No. 2886: NOT JUST GADGETS

by Andrew Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2886

Today, beyond gadgets. 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.

World War II changed the course of warfare through its eye-opening use of technology. Jet aircraft. Radar. Ballistic missiles. The list goes on and on and on. But not all of the technology was, for lack of a better word, gadgetry. World War II gave birth to an entirely new field of engineering; a field that didn't build gadgets, but instead made better use of them.

In his book Blackett's War, author Steven Budiansky describes how "a small group of British and American scientists ... revolutionized the way wars are run and won ... [by applying] a thoroughly scientific mind-set." And nowhere is their story better illustrated than in Allied efforts to sink German U-boats.

Patrick Blackett bw photo

U-boats spent most of their time on the surface, the result of engineering limitations of the time. Allied aircraft searched the seas looking for them. When a U-boat was sighted, the aircraft would race to drop depth charges on it. Of course, the U-boats were on the lookout for the planes, and would submerge and run if a plane was sighted.

For every hundred U-boat sightings, only one was sunk. Something had to change. The scientists began by examining tactics. When a U-boat was spotted, protocol called for dropping deep depth charges on a line well in front of the U-boat as it slid beneath the surface. Problem was the U-boat could turn left or right and dive to any number of depths. Analysis revealed it was better to drop a barrage of shallow depth charges very close to the point where the U-boat was last seen. In doing so, the number of sunken U-boats went up by a factor of ten.

bw u boat photo

Why? The amount of time it took to reach a U-boat after a sighting varied a lot — from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. The new strategy worked because it was good at sinking U-boats the planes reached quickly. The old strategy was based on average length of time and in doing so wasn't effective at sinking much of anything. Relying on the average squandered the best opportunities.

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The scientists also discovered that aircraft crews weren't sighting as many U-boats as mathematics predicted. This left the scientists scratching their heads. Should better binoculars be used? Was fatigue a problem?

The answer was even simpler. The search planes had originally been used as nighttime bombers. They were painted black. In their daytime missions over the seas, this made them easy to spot against the clouds. So the scientists recommended painting the bottom of the planes white. The rate of U-boat sightings doubled, and the planes were closer to their targets when the U-boats were spotted.

These scientists, or operational researchers as they came to be known, live on to this day, digging through data and solving problems that have a mathematical twist — though you're as likely to find them working at Google as in the military these days.

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

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Notes and references:

While operational research is the name used in the U.K., the name operations research is used in the U.S. For more information on operations research and the related field of analytics, see https://www.informs.org/About-INFORMS/What-is-Operations-Research.

A more detailed description of how the Allies used operations research to attack U-boats can be found in Blackett's War, pp. 137-149.

S. Budiansky. Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

The pictures of Patrick Blackett and the German U-boat are from Wikimedia Commons. The remaining picture — a common mathematical problem solved by operations researchers — is by E. A. Boyd.

This episode first aired on May 23, 2013.