Hacking When It Counts: The Magnetron Goes to War

In 1940, England was in a dangerous predicament. The Nazi war machine had been sweeping across Europe for almost two years, claiming countries in a crescent from Norway to France and cutting off the island from the Continent. The Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above the English Channel and southern coast of the country, while the Blitz ravaged London with a nightly rain of bombs and terror. The entire country was mobilized, prepared for Hitler’s inevitable invasion force to sweep across the Channel and claim another victim.

We’ve seen before that no idea that could possibly help turn the tide was considered too risky or too wild to take a chance on. Indeed, many of the ideas that sprang from the fertile and desperate minds of British inventors went on to influence the course of the war in ways they could never have been predicted. But there was one invention that not only influenced the war but has a solid claim on being its key invention, one without which the outcome of the war almost certainly would have been far worse, and one that would become a critical technology of the post-war era that would lead directly to innovations in communications, material science, and beyond. And the risks taken to develop this idea, the cavity magnetron, and field usable systems based on it are breathtaking in their scope and audacity. Here’s how the magnetron went to war.

Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: The Magnetron Goes to War”

Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions

If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.

For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.

Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions”

Hacking When It Counts: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those that struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.

That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, the need for new and better ways to blow each other up tends to bring out the really nutty ideas and lower the barrier to revealing them publically, or at least to military officials.

Of all the zany plans that came from the fertile minds on each side of World War II, few seem as out there as a plan to use birds to pilot bombs to their targets. And yet such a plan was not only actively developed, it came from the fertile mind of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, and very nearly resulted in a fieldable weapon that would let fly the birds of war.

Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Pigeon-Guided Missiles”

Hacking When It Counts: Churchill’s Toy Shop

Nothing brings out the worst in humanity like war. Perversely, war also seems to exert an opposite if not equal force that leads to massive outbursts of creativity, the likes of which are not generally seen during times of peace. With inhibitions relaxed and national goals to meet, or in some cases where the very survival of a people is at stake, we always seem to find new and clever ways to blow each other to smithereens.

The run-up to World War II was a time where almost every nation was caught on its heels, and the rapidity of events unfolding across Europe and in Asia demanded immediate and decisive response. As young men and women mobilized and made ready for war, teams of engineers, scientists, and inventors were pressed into service to develop the weapons that would support them. For the British, these “boffins” would team up under a directorate called Ministry of Defence 1, or MD1. Informally, they’d be known as “Churchill’s Toy Shop,” and the devices they came up with were deviously clever hacks.

Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Churchill’s Toy Shop”

Miss Beatrice Shilling Saves the Spitfire

On a bright spring morning in 1940, the Royal Air Force pilot was in the fight of his life. Strapped into his brand new Supermarine Spitfire, he was locked in mortal combat with a Luftwaffe pilot over the English Channel in the opening days of the Battle of Britain. The Spitfire was behind the Messerschmitt and almost within range to unleash a deadly barrage of rounds from the four eight Browning machine guns in the leading edges of the elliptical wings. With the German plane just below the centerline of the gunsight’s crosshairs, the British pilot pushed the Spit’s lollipop stick forward to dive slightly and rake his rounds across the Bf-109. He felt the tug of the harness on his shoulders keeping him in his seat as the nimble fighter pulled a negative-g dive, and he lined up the fatal shot.

But the powerful V-12 Merlin engine sputtered, black smoke trailing along the fuselage as the engine cut out. Without power, the young pilot watched in horror as the three-bladed propeller wound to a stop. With the cold Channel waters looming in his windscreen, there was no time to restart the engine. The pilot bailed out in the nick of time, watching his beautiful plane cartwheel into the water as he floated down to join it, wondering what had just happened.

Continue reading “Miss Beatrice Shilling Saves the Spitfire”

Jerri Nielsen: Surviving the Last Place on Earth

There may be no place on Earth less visited by humans than the South Pole. Despite a permanent research base with buildings clustered about the pole and active scientific programs, comparatively few people have made the arduous journey there. From October to February, up to 200 people may be stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the Antarctic summer, and tourists checking an item off their bucket lists come and go. But by March, when the sun dips below the horizon for the next six months, almost everyone has cleared out, except for a couple of dozen “winter-overs” who settle in to maintain the station, carry on research, and survive the worst weather Mother Nature brews up anywhere on the planet.

To be a winter-over means accepting the fact that whatever happens, once that last plane leaves, you’re on your own for eight months. Such isolation and self-reliance require special people, and Dr. Jerri Nielsen was one who took the challenge. But as she and the other winter-overs watched the last plane leave the Pole in 1998 and prepared for the ritual first-night screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, she had no way of knowing what she would have to do to survive the cancer that was even then growing inside her.

Continue reading “Jerri Nielsen: Surviving the Last Place on Earth”

Hacking When it Counts: POW Canteen Radios

Of all the horrors visited upon a warrior, being captured by the enemy might count as the worst. With death in combat, the suffering is over, but with internment in a POW camp, untold agonies may await. Tales of torture, starvation, enslavement and indoctrination attend the history of every nation’s prison camps to some degree, even in the recent past with the supposedly civilizing influence of the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

But even the most humanely treated POWs universally suffer from one thing: lack of information. To not know how the war is progressing in your absence is a form of torture in itself, and POWs do whatever they can to get information. Starting in World War II, imprisoned soldiers and sailors familiar with the new field of electronics began using whatever materials they could scrounge and the abundance of time available to them to hack together solutions to the fundamental question, “How goes the war?” This is the story of the life-saving radios some POWs managed to hack together under seemingly impossible conditions.

Continue reading “Hacking When it Counts: POW Canteen Radios”