Misleading Tech: Kickstarter, Bomb Sights, And Medical Rejuvinators

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.

Image from a government manual showing the parts of the Norden
Image from a government manual showing the parts of the Norden

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.

Top Secret

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.

Pickle Barrels

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.

B-17G_Nose_in_Detail
B-17G Nose in Detail by U.S. Air Force

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.

65 thoughts on “Misleading Tech: Kickstarter, Bomb Sights, And Medical Rejuvinators

  1. The whole idea of precision bombing during WWII was more propaganda and depended on luck more than anything else. The fact is that whole cities were the smallest target that bombers of that era could reliably acquire.

          1. It was a major military facility with diversified manufacturing with large stockpiles of military supplies. Mission was to destroy this completely and demonstrate the lethality of the bomb. The determination was that a demonstration on an uninhabited island would be seen as some sort of trick. Japanese manufacturing was so spread out in small shops that precision bombing was abandoned in favor of low level incendiary some time earlier, with leaflet drops warning of fire-bombing.

          2. @kratz One of my professors worked on an IR detecting self guiding bomb. It was intended to home in on flares set by the underground during blackouts. His team was soundly beaten by the team that trained pigeons to peck paddles based in where they saw a light through a window.

          3. [TheRegnirps] Holy hell, epic. “I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT!” I wonder the amount of gates, latches &operations a Pigeon benchmarks at. Not to mention built in a free 3d build in accelerometer. Do we have a reliable source for a acquiring that component? Seems EM proof as well, but narrow temp operation thresholds. And even though it’s low power it always has to be always on.

          4. Stephen Fry mentioned the pigeon bomb on QI (so it’s probably wrong). Pigeons trained to peck at a picture of a ship, rewarded with food. You put them in a container with a window in the front, and they’d peck at the real ship. Sensors in the window picked up if they were pecking the upward / downward / left / right part of the window, and adjusted the flight of the missile the pigeon was piloting accordingly.

            They were never used in battle.

            According to Stephen Fry, so, y’know, accuracy is variable.

    1. My grandfather flew in a B-25 over Germany as the bombardier. On one particular bombing run they were trying to disable Germany supply trains. You could destroy the track, but the Germans could repair it relatively quickly. The best target to hit was the actual locomotive, since it would block the track and require special equipment to remove.

      It was a little foggy the day of the bombing run, and after dropping the ordinance my grandfather wasn’t sure if he had hit his target. He heard back from a later group on the ground that his bomb had literally gone down the smokestack. Wasn’t sure if it was skill or luck but he was pretty good at his job.

      1. I would say I am extremely appreciative of your grandparent, who flew aboard a B-25 (Col. Billy) Mitchell Bomber, but then I am always so inclined of anyone who was a pilot officer, bombardier, copilot or navigator and radio man. However in this case I certainly am. Ignore the other comments as they he’s your grandfather, and then obviously a participant in the Second. (And a member of the Greatest Generation.)

    2. It’s interesting because the same thing is playing out with drone warfare now. Lots of people argue that autonomous drones would allow more precise strikes and kill fewer civilians. Whether that’s true remains to be seen.

      1. Target identification is more an issue than accuracy. Guided bombs are remarkably accurate, and there are bombs with smaller explosive radii if the bombs are intent for crowded areas. The big issue is how do you know who’s a terrorist at 30k+ feet.

    1. I thought that the article was pretty interesting. Should we ignore cool technology just because it was related to weapons? do you want to forget about the COLOSSUS because they used it in the war?

        1. Oh how humble our beginnings… “Nitroglycerin, the explosive so powerful it WILL prevent ALL wars!” “Jolly Good Sirrah!” *Awarded Noble Peace Prize*… We are so inventive and wonderfully brilliant creatures, “But first we need to weaponize it before making harnessing it.”

          Railgun FIRST before we use maglev and rail tech to make new space launch vehicles. Right? Right.

          1. Weaponisation is always easier than anything else. Consider the ease with which basically any capable tool can be used to improvise a makeshift weapon.
            Same applies to violent chemical reactions.
            Note how the reverse is not true: capable weapons don’t make very useful tools for creative purposes.

            Second law of thermodynamics : it’s *always* easier to destroy than to create.

      1. Also of telephone switching technology (semiconductors), automating the census (Hollerith code), television (that display you’re staring at), leyden jars…ad nauseum. Most of all, engineers…those awful, awful engineers building efficient ways for people to write and communicate out of weapons of war. /s/r

        1. In fact, it was well into the 18th century before military engineering and other engineering separated enough to tell them apart. These new folks needed a new name, which is where the term “civil engineering” came from. The irony is not lost on the US Army Corps of Engineers, either.

          1. This is a simplification.

            Engineering and weapon invention is not now and was not then synonymous.

            It depends on perspective and opinion as well – aqueducts, for instance, were created to allow populations to be more centralized, benefiting the generation of wealth for the wealthy.

            Civil engineering is not “civilian engineering”.. Lol.

      2. Does that mean it is morally or ethically ‘right’ to focus on weaponry of war in a way that separates it’s use from it’s creation?

        You sound angry – like you feel guilty deep down, but refuse to take even 1% of respnsibiltiy for what “our societies” produce.

        I am afraid your statements also are false.. A more obvious way to look at it is that the work of people like Babbage was coopted by military.

