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)

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.


Mistake-Maker's Club, CV-19 edition

In a 2018 post, "The Lecture I Never Gave," I laid out the concept of the Mistake-Maker's Club. I chose that blog title because, at the time, I thought I wouldn't be giving any more lectures. As it turned out I've given several more disaster-prevention talks since then, with the next keynote talk postponed due to the you-know-what pandemic.

The last couple of weeks have reminded me to remind readers of noting their mistakes right away, so as to avoid repeating them. The kind of mistakes I mean are the ones immediately obvious in retrospect. 

Why the reminder? We're all stressed and for many reasons; yanked this way and that by bad news and changing directives from all directions; worried about friends and family and healthcare workers on the front lines, worried about jobs and savings ... the list goes on. 

Already doctors, PAs, technicians, and nurses in the hard-hit areas are warning that they are working extremely long hours with CV-19 patients, and therefore at risk of infection all the time. We've been reading a lot about the importance of having enough ventilators in ICUs, but less has been said about the need for well rested staff, because their expertise and good judgment is essential in using such machines. Ventilators, as well as other life-sustaining machines like ECMO devices, can cause complications even in ordinary circumstances. 

My point is not to remind you of things to worry about, but just to say that the sleeplessness, fatigue, and daily distractions we're all experiencing make mistakes more likely.  Some mistakes are silly: the other morning I found I had unknowingly added an extra belt on top of the first belt on my pants; twice I missed a routine step in the coffee-making chore and ended up with coffee grounds and hot coffee on the counter.  

Many other mistakes might not be silly, like grabbing the wrong prescription bottle.

So ... check twice before doing something you might regret! 


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Liberty Ships and Spaceships: Surprising parallels

I've mentioned before that I collect lessons from the home-front industrial mobilization during World War II. When I describe some of these insights to audiences at my lectures many are amazed at the breakthroughs I describe, but some are skeptical than any case study dating to the "We can do it!" spirit of early 1940s retains relevance today, because Americans are split in so many directions there's no shared goal.

That's a tough challenge, but I'm as convinced as ever that some of those lessons have real value. Here's an example: Once people begin accepting the need to relocate cities and infrastructure away from rising seas, they might want to consider how in the heck the Soviets managed to pack up and move 1,532 factories out of the path of Nazi invasion in four months, via railroads that were already full of traffic. 

Here's another reminder that WW2's lessons in excellence have staying power: a news item about SpaceX's work on the Starship rocket, intended to serve as a medium-sized rocket on its own, and also as a second stage atop the Super Heavy booster. While SpaceX was building the Mk1 and Mk2 Starship models simultaneously earlier this year, the company set up a competition between the two crews, one at Boca Chica in Texas and the other at Cocoa, Florida. Each team at what's been called a shipyard for spaceships was obligated to share insights with the other, but was also free to come up with its own techniques. Said Elon Musk, "This will be a super-fun race to orbit, Moon and Mars!"  

The competition, perhaps coincidentally, echoes a motivational method called "athletic industrialism" used with great success at two Kaiser Shipyards in Oregon and California during the WW2 push for Liberty ships, the mass-produced 441-foot cargo carriers that did much to overwhelm the German Navy's attempt to starve Britain by cutting the Atlantic lifeline. 

A photo of Liberty ship John W. Brown at sea, carrying cargo and troops to Europe:


Here's a short film about Henry Kaiser and his amazing yards -- all the more amazing since Kaiser had never built any ships before he took up Liberty ships. 


I researched the subject for an article in Invention&Technology (linked below) and had the rare privilege of interviewing Kaiser's key man in the effort, Clay Bedford.

In 1939, when Congress first discussed a national goal of restarting American shipbuilding so it could hit a rate of launching one ship per week, that target looked impossible. 
(Hardly: By 1944 we were launching 41 ships every week.)

Skeptics had good reasons to say the 1939 goal would be out of reach. One was America's failed attempt to mass produce ships during World War I. While American shipbuilders commissioned for the Great War did begin work on a thousand ships during the war, less than ten of them were ready by the war’s end in November 1918. Back then, if a shipyard could start and finish a ship in nine months, that was considered very fast. 

