Today, we suffer a devastating loss by failing to
trust a new technology. 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.
I'd like to begin by telling
you just a little about radar. Radar is a concept
that's almost as old as radio itself. The radio
pioneers Marconi and Tesla both pointed out that we
could locate metal objects by bouncing radio
signals off them; and as early as 1904 a German
engineer named Hulsmeyer patented a radio echo
device for locating ships at sea.
During the 1930s, all the major powers were trying
to develop workable airplane and ship spotting
systems that used radio waves. By the way, the
acronym radar, which stands for RAdio Detection And
Ranging, wasn't coined until 1942, when the U.S.
Navy started using it.
American Army and Navy engineers discovered in 1936
that they could detect aircraft at distances of
more than a hundred miles when they used long
enough wavelengths. They had mobile detection units
in production by 1940. The first of these units
were field-tested in Panama; and late in 1941 five
of them were being field-tested in Hawaii.
One of the Hawaiian units was stationed on the
northern tip of Oahu on the night of December 6th,
1941. Private Joseph Lockard was training Private
George Elliot, and they were to go off duty at 7:00
in the morning, when a truck was to pick them up
for breakfast. The truck was a little late, and
Lockard was trying to give Elliot some extra time
on the unit. At 7:02, Elliot saw a very large
reflection, 136 miles due north of them.
They tracked the signal for 18 minutes; then
Lockard called the Information Center where the
Lieutenant on duty dismissed it as -- in his words
-- "nothing unusual." They went on tracking the
signal until 7:39, when the 183 Japanese
dive-bombers and fighters that were creating it
were only 20 miles away. Then the truck arrived to
take them to breakfast, so they folded up their
equipment and left. 16 minutes later, the planes
hit Pearl Harbor. By ignoring the signal, we lost
3000 men, dozens of large ships, and 80 percent of
the airplanes on Oahu.
Still, it's too easy to criticize shortsightedness.
Radar was a new invention. And an invention is
alien, or it wouldn't be an invention. We have to
be introduced to it -- gradually brought to
understand what it can do. Unless it appears just
when we're ready for it, it must be championed. The
great inventions that've revolutionized the world
were usually unrecognized in their first
incarnations. The light bulb, the steamboat, and
the telegraph had all been invented long before
Edison, Fulton, and Morse came on the scene to show
us their full potential.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wohlstetter, R., Pearl Harbor: Warning and
Decision. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Worth, R. H., Jr., Pearl Harbor. Jefferson,
NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Pubs., 1943,
Section Three, "Radar: The Great Missed
This episode has been considerably revised as
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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