    2. Just where in the world do you live? You’re free to post on the internet and have a decent command of the English language. So let’s just assume that the device used in this article to express the concept of hype had a role in keeping your place of residence free from the threat of Nazi or Japanese dominance.

      Do I wish that our society could put the same amount of effort into building things that weren’t meant to kill other people? Yes. Will I ignore the offshoot technologies and advances we’ve made based on that effort? No.

      1. It is arbitrary to assign causation to large technological progress such as the event of semiconductors or massive public networks.

        These are simply NOT “the outcome of war” – these are the work, primarily, of universities, not military research corporations. The funding may often come from military interests, but that does not make it ‘military technology’

        Soldiers can use soda straws to drink soda. Does that make it military tech?

    3. And your complacency and hoplophobia suggest that you deserve whatever crooks already successfully disarmed you and your countrymen.

      See how no one has anything to gain from such stupid and grossly uninformed comments?

      What exactly did you think anyone would get from your comment? Were you just looking to troll, or do you think there is some meaningful connection between reading articles about military engineering and that bigoted sack of shit?

      Military hacks are still hacks and they are hardly overprominent on this site. If you don’t want to read them, don’t. No call to shit on our parade.

      1. “Your complacency and hoplophobia suggest that you deserve whatever crooks already successfully disarmed you and your countrymen.”

        You are mistaking tired of the same shit and disgust as the same thing. Checkmate.

    4. Thanks Hack-A-Day for another awesome Retrotechtacular.
      bin, Trump is obviously the president we Need, not the president we Deserve. He is, after all, going to make America great again.

    5. Advances in technology related to war. Shocking.

      To be less sarcastic, conflict is often the “necessity” that is the mother of invention. You may not like what the device was designed to do but the science and technology involved in solving the problem are interesting, at least to me.

  2. As politically informed as I am, and as often as I read political blogs; it disheartens me to come to my escape from the Trumpians, Clintonistas, Bushies, and Obamafiles to find that they have infiltrated the comments section here. Cool and innovative knows no political ideology. This bomb sight was cool and innovative – even if it was oversold.

    Make Hackaday great again!! (sorry. couldn’t help myself)

    1. Was there a U.S. torpedo HaD retro a while back? Virtually every depiction of submarine ware of WWII from then till today depicts the torpedo targeting system as an aim and shoot line of sight system. The secrecy was so deep and the analog computers on the subs so complex that the closest we see to reality it the multiple sightings taken and someone saying “Mark!”. We don’t see the Selsyns on the periscope or the men dialing speed and direction and angles into panels of knobs until a firing solution is found and the equipment attached to the torpedo that programs it to leave the sub and travel some distance in a line then change direction for a broadside collision with the target. No one even asks how they can use the stern tubes at the same time as the bow tubes on the same target. Cool stuff indeed and still apparently mostly unknown. Military Science was part of any college curriculum until quite recently.

  3. Missing a target by 800′ with an atomic bomb isn’t exactly a miss. Missing a tank by 10′ with a 500lb bomb would still count as a hi. Sure, you didn’t bounce it off the turret, but the tank is just as dead. Depending on what you’re throwing, the aider and wider the range gets for what would be called a ‘hit’ even if most average people would say it missed.

    1. I once fired a grenade launcher on the range, I was aiming at 55 gallon barrel. The grenade hit the top of the barrel, and bounced about 20 feet beyond it!
      “It’s a hit! And a miss!”

    2. Near the start of the war, the RAF found that less than 30% of their bombs were landing within five miles of their target.
      Of course, that figure is down to things like navigation and human error as much as the bombsights they were using, but in the mid-1940s getting within a mile of your target was considered quite good.
      In their defence aerial bombing was barely thirty years old at that point.

  4. I am living not very far from the place where Renault factory was ;during WWII Allied forces tried to bomb it . The bomb falled every where around in Le Vesinet 1O km west , in Saint Cloud in the river Seine . Last year a huge bomb was found near pont de Saint Cloud lot of people were killed . During the war about 75 000 civilian where killed by the Allied force bombers . About the same number were killed by the German in death camp. In Marseille in one day the American bombers killed about 2000 people. It lookslike Norden was not accurate !

  5. So if the germans had the equivalent that was in fact slightly better then why all the secrecy? Didn’t they know the germans had such devices too? Sounds like the spies failed a bit that time.

  6. Even with Norton bomb sight, the Americans were still dropping dumb bombs.
    The Germans already had Fritz-X and Hs-293 guided bombs, far more interesting and accurate technology.

    1. Hang on a minute there. The Americans also had guided bombs during WWII which were used in combat, notably the Azon and Bat, check wikipedia for details. I recall reading somewhere there was also a USAAF rocket-powered air-to-ground missile used in the Pacific against Japanese submarine pens. These were operational much the same as the Fritz-X. I don’t think the Hs-293D TV camera missile entered service.

  7. Regarding Norden Bombsight Secrecy
    My father worked on this device. One day in the 1940s (before I was born), my mother came home and concerned neighbors contacted her because the postman had left with them a shipping tube, addressed to my father; it had TOP SECRET stamped all over it. My mother explained that the tube contained advertising and that stamping it secret was a ruse to get attention. She thanked the neighbors for accepting the mail and, when my father came home, gave the tube to him.
    Inside were the complete documents, including blueprints, for the bombsight!

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