Sunday, May 1, 2011

Scientific and Technological Advancement Not Promoted by War

According to Wikipedia, the first kidney dialysis machine, or dialyzer, was invented by a Dutch physician during World War II. Since his country was occupied by the Nazis at the time, the good doctor was unable to make a good dialyzer from the materials available to him. Most of his dialysis patients died until 1945, when a woman in a coma caused by kidney failure awoke and was able to live for another seven years.

In 1946, American comic actor John “Rags” Ragland died from kidney failure, three days shy of his forty-first birthday. Whether dialysis was available to him at that time or not, I do not know. His condition was evidently advanced. But I wonder whether or not the new technology might have saved him if it had been developed during peacetime and, so, had been both more available and more advanced. Instead, advancement had not occurred because war trumped the development of this healing invention.

This is simply another example that puts the lie to the common myth that wars cause advances in technology. At the least, such a notion has to be taken with a large grain of salt. Obviously, kidney dialysis was held back by the war, although it is conceivable that if an American doctor instead of a Netherlander had invented it, there might have been more rapid development since American medical researchers might have been able to overcome wartime shortages by arguing that dialysis was important enough to justify additional resource allocation. Those are a lot of “mights,” however. And certain kinds of medicine are more interesting to wartime planners than to the peacetime marketplace. They might not have given the green light to funding non-war-related medicine. War always involves the reallocation of resources by the government, and that is what usually retards advances in technology for peaceful purposes. (It is significant in light of that that early advocates of social engineering through government intervention spoke of their wish to create a peacetime cause as potent as war; people could be made to follow government edicts during war far more easily than during peace.)

Television is a classic example of a technology that did not develop as it might have due to war. Invented by an American in 1927, fully electronic analog television languished in the United States largely for economic and geographical reasons, though for legal reasons as well, but it got off to a start in Britain where conditions were more favorable. By 1939, there were more television sets per capita in England than anywhere else in the world. The BBC unceremoniously ceased television broadcasting, however, when Britain declared war on Germany. In the same year, the Farnsworth Corporation and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) finally settled their patent issues, but the continuing Great Depression and the subsequent entrance of the United States into World War II held back the proliferation of television stations as well as further marketing of television sets until after the war.

One of the main wartime uses of already developed television technology was the manufacture of radar screens, which are essentially like television screens. At the outset of World War II, the British had already built the most advanced radar defense system in the world. The Germans evidently never had a clue as to how significant this was. The British “Chain Home” radar network was largely responsible for defending Britain against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

During the years preceding World war II, British scientists had been studying radar more intensely than most of the world’s radio technology researchers. They even developed a device called the “cavity magnetron.” This was the world’s first microwave device. Key to my point here, the cavity magnetron, like the television screen that became the wartime radar screen, was invented before the war, not during it. It is always the trend during wartime that technology invented before the war is repurposed for war while all peaceful uses are put aside until after the war. So it was with the cavity magnetron. Afraid that Germany would invade Britain and that this microwave device could fall into the wrong hands, Britain gave its two prototype magnetrons to the United States. It is an interesting side note that the conveyance of the device to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was done so secretively that the scientists at MIT who received the device were given very little explanation of what it was and how it worked. One of them finally came up with a clever explanation by analogy. The cavity magnetron is like a whistle: a whistle works by confining air within a space so that it is forced to change frequency; in the same way, the magnetron changes the frequency of radio waves. Out of the work at MIT, a light radar system was developed. Up until this point in time, radar depended on large towers or shore-based installations used by the navy. The Magnetron made possible smaller radar systems that could be placed on board aircraft for the first time. The British and Americans now were able to bomb Germany with radar-equipped planes that did not need to see their targets. They could fly at higher altitudes at night and still destroy strategic enemy sites. It was not until the Germans shot down some of the Allied bombers and reverse-engineered the microwave radar that they were able to use this technology themselves. By then, it was too late for Germany, however.

The technology developed during World War II—from television to radar to rockets to nuclear fission—had been invented before the war. Governments commandeered it and focused on its war applications. It was not until after the war that peaceful uses of these technologies could be realized. It is likely that the marketplace, in the absence of war, would have brought about the peacetime world of advanced technology a decade earlier. For example, the widespread use of television for communication and entertainment that we knew after 1947 would undoubtedly have arrived well before 1945. (It already had in Britain where, by 1939, the BBC was broadcasting news and entertainment on television six hours a day, six hours a week; at the same time, the few American television stations were broadcasting about three days a week and fewer hours a day.) As it was, it is noteworthy that the post-war trend was for the price of a television set to gradually go down in the United States while it gradually went up in Britain. This is because the post-war economy of the United States boomed while the British economy declined. To a large extent, this was a symptom of the fact that the British government, after the war, maintained wartime rationing and prevented a booming recovery like the one that occurred in America. From this we can see that war is not the only thing that retards technological development, but, rather, anything that retards economic growth, as well as anything like war that siphons off resources, will tend to retard technological advancement.

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