Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, October 16, 2020

John Tyler: VP, President, and Nearly a Techno-casualty

Thinking of the Pence/Harris debate gone by, I looked back at this 2012 NPR feature on vice presidents

Not just long-forgotten, many VPs were barely known even during their terms, never called to greatness, with no discernable effect on the present day.

An exception is John Tylerwho was William Henry Harrison's running mate and became VP in 1841. There are a lot of odd facts in his career, and I'll save the most amazing fact till the last.


Tyler took little interest in the Veep job until he received word a month after the March inauguration that Harrison had died of pneumonia. Then he rushed to Washington.


Although the Constitution as it stood in 1841 was unclear on the details of succession in the event of the President's death (some felt that the VP could be nothing more than a caretaker for the remainder of the term), Tyler announced to Congress that he was indeed the President and moved into the White House. He took a second oath of office to clinch the claim. 

Congress went along with the bold move, though there was no firm legal basis for calling him "President Tyler" until the 25th Amendment passed in 1967. Some wags referred to him as His Accidency.

What's more, Tyler had no vice president at all during his term, which lasted almost four years. The Executive has been VP-less seventeen times.

While in office Tyler estranged himself from his Whig Party and dropped out of the 1844 election, leaving office in March 1845. 

His term could have ended a year before that. On February 28, 1844, he was enjoying a short river cruise aboard the new steam-powered frigate USS Princeton, along with dozens of dignitaries. The captain wanted to show off a new, powerful 12-inch cannon dubbed the Peacemaker. It exploded the third time it was test-fired for the VIP entourage. Tyler had been coming from below to see the cannon, and would have been in fatal range in another few seconds. As it was, the blast killed two members of his cabinet (lithograph by N. Currier)


Tyler was a widower. At the time he was infatuated with a woman on board, Julia Gardiner, though she was 30 years younger. She fainted after hearing that her father had died in the blast, and Tyler carried her off the ship ... and into matrimony.

Leading to the most peculiar fact: it's been 230 years from John Tyler's birth, but he has a living grandchild named Harrison Ruffin Tyler. This seems impossible, but it's true: Tyler married a much younger woman and fathered seven children with her, and son Lyon Gardiner Tyler also had children very late in life. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

Concealed nuclear weapons: an atomic-age nightmare that's never gone away

Finished another feature for Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine, "Block that Bomb," online today and linked here. It describes a major, and majorly secret, effort to use disguised gamma- and neutron-detection gear at American airports and seaports to catch Soviet agents trying to smuggle nuclear weapon components into the US, perhaps concealed in diplomatic "pouches." It predated by almost two decades the well-known passenger screening that began after a string of airliner hijackings. 

War-gamers of the Pentagon figured that the Soviets might plant a few big ones in New York and Washington and set them off moments before their bombers appeared on our radar net. Detection-equipment work started late in the Truman Administration, inspired by this Soviet test in August 1949:

Over the decades, the main effort shifted to overseas detection work (such as the "loose nukes" problem), and away from reliance on catching all inbound weapons-grade uranium and plutonium at the US border. 

I note in the article that public concern today about an adversary's concealed nuclear weapon is much less than in the Fifties (which saw a string of potboiler thrillers on the topic, like The 49th Man), but the risk could be higher. During the early years, if a bomb were found the only possible suspect would have been the USSR since only the US and USSR had any; and that posed a risk of an immediate retaliatory strike.  

As the number of nuclear states and non-state terror groups has grown, attribution of who is behind a particular nuclear sneak attack will be much more difficult. That suggests that the risk of one country starting a war by setting off a bomb to disable the enemy's seat of government or military HQ (sometimes called a decapitation strike) is higher. 

After the article I checked with friends who live in the DC area and asked what they knew about evacuation drills, and whether they had checked into how to leave the city quickly if an alert were sounded. They had some suggestions on ways to leave without getting stuck in traffic panics, as happened on 9/11 and during several false alarms later. And the city has tested mass-evacuation and nuclear-response plans over the years. If there's interest I'll post on that. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Essayons! The reason for unity during WW2 is no mystery

Writers have been calling for World War II-style unity lately, but seem puzzled: how did Americans achieve the apparent, single-minded unity back then? 

It took more than fear of defeat. Mostly it was fear for the well-being of one's relatives and friends. In that long-ago war, men were drafted for the duration. Against great odds, Congress approved a draft bill well before America’s homeland was threatened; the main reason was attacks on US shipping and the fall of France and Belgium in May 1940. By 1943 the U.S. had exhausted the pool of young unmarried men and was forced to reach for younger and older cohorts. A rule evolved: “Do War Work or Fight.” The US pulled 16 million men and women into the armed services, by draft and enlistment. That was one of every nine adult Americans. 

