The German Space Program That Never Was

A previous post discussed the creation of the V-2 rocket, the first man-made object to reach space. Designed and built at the Peenemünde Army Research Center during World War II, the V-2 was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction, but ended up being far more effective as a tool of discovery than it ever did on the battlefield. In fact, historians now estimate that more people died during the development and construction of the V-2 than did in the actual attacks carried out with it. But even though it failed to win the war for Germany, it still managed to change the world in another way: as it served as the basic blueprint for all subsequent rockets right up to modern-day vehicles.

But the V-2 wasn’t the only rocket-powered vehicle that the Germans were working on, a whole series of follow-up vehicles were in the design phase when the Allies took Berlin in 1945. Some were weapons, but not all. Pioneers like Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun saw that rocketry had more to offer mankind than a new way to deliver warheads to the enemy, and the team at Peenemünde had begun laying the groundwork for a series of rockets that could have put mankind into space years before the Soviets.

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Books You Should Read: V-2 By Walter Dornberger

In an era where we can watch rockets land on their tails Buck Rogers-style live on YouTube, it’s difficult to imagine a time when even the most basic concepts of rocketry were hotly debated. At the time, many argued that the very concept of a liquid fueled rocket was impossible, and that any work towards designing practical rocket powered vehicles was a waste of time and money. Manned spacecraft, satellite communications, to say nothing of landing on other worlds; all considered nothing more than entertainment for children or particularly fanciful adults.

Walter Dornberger (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1980-009-33 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This is the world in which V-2, written by the head of the German rocket development program Walter Dornberger, takes place. The entire history of the A-4/V-2 rocket program is laid out in this book, from the very early days when Dornberger and his team were launching rockets with little more than matches, all the way up to Germany’s frantic attempts to mobilize the still incomplete V-2 rocket in face of increasingly certain defeat at the end of World War II.

For those fascinated with early space exploration and the development of the V-2 rocket like myself, this book is essentially unparalleled. It’s written completely in the first person, through Dornberger’s own eyes, and reads in most places like a personal tour of his rocket development site at the Peenemünde Army Research Center. Dornberger walks through the laboratories and factories of Peenemünde, describing the research being done and the engineers at work in a personal detail that you simply don’t get anywhere else.

But this book is not only a personal account of how the world’s first man-made object to reach space was created, it’s also a realistic case study of how engineers and the management that pays the bills often clash with disastrous results. Dornberger and his team wanted to create a vehicle to someday allow man to reach space, while the Nazi government had a much more nefarious and immediate goal. But this isn’t a book about the war — the only battles you’ll read about in V-2 take place in meeting rooms, where the engineers who understood the immense difficulty of their task tried in vain to explain why the timetables and production numbers the German military wanted simply couldn’t be met.

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Retrotechtacular: Hacking Wartime Mail

I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.

If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.

On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.

While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.

British Mail Hack

The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft.  Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.

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3DP Enigma Keyboard Improves On The Original

[Asciimation], who previously created an Enigma Machine wristwatch, decided to go all-in and make a 3D-printed Enigma machine. Not a perfect replica, but rather an improved version that works the same but doesn’t concern itself with historical accuracy. For instance, the current step involves building the keyboard. Rather than trying to re-create the spring-and-pin method of the original, he simply swapped in readily available, double-throw micro switches.

This project has a tremendous amount of fascinating detail. [Asciimation] did his research and it shows; he downloaded blueprints of the original and used hacked digital calipers to precisely measure each rotor’s teeth, so that it could be re-created for printing. He even re-created the Enigma font to ensure that his printed rotor wheels would look right–though in doing so he discovered that the original machine used one typeface for the keyboard, one for the wheels, and one for the indicator lamps.

We previously published [Asciimation]’s Enigma machine wristwatch project, where he simulated the functionality of an Enigma with an Arduino.

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Acoustic Mirrors: How To Find Planes Without RADAR

A lot of science museums and parks feature something called an acoustic mirror. The one at Houston’s Discovery Green park is called the listening vessels. [Doug Hollis] created two acoustic mirrors 70 feet apart, pointing at each other. If you stand or sit near one of the vessels, you can hear a whisper from someone near the other vessel. The limestone installations (see right) are concave and focus sound like a parabolic mirror will focus light.

mirrorJust a science curiosity, right? Maybe today, but not always. The story of these devices runs through World War II and is an object lesson in how new technology requires new ways of thinking about things.

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Retrotechtacular: Hallicrafters Goes To War

When the USA entered World War Two, they lacked a powerful mobile communications unit. To plug this gap they engaged Hallicrafters, prewar manufacturers of amateur radio transmitters and receivers, who adapted and ruggedized one of their existing products for the application.

The resulting transmitter was something of a success, with production running into many thousands of units. Hallicrafters were justifiably proud of it, so commissioned a short two-part film on its development which is the subject of this article.

The transmitter itself was a very high quality device for the era, but even with the film’s brief insight into operating back in the AM era the radio aspect is not what should capture your interest. Instead of the radio it is the in-depth tour of an electronics manufacturing plant in the war years that makes this film, from the development process of a military product from a civilian one through all the stages of production to the units finally being fitted to Chevrolet K-51 panel vans and shipped to the front. Chassis-based electronics requiring electric hoists to move from bench to bench are a world away from today’s surface-mount micro-circuitry.

So sit back and enjoy the film, both parts are below the break.

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Stolen Tech: The Soviet Superfortress

Boeing’s B-17 was the most numerous heavy bomber of World War II, and its reputation of being nigh indestructible in the face of Messerschmidts and flak cannons is stuff of legend. The first flight of the B-17 was in 1935, and a decade later at the close of World War II, the B-17 would begin to show its age. It could only carry 6,000 pounds of ordnance; the first atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, weighed 9,700 pounds and 10,300 pounds, respectively. The Avro Lancaster notwithstanding, a new aircraft would be needed for the Allied invasion of Japan. This aircraft would be the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

On paper, the B-29 nearly holds its own against all but the most modern bombers of aviation history. Yes, the B-29 is slow, but that’s only because jet engines were in their infancy in 1944. This bomber was a forgotten super weapon of World War II, and everyone – Japan, German, Great Britain and the USSR – wanted their own. Only the Soviets would go as far to build their own B-29, reverse engineering the technology from crashed and ditched American bombers.

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