The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” is arguably the most recognizable aircraft of the Second World War. Made infamous by the daring daylight strategic bombing runs they carried out over Germany, more than 12,000 of these four-engined bombers were produced between 1939 and 1945. Thanks to the plane’s renowned survivability in battle, approximately 60% of them made it through the war and returned home to the United States, only to be rounded up in so-called “boneyards” where they were ultimately cut up and sold as scrap. Today there are fewer than 50 intact Boeing B-17s left in the world, and of those, only 11 remain airworthy.
One of them is Nine-O-Nine, a B-17G built in April 7, 1945. This particular aircraft was built too late to see any combat, although in the 1950s she was fitted with various instruments and exposed to three separate nuclear blasts for research purposes. It’s actually not the real Nine-O-Nine either, the original was scrapped after it completed eighteen bombing runs over Berlin. Without a combat record of its own, this bomber was painted to look like the real Nine-O-Nine in honor of its incredible service record of never losing a crewman.
Since 1986, Nine-O-Nine has been owned by the Collings Foundation, who operate her as a living history exhibit. The bomber flies around the United States with an entourage of similarly iconic WWII aircraft as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, stopping by various airports and giving the public a chance to climb aboard and see the pinnacle of mid-1940s strategic bombing technology. History buffs with suitably deep pockets can even book a seat on one of the scheduled 30-minute flights that take place at every stop on the Tour.
I was lucky enough to have the The Wings of Freedom Tour pass through my area recently, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience this incredible aircraft first hand. The fact that I’m equal parts a coward and miser kept me from taking a ride aboard the 74 year old Nine-O-Nine, at least for now, but I made sure to take plenty of pictures from inside this lovingly restored B-17G while it was safely on the ground.
How would you survive in a war-torn country, where bombs could potentially fall from the sky with only very short notice? And what if the bomb in question were The Bomb — a nuclear weapon? This concern is thankfully distant for most of us, but it wasn’t always so. Only 75 years ago, bombs were raining down on England, and until much more recently the threat of global thermonuclear war was encouraging school kids to “duck and cover”. How do you protect people in these situations?
The answers, naturally, depend on the conditions at hand. In Britain before the war, money was scarce and many houses didn’t have basements or yards that were large enough to build a family-sized bomb shelter in, and they had to improvise. In Cold War America, building bomb shelters ended up as a boon for the swimming pool construction industry. In both cases, bomb shelters proved to be a test of engineering ingenuity and DIY gumption, attempting to save lives in the face of difficult-to-quantify danger from above.
To the average person, the application of balloon technology pretty much begins and ends with birthday parties. The Hackaday reader might be able to expand on that a bit, as we’ve covered several projects that have lofted various bits of equipment into the stratosphere courtesy of a high-altitude balloons. But even that is a relatively minor distinction. They might be bigger than their multicolored brethren, but it’s still easy for a modern observer to write them off as trivial.
But during the 1940’s, they were important pieces of wartime technology. While powered aircraft such as fighters and bombers were obviously more vital to the larger war effort, balloons still had numerous defensive and reconnaissance applications. They were useful enough that the United States Navy produced a training film entitled History of Balloons which takes viewers through the early days of manned ballooning. Examples of how the core technology developed and matured over time is intermixed with footage of balloons being used in both the First and Second World Wars, and parallels are drawn to show how those early pioneers influenced contemporary designs.
Even when the film was produced in 1944, balloons were an old technology. The timeline in the video starts all the way back in 1783 with the first piloted hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, and then quickly covers iterative advancements to ballooning made into the 1800’s. As was common in training films from this era, the various “reenactments” are cartoons complete with comic narration in the style of W.C. Fields which were designed to be entertaining and memorable to the target audience of young men.
While the style might seem a little strange to modern audiences, there’s plenty of fascinating information packed within the film’s half-hour run time. The rapid advancements to ballooning between 1800 and the First World War are detailed, including the various instruments developed for determining important information such as altitude and rate of climb. The film also explains how some of the core aspects of manned ballooning, like the gradual release of ballast or the fact that a deflated balloon doubles as a rudimentary parachute in an emergency, were discovered quite by accident.
When the film works its way to the contemporary era, we are shown the process of filling Naval balloons with hydrogen and preparing them for flight. The film also talks at length about the so-called “barrage balloons” which were used in both World Wars. Including a rather dastardly advancement which added mines to the balloon’s tethers to destroy aircraft unlucky enough to get in their way.
This period in human history saw incredible technological advancements, and films such as these which were created during and immediately after the Second World War provide an invaluable look at cutting edge technology from a bygone era. One wonders what the alternative might be for future generations looking back on the technology of today.
The German Enigma device has always been a fascinating gadget for hackers. We’ve seen various replicas and emulators created over the years, and it was recently even the subject of our weekly Hack Chat. But if you think about it it’s not really a surprise; the Enigma has the perfect blend of historical significance and engineering wizardry, with a healthy dash of mystery thrown in. Why do the bad guys always have the coolest toys?
Thanks to the relatively high-resolution touch screen, [Mark] was able to develop a user interface for his Enigma that really gives you a feel for how the original machine worked. Obviously it’s considerably simplified from the real-world version, but using a stylus to tap the rotors you want to spin or the wires you want plugged in makes for a more immersive experience than many of the previous attempts we’ve seen. With a tap you’re even able to load historical machine configurations, such as how the Enigma aboard the submarine U-262 was configured when the Allies intercepted its encoded messages in 1942.
[Mark] says this project was always about developing the software, and he leaves the actual hardware implementation as an exercise for the user. Just to play around with the software it’s enough to hook up an Arduino and the touch screen, but we’d love to see somebody really take the idea and run with it. Add some batteries, a charging circuit, and put it all in a little wooden box for that authentic Enigma look. Can’t forget that iconic wrinkle finish paint, either.
As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.
One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.
With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.
In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.
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.
In July 1940 the German airforce began bombing Britain. This was met with polite disagreement on the British side — and with high technology, ingenuity, and improvisation. The defeat of the Germans is associated with anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes, but a significant amount of potential damage had been averted by the use of radio.
Night bombing was a relatively new idea at that time and everybody agreed that it was hard. Navigating a plane in the dark while travelling at two hundred miles per hour and possibly being shot at just wasn’t effective with traditional means. So the Germans invented non-traditional means. This was the start of a technological competition where each side worked to implement new and novel radio technology to guide bombing runs, and to disrupt those guidance systems.