And the Army didn't stop there. If the war needed experts on something it either reached out and drafted them or forced them in as uniformed civilian members of the “Army Specialist Corps.” Those men were paid slightly more than draftees but were under military discipline. There was no premium-priced-military-contractor system to substitute for draftees and enlistees. 

That was motivating. Everyone was in the service, or working in war plants, or coping under rationing, or had a relative or friend overseas. So a common bond was forged. Consider this poster, pinned up in hundreds of war plants: “The boy in the draft army may be yours and your neighbors! The marching will be very tough if we fall down back home.” Here it is:


That's the kind of spirit that supercharged Louis G. Schwartz, "Louie the Waiter," who worked at the Sixth Ave Deli in New York City. Both his sons-in-law were in the service; one had been captured by the Germans. Louie decided that every war bond sold to citizens would shorten the war, so he took up a personal crusade to sell as many as possible. He could not be persuaded otherwise. Operating out of his apartment and the delicatessen, Louie sold $30,000 worth of war bonds every week. Adjusted to 2020 money, that's equal to $420,000 now. 

That's every week. 

Louie would size up a new customer at the deli and try to sell him a bond that very day, and then get him to buy another bond every payday. On every menu was this slogan: "You'll buy war bonds sooner or later, so get them today from Louie the Waiter." The deli had customers from all walks of life. Several customers bought bonds with a face value of $100,000. 

All told, according to his obituary, Louie the Waiter sold $9 million in war bonds. That went to buy 66 P-47 Thunderbolts, each painted with "Louie the Waiter" on the nose. His customers asked for no receipt: they gave him cash or checks. Louie turned in the money at the bank or to a volunteer group, and the customer got their bonds in the mail from the U.S. Treasury later. Louie spent most of every afternoon on the phone or walking the neighborhood collecting money and visiting bond prospects. Then he worked eight hours at the deli. He paid all expenses himself. 

Here's the point to take from Louie the Waiter: the secret of successful emergency mobilization is to have clear and fair government mandates that mesh with well-publicized voluntary efforts that rise above the requirements. Those two driving forces, one pushing and one pulling, make a very potent combination. 

If citizens can join in efforts like war bonds or victory gardens that are easily visible to anyone at the street level, the movement will spread faster. As sociologists have found, the visible actions of friends and neighbors are the most powerful way to engage an individual. 

What's it mean today? I'd guess that many of the most determined social-distancing, mask-wearing people have friends or relatives on the front lines of the COVID crisis, whether those at risk are medical staff, first responders, or clerks in essential businesses. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Donors and Acceptors: Physical distancing lessons from the explosives industry

Since I'm an analogy guy the notion of masks "to protect you from me, and me from you" reminded me of what I learned about an explosives-safety principle called donors and acceptors.

This was during a visit to the DynoNobel dynamite plant near Carthage, MO. It's what chemists call a nitrating plant, meaning that nitrogen compounds are mixed with other ingredients. The result is blended with an absorbent to fill tubes and make sticks of dynamite. 

When I visited in 2000 this was the last dynamite factory still operating in North America. That's because dynamite has mostly been replaced by less sensitive blasting agents relying on ammonium nitrate. 

The blasting agent our crew used on a construction project in Missouri was one of those ammonium-nitrate explosives, called Tovex, a product of DuPont. It came in tubes and we used Primacord and electric caps to set it off. 

The key ingredient at the Carthage plant, ethylene glycol dinitrate, is an updated version of nitroglycerin, made from glycerol and white fuming nitric acid. EGDN flows like a light vegetable oil. 

Nitroglycerin will explode if shocked or overheated, and the Carthage plant was dealing with thousands of pounds in a single batch, so special precautions were in order. Before our tour, Rick Fethers, the DynoNobel safety officer who served as my escort, went over the plant map. The plant was divided into four zones and people working around the plant had to know which zone they occupied at all times. That way, after hearing a specific set of honks from the alert system, they'd know how to run from danger rather than into it. 

I asked why the buildings were so far apart. Rick explained the risk-management principle of  keeping separation between "donor" and "acceptor" buildings. These are minimum distances required in case of explosion, so that one blast doesn't throw explosives or missiles into nearby storage magazines, potentially triggering a plantwide chain reaction. 

Here's a table from the 2017 "Table of Distances" guide from the Institute of Makers of Explosives. 


Reading down the first column to find a quantity between four and five tons of high explosives (that's the "donor"), reading across the row shows the minimum permissible distance to a barricaded "acceptor" magazine full of blasting agent is 47 feet. And that protective barricade has to be at least twenty inches thick. 

