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Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial…
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Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States…

by Katherine C. Epstein

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This is a moderate length history of the early development of the torpedo, emphasizing the legal and political consequences of the efforts by the British and American navies to work with inventors and manufacturers to get better torpedoes. Epstein makes a good case that this was the real genesis of the military-industrial complex, since no private arms firm could absorb the risks of providing this new "command technology" (Epstein's term; I'll explain shortly) without some significant government backing. Sounds dry? Epstein makes it surprisingly interesting.

It helps that the writing is good and the sense of humor is dry. There is, for example, a section on the messy politics of securing the best gyroscopes titled, fittingly, "As the Gyroscope Turns." There was just enough geeky technology discussion, complete with original patent drawings, to keep my interest up. I admit, though, that I skimmed some of the deeper political and legal discussions. Also, the history does not extend beyond Jutland, where torpedoes decided the tactics of a major fleet engagement for the first time.

The earliest torpedo was the Whitehead torpedo, invented in 1866 by its namesake. This could carry about 120 pounds of guncotton 700 yards at 7 knots. That was not particularly impressive even at the time, but improvements came rapidly. The original torpedo was propelled by compressed air acting on a pair of pistons of Whitehead's own unique design. Howard in the United States came up with a torpedo driven by a large flywheel; this had remarkable accuracy, thanks to the gyroscopic action of the flywheel, but poor depth keeping, and the target could probably sail up and board your ship while you were trying to spin the flywheel up. Whitehead eventually overcame the depth keeping problem with The Secret, which was a hydrostatic sensor coupled with a pendulum to keep the torpedo from porpoising too much, and Howard's torpedo never make much of a market.

The next improvement was gyroscopic guidance not based on a flywheel. Gyros became the equivalent then of avionics today; high-tech precision instrumentation vital to the guidance system of a cutting-edge weapon. Britain and the United States struggled to develop a gyroscope that could be set to turn the torpedo after launch, allowing it to be fired on a course other than the way your torpedo tubes were pointed, with obvious tactical advantages. Here the line between private and public sector was badly blurred; the navies, wanting better torpedoes, made suggestions to the manufacturers, often based on their own sailor's insights; the manufacturers developed the ideas into workable designs; and vice versa. Intellectual property rights became very blurred, especially when national security began to be invoked. I am amused by the very concept of a "secret patent", which is a perfect oxymoron.

The next big thing was heated torpedoes. These burned some fuel in the air flask, heating the air as it was powering the engine and increasing both torpedo speed and endurance. It was a small leap to burning the fuel in a separate chamber between the flask and engine; the only problem was the hot gases burning out the engine. The Americans switched to turbine engines that could endure the heat, but these generated enough torque to throw the torpedo off course. The Navy suggested two contrarotating turbine stages, the chief manufacturer (Blair) made this practical, then the Navy, Blair, and the Navy machinist who first came up with the idea fought over the intellectual property rights all the way to the Supreme Court. The Navy won, setting some precedents that linger on in the military-industrial complex today. And it all started out in good faith; Blair just wanted to make some money selling torpedoes to the Navy and the Navy just wanted better torpedoes.

The British never did adopt the turbine. They invented a better piston engine, and eventually adopted the wet heater, in which water was injected into the combustion chamber to reduce the temperature while increasing the volume of working fluid. This was still the chief technology at the time of the Second World War, albeit with improvements. There were other little improvements: better reducers to keep the pressure of the working fluid steady, so that the torpedo would maintain a constant speed (essential for fire control); the aforementioned gyros that could allow a torpedo to change course immediately after launch; better fire control; better warheads; etc. The torpedo actually had a range comparable with gunnery in the 1900s, which forced some serious rethinking of tactics. It also encouraged navies to figure out ways to place a shell on a target from distances beyond torpedo range, which meant better than 10,000 yards by the time of Jutland.

Epstein claims Fisher was never as obsessed with capital ships as portrayed; he was just trying to preserve the Royal Navy's budget, and actually foresaw flotilla defense by torpedo craft as the future of sea control. Jellicoe, in turn, did at Jutland exactly what the newly evolved tactics dictated in the presence of an enemy with modern torpedoes.

I promised to explain command technology. This is Epstein's term for military technology that is critical to staying at the leading edge, for which the government is the only customer and where the government has an interest in keeping the manufacturers financially viable. "Too vital to faiil", so to speak. The same pattern is clear in aviation in the 1920s and 1930s (my observation, not Epstein's) where a number of aviation firms only survived because of well-timed military contracts. This paid off during the Second World War, and it is sometimes forgotten that Eisenhower, in his famous speech warning about the military-industrial complex, also accepted that such a complex was no longer optional.

Interesting little book (229 pages), though wading through the politics between the discussions on technology sometimes reminded me of being a pre-teenager wishing Kirk would quit hitting on the green alien girl and get on with the important story. Thumbs up. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674725263, Hardcover)

When President Eisenhower referred to the "military-industrial complex" in his 1961 Farewell Address, he summed up in a phrase the merger of government and industry that dominated the Cold War United States. In this bold reappraisal, Katherine Epstein uncovers the origins of the military-industrial complex in the decades preceding World War I, as the United States and Great Britain struggled to perfect a crucial new weapon: the self-propelled torpedo.

Torpedoes epitomized the intersection of geopolitics, globalization, and industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century. They threatened to revolutionize naval warfare by upending the delicate balance among the world's naval powers. They were bought and sold in a global marketplace, and they were cutting-edge industrial technologies. Building them, however, required substantial capital investments and close collaboration among scientists, engineers, businessmen, and naval officers. To address these formidable challenges, the U.S. and British navies created a new procurement paradigm: instead of buying finished armaments from the private sector or developing them from scratch at public expense, they began to invest in private-sector research and development. The inventions emerging from torpedo R&D sparked legal battles over intellectual property rights that reshaped national security law.

Blending military, legal, and business history with the history of science and technology, Torpedo recasts the role of naval power in the run-up to World War I and exposes how national security can clash with property rights in the modern era.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:14 -0400)

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