The Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany was a century-defining moment. But if there’d been prediction markets in 1939, the odds would’ve favored Hitler. Why? Well, the Allies lagged behind in what Winston Churchill called the “secret war” – the race to develop more effective weapons.
That wasn’t because they didn’t possess the necessary know-how. In fact, the Americans held the key to winning the great aerial and naval battles of the future decades before they entered World War Two – they just didn’t know it. Unlike their Axis counterparts, who were developing a new generation of submarines and planes, they weren’t nurturing breakthroughs.
Take radar. In 1922, two American radio scientists named Hoyt Taylor and Leo Young made a remarkable discovery: when a ship passes between a radio transmitter and a receiver, the strength of the radio signal doubles. Keep an eye on the strength of the signal you’re receiving, and any radio receiver will tell you an enemy ship is on the move. This had the potential to revolutionize naval warfare, and Taylor and Young told the US Navy about their findings. The answer? Silence!
Eight years later, Young was still experimenting with radio signals. During a field test, he noticed that transmitting radio signals upward into the sky had the same effect: when they hit passing planes, the signal that returned to earth was doubled. Incredibly, that worked on
planes at an altitude of up to 8,000 feet. Young wrote to the US military and asked for a $5,000 grant to pursue research into his prototype for an early warning system for enemy aircraft. It was denied.
According to military planners, a project that couldn’t be expected to yield results for at least two or three years wasn’t worth their time or money. They did eventually thaw and took a gamble on Young’s loonshot, but the delay proved fatal. On December 7, 1941, the warning system was still being field-tested when 353 Japanese bombers launched a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. Dozens of battleships and hundreds of planes were destroyed. All in all, 2,403 servicemen lost their lives.
It was a shocking lesson in the dangers of complacency and the cost of failing to pursue innovation. As we’ll see in the next blink, few people took it to heart more than Vannevar Bush, the man who would pioneer a new approach to military planning.