And the publication goes on to explain that if the "acceptor" magazine of blasting agent lacks a barricade, the minimum safe distance is six times greater, or about 300 feet. 

Here's a photo from a 2008 Department of Defense test at China Lake using a one-ton TNT donor charge. This was followed by a careful search for all debris, which reached out two-thirds of a mile. 



So there's the analogy from a hundred years of hard experience with explosives: Today's anti-COVID rules about keeping a six-foot (or more!) separation and using face masks are like the regulated safe distances and barricades between explosives: precautions now can stop a chain reaction later. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Essayons! Rationing, the Unthinkable

Continuing a mini-series on lessons from WW2 .... Rationing is a dirty word in a consumocracy like ours. But it’s never been all that far from American practice during emergencies:  In the early 1960s, cities and counties set up review panels (aka God Panels, later slammed as Death Panels in political debates over Obamacare) to decide which patients got access to the very scarce kidney dialysis machines. 

Now CV-19 is at our doorsteps. Just over the horizon is some form of healthcare rationing if people refuse orders to maintain social distancing, thus causing hospitals to be swamped. In our neighborhood, stores began limiting purchases of the Big Four (wipes, alcohol, toilet paper, and paper towels) last week. 
Side note: Even during the biggest wave of panic buying, I noticed that at least two things lingered on the shelves: bags of chickpeas and cans of split pea soup. 

Lesson from the war: The first attempt at gas and tire cutbacks in World War II were voluntary measures like Sunday driving bans. They didn't work. No surprise there.

What did work were wartime coupon books issued by local boards, under simple and clear rules and with help from paid staff that handled the exemption paperwork. For the most part, Americans learned to cope. One reason was a big propaganda campaign, with posters like this (Office of Price Administration):


But it was never perfect! A controversial but amusing wartime article in Colliers described how in 1943, reporter Mike Miller figured out how to drive from Texas to Minnesota without using a single one of his own gas ration coupons. The biggest loophole for "ration chiselers," and exposed by Miller's article, were the unlimited coupons made available to truckers.

When it came to keeping grocers honest about food price controls, the most effective policing was the combination of citizens who recorded infractions, and then relayed their tips to enforcement officers. 

Conserving resources and preventing inflation went far beyond ration books. In the course of enforcing rules from the Office of Price Administration, federal marshals actually handcuffed and carried away the chief executive of Montgomery Ward.  It meant allocating scarce raw materials between companies, stopping the sale of some goods entirely, and forcing companies to redesign stoves and refrigerators in order to save material and labor. 

Outrageous! And successful. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Essayons! When the Unthinkable turned Thinkable

Commentator P.J. O’Rourke once wrote that giving power and money to government is like handing over a bottle of whiskey and the car keys to a teenager

And many Americans have shared O’Rourke’s mistrust. Any discussion on tackling today’s problems is likely fenced in by “unthinkables” -- actions that reasonable people regard as out of bounds for the federal or state governments. If an unthinkable comes up it’s likely to provoke the immediate response, “Don’t go there!” 

Today, in terms of climate change, one political unthinkable has been a carbon tax. In the world of transit, a city ban on all personal cars. In the fight against narcotics trafficking, an unthinkable would be to decriminalize narcotics so as to cut the floor out from under the cartels and narco-states. In the military sphere, a nationwide military draft is unthinkable. In this way of thinking we're hemmed in by the impossible, on all sides.

Actually, no. Here's another lesson from World War II mobilization:  In June 1940 a group of American business and political leaders sat down to put together a list of their own unthinkables. France and Belgium had just fallen to the Germans, so the status quo was beginning to look like a sure road to ruin. They came up with nineteen unthinkable things. Each marked a political line that, so they believed, Americans would never allow its leaders to stick a toenail over, whatever the justification. Here’s a partial list, recorded in a 1943 article in the Harvard Business Review:

  • “Conscription for military service must not be used;”
  • “Possible shortages of materials must not be discussed;”
  • “Foreign service for troops is not permissible;” 
  • “Rationing to consumers is unthinkable;”
  • “All mandatory curtailment and limitation of industry is unthinkable;” and
  • “Close collaboration with a communistic government is unthinkable.”

All these and many more were in place before 1944 ended. 

Though the price was high, no revolution occurred; by mid-1944 a once-fearful citizenry was so certain of victory that it was planning on commuting by helicopter shortly after Tojo gave up. 

“Don’t go there”? Here’s where they went: income tax brackets as high as 88%, the drafting of 16 million men, an historic narrowing of the income gap between rich and poor, price controls, allocation of raw materials, renegotiation of war contracts that proved too profitable, commandeering of ships, censorship of broadcasting and movies, the shutdown of many factories making consumer goods, takeover of poorly run defense industries, 35-mph speed limits, confiscation of spare tires, and gasoline rationing. 

The unthinkables spared no one; when the beloved and iconic company Colt Arms couldn’t make .50-caliber machine guns fast or cheaply enough, the government snatched its contract away and gave it to the Brits. Colt’s refusal to adapt to circumstances helps explain why it was one of the very few old-line defense contractors that managed to lose money during the boom years. 

World War II proved that even the wickedest tangle can be cut down to size. But the solution wounds and kills. It can’t be achieved with “sector neutrality.” During World War II, many small businesses had to close, and that included thousands of gas stations and other small businesses. Some cosmetic makers and horse racing tracks were wiped out. 

The shortage of bearings and alloys at the approach of war shut down my grandfather Dick Chiles’s highway-equipment manufacturing business in Buckner, Missouri. It was a heartbreaking development, since it was his first business success after going broke three times during the Depression. 

Tough, very tough, but there was no choice. As a Detroit News editorial said when switching its stance from isolationism to support for Lend-Lease, “There is no such thing as half a war.” 

So my grandfather (a World War I tank-corps veteran) pestered his relative Harry Truman, then a U.S. Senator, to get him back in the Army; Truman pointed that Dick had lost his hand in a hunting accident and said he could not serve in uniform again. But Truman called back after two weeks with a job lined up: Dick Chiles moved to Washington and began buying up bulldozers to help rebuild the London docks.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Essayons! More lessons from World War II mobilization

Here in Minnesota one of our family's favorite stops is the Corps of Engineers' Marine Museum at Canal Park in Duluth. Here's a picture from the museum grounds of the ship canal and traffic bridge:

A big sign hanging over the museum's entrance hall has this single, odd word:


It's French for "let us try," and it's been the motto of the Corps since the early 1800s. I can't say I agree with everything the Corps has done over the years, but their work under difficult conditions holds some tips for new and difficult days. At its core, the Corps is a wartime organization. 

Over time I've given talks, and posted here, on some lessons from World War II. It's from researching a nonfiction book proposal that, editors assured me later, had no audience: saying, there's no unity today as in the war, and no motivation to do anything but buy stuff and hang out. 

Not that the current pandemic has probably altered that mindset. The crisis will pass, no doubt after many months of casualties and damage to our economy and healthcare system, and we'll eventually adapt. 

But that's a long stretch and in hopes of offering encouragement now with more accounts of how wartime workers dealt with seemingly impossible challenges, I've decided to pull out more of the dozens of lessons I gathered from studying World War II mobilization. I'm not claiming that the nearly unanimous spirit of the American home front can be duplicated. That came out of the fact that a great majority believed they had a personal stake in victory. 

Rather, I'm just saying that some specific lessons from the war years still have relevance. Many techniques developed during the war (such as action learning, collapse rescue, "branches and sequels" military analysis, production expediters, and operational research) are still in active use, although their origins have been forgotten. 

One of those war lessons is the importance of long lead times, rather than assuming we can start producing something from nothing, and in a few months. There are lots of examples, and here's one showing why decisions made well beforePearl Harbor proved crucial to the Allied war effort. 

War orders from the British for cargo ships to break the U-Boat blockade triggered a crash shipbuilding program here in December 1940, followed by a broader effort called Lend Lease that passed three months later. Because the Lend Lease bill made an exception to the Neutrality Act of 1939, the U.S. could begin providing weapons to dozens of allied countries that had exhausted all currency reserves and bankable assets by 1941. Using his fireside radio chats, FDR explained that it was like lending one’s neighbor a garden hose when his house was burning down. 

It was a masterpiece of folksy persuasion, given public resentment stirred up by isolationist, antiwar books like The Case of Sergeant Grishka, Arms and the Man, and The Road to War. The apparent impossibility of European peace had poisoned the politics of foreign aid up until the crucial Lend-Lease vote in Congress. 

In retrospect, Lend Lease’s most important contribution to victory was in getting America’s industrial army underway a full year before Pearl Harbor. As one Navy man said after the war, “Forget the production miracles of 1944. Everything important happened in 1940 and 1941.” The lead time before Pearl Harbor was vital when it came to making goods with unavoidably long lead times. The choke point was most severe with rolled manganese-steel alloy. As an example, 300 new Sherman tanks would not have been available to fight Rommel’s Panzers in North Africa in 1942 had not American steel mills received orders for heavy plate in late 1940.