Today, the story of the not-so-secret bombsight.
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.
As I grew up during WW-II,
the words secret weapon summoned up
only one image: the Norden Bombsight was America's
highly touted secret weapon. Meanwhile, the real
military secret was the atom bomb. It caught us all
by surprise when it fell.
Norden managed to surround his bombsight with a
remarkable wall of hype. Bombardiers had to carry a
pistol to shoot the device like a lame horse if
they crash-landed over enemy territory. WW-II
movies told about spies trying to learn its secret
-- of heroes giving their lives to protect the
secret. Only years later did I learn that there'd
hardly been any secret at all.
But let's go back to the beginning. Carl Norden
came to America in 1904. He was Dutch -- raised in
Java and educated in Switzerland. First, he worked
with Elmer Sperry on gyro-stabilizers. He and
Sperry were a pair of temperamental geniuses --
difficult people. Norden left in 1913 to set up his
He began designing the bombsight for the Navy in
1920. He finally had a pretty good version in 1928.
At the same time, his old boss, Sperry, was
developing the Army's bombsight.
It was 1932 before the Army compared notes with the
Navy and found that Norden's instrument was far
better. But Norden regarded the Army as plebian and
he wouldn't deal with them. To get his bombsight,
the Army had to buy it from the Navy.
It was a superb piece of design -- an analog
computer that calculated the trajectory of the
bomb, given crosswind, altitude, and airspeed. It
also released the bomb. In a plane moving 300 feet
per second, the bombardier's reaction time was too
slow to tolerate.
I didn't know it then, but a Norden worker named
Lang had stolen the plans in 1937 for the Germans.
Göring gave him $3000 -- a huge sum in those
days. Later, Lang was caught and sent to jail for
18 years. The irony is, Germany never used the
The Germans committed to dive-bombing, while we
pursued high-altitude precision bombing. The
trouble was, precision was another Norden myth.
From 20,000 feet, 2/3 of American bombs fell 1/5 of
a mile or more from their targets -- even with the
best of bombsights.
Meanwhile, the bombsight itself had been
reclassified from secret to merely confidential two
years before Lang's infamy. In 1942 it was
downgraded to restricted, the lowest
By then we were switching to the English tactic of
saturation bombing. A bomber armada flew over a
city. The lead plane signaled the drop and they
pulverized everything below -- hoping to catch
occasional military targets in the general carnage.
It was a nasty war, and, I suppose, we needed to
make heroes of machines as well as people. Norden
give us our mechanical hero.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds