, rotating of mirrors, and the gyroscopes all required advanced analog computer techniques.
The secrecy surrounding the Norden was nothing short of amazing. The bombardiers swore an oath not to reveal any details of the Norden secret. The sight itself had a specially guarded box and was brought to the plane, installed, and then removed after each mission. A pyro device ensured the device would not survive a crash, although the bombadier was responsible for ensuring the destruction of the instrument, with his pistol, if necessary.
When it wasn’t in the air, the bomb sight resided in a vault. A highly-trained and highly-secret group maintained the device. Even though security relaxed a bit towards the end of the war, the public didn’t see the Norden until 1944.
The secrecy for the Norden was probably second only to the Manhattan Project. Like that project, espionage penetrated despite the security. The Germans had their version of the Norden which–interestingly–didn’t work any better than the American ones although it was simpler to use.
The Norden worked great in trials. The official line was that the Norden could hit a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet. This may have been true, but it depended on a lot of conditions being just right. Clear sight of the target was the biggest problem. The Norden could not break cloud cover, a smokescreen, or fog. Also, flying fast (as you would want to do during combat) made the device less accurate.
Turns out, with a 20X telescope, a bombardier couldn’t see a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet, much less hit it. The Norden company claimed it could hit a 15 square foot target from 30,000 feet (a pretty big pickle barrel). That’s still pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, in practice, accuracy was much less than advertised. At 15,000 feet, the accuracy was about 400 feet–not nearly good enough to hit a ship reliably. It wasn’t just environmental issues that hampered the Norden. It was difficult to operate from inside the cold plastic nose of a B17 (see picture at right; the bombardiers often wore silk gloves to prevent their skin sticking to the cold metal) and had lots of moving parts that could fail or go out of alignment, especially after a few hard landings. Accuracy got better as the war carried on, but at first it wasn’t really much better than other conventional sights. There were several reasons for the improvement. The Norden was difficult to manufacture (using special tools) and drawings and techniques doubtlessly got better over time. Also, operators simply got better, and even learned how far off their particular bombsight was and would compensate for that.
Don’t get me wrong: the Norden was an incredible piece of engineering. In clear weather and with other prevailing conditions, it was possible for it to be highly accurate. I say possible because so much depended on the skill of the operator. This observation led the Army to designate lead bombers with the most accurate bombardiers using the Norden and the others just dropping their bombs when the lead planes released.
Like the Segway, though, the Norden was the subject of a lot of hype. After the device became known publicly in 1942, the Norden company presented demonstrations of dropping a wooden bomb into a pickle barrel at Madison Square Garden. It was hard to evaluate how good it really was until after a lot of information became declassified, so if the company said they could hit a barrel from 30,000 feet, it was hard to refute it. The Norden, by the way, dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It missed its actual target by 800 feet, which was of no consequence, but does make for a very large barrel of pickles.
The videos below show more about how the Norden did what it did. Today, you could probably set the whole thing up with a minuscule amount of off the shelf gear. But for its time, it was an electromechanical marvel.