Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 1607:
FIRE CONTROL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1607.

Today, we aim a gun from a rocking platform. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ding the War of 1812, warships fired banks of guns, broadside, at nearby ships. Seventy-five years later, ships carried long-range guns that fired from turrets. Aiming a broadside from a rolling ship had been bad enough, but hitting a target a mile away was far harder. In 1899, five American ships took turns firing at a ship-hulk a mile away. After a twenty-five-minute test, they'd scored only two hits.

By then, ships' guns had telescopic sights. Power mechanisms let gunners move them quickly. The standard drill was to set corrections for the range, aim the gun roughly, then wait until the ship's roll put the target in the sights.

In 1898, British Admiral Percy Scott watched his men at target practice. All but one did miserably. That one gunner had evolved a new tactic. He kept his eye on the sight. Then he moved the gun continuously until he could feel the synchronization between his aim and the ship's motion. What he was doing was subtle, yet it took advantage of skills most people already had. He'd coupled the human with the machine.

Scott adopted the technique, and he quickly set remarkable marksmanship records. In 1900 an American Naval officer, William Sims, met Scott in the Far East and learned about the new aiming technique. By 1905, continuous-aim firing had become standard U.S. Navy practice as well, but first Sims had to learn a grim lesson about innovation in organizations.

Sims' attempts to interest the U.S. Navy met a brick wall. British equipment, he was told, was no better than ours. If our gunners couldn't hit the target, it was because their officers didn't know how to train them. They told Sims flatly that continuous-aim firing was impossible. Sims finally went to Teddy Roosevelt, who recognized something in him. Roosevelt abruptly made Sims Chief Inspector of Target Practice. And so, by 1905, a single gunner could do more in a one-minute test than the five ships did previously in twenty-five minutes.

Now think about three steps in this process. First, that unknown English sailor didn't think about mastering standard technique; he thought about how to do the job. Then Scott recognized the importance of what the sailor had done. And, finally, Sims championed the idea.

Today, we ask how to shorten those steps. They're all needed to put a good idea into play. How do we escape mental straitjackets that keep us from seeing new possibilities? How do we give organizations the ability to recognize value in invention? And how do we show people what creativity can do for them?

Those aren't easy tasks. Not one is easy. And we're back to an essential fact about invention. Invention is a willingness to be surprised. All three steps require that we open ourselves up to surprise. And that is surely one of the hardest things we ever do.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The story of continuous-aim firing is told in at least two places: Morison, E. E., Men, Machines, and Modern Times. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1995, Chapter 2, Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation. And Robertson, R. G., Failure of the Heavy Gun at Sea: 1898-1922, Technology and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 3, July, 1987, pp. 539-557. (I am grateful to Norman E. Duncan of Houston for first introducing me to this story in an unpublished manuscript about it.)

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 148.



Drawing by Maria Zsygmond-Baca, courtesy of Peter Gordon


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.