The Invention That Changed the World
By Robert Buderi
Simon & Schuster
575 pp., $30
Lest anyone doubt that technology matters in warfare, they need only harken back to Biblical readings. Goliath had brawn and armor, but David, with his slingshot and unerring marksman's aim, held the high-tech advantage. Goliath couldn't get near David.
And there were all the other warriors with technological prowess: the Assyrians, with their chariots; the Mongols, with their steppe-bred horses that could roar across the tundra like fierce desert wind; the Europeans stepping off their galleons in the New World with musket and cannon.
Add the British, twice fortified with invention: They staved off the Spanish Armada in 1588 with a fleet of smaller, more flexible ships and some timely storms.
Centuries later, they did it again, this time, in the 1940s, blocking Nazi Germany with a small invention that altered history called radar.
"The Invention That Changed the World," by Robert Buderi is a dazzling study, combining hard science with the daily drama of warring nations struggling to avoid disaster.
The British had learned the horrors of air war during World War I. While the main battles of that conflict occurred on European soil, the British people suffered close to 5,000 deaths and injuries from some 103 German air raids. Those air raids were not enough to affect the war's outcome. But they clearly foreshadowed the future.
In a 1932 speech, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told Parliament that "there is no power on earth" that can protect the average individual from being bombed. The bomber, he said, "will always get through."
A group of British civil servants and scientists, however, were not so certain. Throughout the 1930s, these scientists worked with incredibly limited resources to build an electronic device capable of detecting air assaults before they occurred - radar. Germany was also researching radar, and efforts were under way in the United States. But it was the Brits who led the way with invention of the cavity magnetron, a new source of microwave energy.
In the fall of 1940, British scientists traveled to the US with their work, secretly meeting with American scientists. Out of that collaboration, the Americans focused their research at the Radiation Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The goal was to develop detection systems small enough to mount on aircraft and naval ships.
The joint effort became a secret war within the war - a war not only to beat the Germans before they developed a foolproof radar system, but also to find needed funding and technical resources when competition for goods and intellectual services was great.
Eventually, the Allies made their scientific breakthroughs. And it was this technology that not only blocked incoming enemy flights, but also enabled Allied aircraft to fly through European cloud covers and carry the war right back to the Nazi high command.
Buderi, a former technology editor for Business Week magazine, has written a science biography. The genre has become increasingly popular in recent years, and indeed, the triumphs of the laboratory merit close attention.
While the first half of Buderi's book involves World War II, the second half follows what happened to radar technology after the war. That story is equally interesting. Out of the research and applied lab work came microwave ovens, digital computer memories, the transistor, radio astronomy, medical diagnostics, advanced weather forecasting, aircraft control equipment, and a number of Nobel prizes.
Buderi's book, precisely because it is so full of technical detail, can be difficult to read. It could have used a slightly softer touch, such as Jonathan Weiner's stirring "Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time," which came out in 1994. But that is not to fault Buderi's approach. He has woven together a remarkable tale of science, politics, and warfare.
His account reminds us that in total warfare - when historical turning points may be at hand - there must be no acceptance of approximation, of being second-best. And he establishes that what happens in the laboratory may have more significance than what happens on the battlefield.
* Guy Halverson is a Monitor reporter in New York.