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)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another lesson from WW2: Facts should lead action

In the struggle to achieve titanic production under conditions of extreme urgency, nothing good happened in the war effort without an expert, unbiased look at the facts first. 

Among the leaders of the industrial miracle that was America's home front during World War II was speculator and industrialist Bernard Baruch, who made his millions in sugar futures before World War I, but then retired and devoted the rest of his career to industrial preparedness in case of war. Here he is:
Officers at the Industrial War College in the 1930s (including Dwight Eisenhower) called Baruch “Dr. Facts” because of his ruthlessness in digging into details about how civilian factories could retool to meet wartime demands. Baruch once said this to justify his take-no-prisoners pursuit of production facts and figures: "If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right; if you don't get all the facts, it can't be right." 

Baruch and other industrial experts decided that the three most urgent production needs in early 1941 were ammunition, cargo ships, and synthetic rubber

Rubber was critical to defense equipment and transport, but Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies had cut off 95 percent of our supplies. How to fill a quarter-million-ton shortfall set off a very public battle about which production process (and therefore which feedstock) to use.

Should the new factories use ethanol from American corn farmers, or oil from American oil producers? This had to be settled before factories could go up. Competing interests fought hard because a lot of money was at stake; by the end of the war the US would spend as much on synthetic rubber as it did on the Manhattan Project's A-bomb. In the end, oil won the argument.

Here's a slab of the new stuff.
Sometimes it got ugly: the ethanol vs. oil dispute once triggered a fistfight between the nation's rubber administrator and a newspaper publisher, in a swank Washington club. But the job of making millions of artificial tires, tubes, membranes, and gaskets got done in time ... because facts led the way. 

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