Innovation is a newborn baby that politicians love to kiss – regions and municipalities want more of it, but are uncertain of how to proceed. Metrics are challenging – for the politician and bureaucrat it isn’t clear whether they should measure GDP impact, jobs created, or any of a dozen other metrics. Determining the right time frame for measurement (other than the time to the next election) is equally difficult.
Working with industrial technology provides occasions to interact with many in government who struggle with identifying what they should be promoting and determining what tools are best suitable to the task. Standing in 2014, there are several technologies that were furthered by innovation policy that are clear in retrospect. While these are older technologies that saw their early development in a time of war, their lessons hold true today and serve as a framework for what can work now.
World War II and Radar
The military needs of World War II forced an alignment of incentive and ruthless focus that accelerated the development of computers, radar, nuclear technologies, and rocketry. The programs that prioritized and developed radar and nuclear weapons are fascinating and increasingly available for study.
Vandevar Bush ran the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (“OSRD”) and at the close of the war submitted Science, the The Endless Frontier to the President as a template for how organized, systematic innovation could be pursued over the coming decades. Bush had understood how the scientific industrial complex he had helped organized could continue to deliver new innovation to science over the coming decades. Anyone currently interested in innovation policy would be pleased to see how his words hold true over time and serve as the framework for much of what we know works in this field.
Tuxedo Park tells the story of Alfred Lee Loomis, an influential financier who in the early days of World War II worked to consolidate the resources of the civilian population to understand what was possible and prioritize those nascent R&D efforts.
The title of Buderi’s The Invention that Changed the World makes it clear how important radar was to stopping Nazi aggression. With radar, the British could more accurately and efficiently deploy their smaller fighter fleet against incoming raids. As radar improved in performance and shrunk in size it could be deployed in aircraft, something that enemy researchers had thought impossible. This allowed for improved defense against aircraft and improved bombing accuracy. Radar in World War II would serve the same function as strategic reconnaissance in the Cold War; it allowed the deployment of smaller forces to exactly match the capabilities of the opposing force, rather than requiring a huge force that anticipated any possible threat of attack.
Munitions and the Manhattan Project
To understand the munition needs of the time, it is helpful to know what was being targeted. The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn tells the story of how the energy producing dams of Germany were built, the rivers which had their course changed and the impact it had on Germany’s industrial capacity. These dams themselves were the result of industrial policy that dates back to the time of Frederick the Great. This creates the interesting scenario where the innovation policy of the Allies had to first set out to reduce the advantages that Germany had developed over previous generations from their own innovation policy.
Hager’s The Alchemy of Air is a biography of the inventors of the Haber-Bosch process that describes the heavy industry which consumed the power of the dams. Their achievements would serve as the backbone of the German chemical industry leading into World War II. Dam Busters (14 hours), by Holland, describes the innovative weapon system designed pursued by the British to destroy these dams and deprive Germany industry of the power they provided.
The most significant munitions development in World War II was obviously the Manhattan Project and the resulting nuclear weapons that were developed. The authoritative book on this topic is The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes. The paperback edition is nearly 900 pages, the notes are extensive and his approach to the history of all of the characters is thorough. His writing on the history of Judaism in Europe and Germany in particular are very thorough.
The technical leader of the Los Alamos team and facility, Robert Oppenheimer, would go on to become a conflicted person in US history. Vilified by the very government he served and helped lead to victory, his story is well told in the 28 hours of American Prometheus by Bird and Sherwin. The authors explore his early life, brilliance as a physicist and surprising success as an administrator not just at Los Alamos but also after the war at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ.
The leadership that developed the atomic bomb was wise enough to listen to the likes of Loomis, Bush and Oppenheimer – but at the same time committed the resources of the government in order to ensure its success. Jean Edward Smith’s FDR (32 hours) is a thorough biography of the President that led the country into the war and contains significant material on his motivations and relationship to innovation policy. Equally extensive is David McCullough’s Truman (54 hours), which details the role he played in enforcing honesty among military contractors as the US was just beginning to mobilize for the war. Truman was handed the results of the innovation policy – a weapon of previously unimaginable scale that was ready for deployment.
Rocketry saw its origin in the aggression of World War II and would see its use for a peaceful demonstration of might following the insights of Eisenhower and JFK about the costs of competing head to head against a Russia with unknowable resources. The Apollo program is the most successful example of innovation policy – it combined government, military and civilian resources to accomplish a goal so far ahead of its time that is not achievable today.
All three of these technologies had clear goals. Radar needed to improve performance and shrink in size. The Manhattan project had munitions targets it had to achieve. Apollo had to deliver mankind to the moon. With clear goals in place and with the appropriate balance between government objectives and civilian ingenuity, those objectives were met.