During that war, workers had stitched ships together with thousands of rivets, each heated to red hot in a small portable furnace, flipped to a catcher, shoved into a hole, and hammered tight by two men with air hammers. Another limitation was the small size of the cranes available. It limited pre-assembled sections to a few tons each. It meant that nearly all the World War I labor had to happen at the shipway, inside the growing hull. Space was at a premium so this held up everything. World War I shipyards had had to cut and trim steel with huge steam-powered shears.

Kaiser’s methods broke through all these. Shipbuilders used oxyacetylene cutting torches, hydraulic presses, and arc welding machines that allowed them to shape and join plate steel as easily as a carpenter works with wood. Riveting was limited to joining the hull plates to the frame. While welding made a lighter ship, the weld had to be done right the first time, and this wasn’t easy. Arc welding was comparatively simple when done down hand: flat on a level surface, such as a deck. But it was difficult on a bulkhead and quite difficult for beads that had to be applied over one’s head.

The solution was to change the work. The Kaiser men packed up the huge cranes they had been using on Grand Coulee Dam to pour concrete, and shipped them to the yards. By late 1942 deckhouse - the three-story accommodation structures amidship - were being put together on a moving assembly line, supported on frameworks that doubled as jigs. Periodically cranes turned the pieces over to allow welders to continue their work downwind. The deckhouse was built in four pieces, hauled to within crane reach on huge trailers, and joined on the ship. The largest section, at seventy-two tons, still didn’t overburden the crane’s capacity because two cranes could share the load. The tangle of steam, water, and fuel piping in the engine room, previously a perennial chokepoint in the critical path, also surrendered to prefabrication. Workers erected the pipes in a mock engine room far from the shipyard, complete with a full-size wooden dummy of the engine. To make sure the engines would work before installation, they ran them with compressed air.

The Richmond complex hit an all-time peak with the Robert E. Peary, a ship it built and launched in just over four days, in November 1942. As with so many other achievements, the Peary had its roots in the brisk competition Kaiser fostered between worker groups. He knew that peer pressure between co-workers is more persuasive than “power pressure” from the front office. Back at Grand Coulee Dam his managers had divided the dam in half, entrusting each half to a different set of workers. A billboard, changed daily, reported on which half was winning. In September 1942 a similar competition started when the Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Oregon, set a record by launching a Liberty ship ten days after the keel had gone down. President Roosevelt came out to watch that one hit the water.

Many of the Oregon Shipbuilding employees were friends with Richmond shipworkers down south, and the chaffing started immediately through the mails: Why was Richmond being so slow? That fall Richmond shipyard boss Clay Bedford came across a prefabricated bulkhead in Richmond’s Yard No. 2 that didn’t belong there, and he hunted up the supervisor to ask about it. Bedford discovered that the workers had already started preparing to build a ship so fast that Oregon Shipbuilding would never beat that record. Bedford obtained the go-ahead to prepare for a record-breaking effort on Hull 440.

Workers contributed hundreds of suggestions to prepare for the job. More than half of the welding and riveting was finished before any pieces of the Peary started appearing on Shipway No. 1. The bow arrived on the shipway as two pieces; the stern, as three. Altogether the Peary arrived as 97 big chunks.

The clock started running just after midnight on a Sunday morning in November. Two hours later the ship’s bottom shell was done. By noon the engine was in place. After a day half the ship’s steel was attached. After two days the hull all the way up to the upper deck was done, and the engine was running. The superstructure went on during the third day, and the fourth day was spent on finishing up details like painting and wiring. To save time at the outfitting dock, the deckhouse went onto the ship complete with inkwells, coat hangers, electric clocks, mirrors, and life belts. At four days and fifteen hours, the ship slid down the launching ways.

The rush didn't stop once a tug moved the hull to the outfitting dock. The Peary raised steam and left for sea trials just three days later.

Though the “athletic industrialism” came out of schoolboy-like rivalry, there was nothing silly about the results. Even adding in extra time spent in making unusual preparations to break the record, building the Peary took thousands fewer man-hours than had previous Liberties.


Here's a link to my 1988 article on Liberty ships for Invention&Technology