Malcolm Gladwell: The strange tale of the Norden bombsight

Malcolm Gladwell: The strange tale of the Norden bombsight

August 9, 2019 100 By William Morgan


Thank you.
It’s a real pleasure to be here.
I last did a TED Talk
I think about seven years ago or so.
I talked about spaghetti sauce.
And so many people,
I guess, watch those videos.
People have been
coming up to me ever since
to ask me questions about spaghetti sauce,
which is a wonderful thing
in the short term —
(Laughter)
but it’s proven to be less than ideal
over seven years.
And so I though I would come
and try and put spaghetti sauce behind me.
(Laughter)
The theme of this morning’s
session is Things We Make.
And so I thought I would tell a story
about someone
who made one of the most precious objects
of his era.
And the man’s name is Carl Norden.
Carl Norden was born in 1880.
And he was Swiss.
And of course, the Swiss can be divided
into two general categories:
those who make small, exquisite,
expensive objects
and those who handle the money
of those who buy small, exquisite,
expensive objects.
And Carl Norden is very
firmly in the former camp.
He’s an engineer.
He goes to the Federal Polytech in Zurich.
In fact, one of his classmates
is a young man named Lenin
who would go on
to break small, expensive,
exquisite objects.
And he’s a Swiss engineer, Carl.
And I mean that in its
fullest sense of the word.
He wears three-piece suits;
and he has a very, very small,
important mustache;
and he is domineering
and narcissistic
and driven
and has an extraordinary ego;
and he works 16-hour days;
and he has very strong feelings
about alternating current;
and he feels like a suntan
is a sign of moral weakness;
and he drinks lots of coffee;
and he does his best work
sitting in his mother’s kitchen
in Zurich for hours
in complete silence
with nothing but a slide rule.
In any case,
Carl Norden emigrates
to the United States
just before the First World War
and sets up shop on Lafayette Street
in downtown Manhattan.
And he becomes obsessed with the question
of how to drop bombs from an airplane.
Now if you think about it,
in the age before GPS and radar,
that was obviously
a really difficult problem.
It’s a complicated physics problem.
You’ve got a plane that’s
thousands of feet up in the air,
going at hundreds of miles an hour,
and you’re trying to drop
an object, a bomb,
towards some stationary target
in the face of all kinds
of winds and cloud cover
and all kinds of other impediments.
And all sorts of people,
moving up to the First World War
and between the wars,
tried to solve this problem,
and nearly everybody came up short.
The bombsights that were available
were incredibly crude.
But Carl Norden is really
the one who cracks the code.
And he comes up with this
incredibly complicated device.
It weighs about 50 lbs.
It’s called the Norden Mark 15 bombsight.
And it has all kinds of levers
and ball-bearings
and gadgets and gauges.
And he makes this complicated thing.
And what he allows people to do
is he makes the bombardier
take this particular object,
visually sight the target,
because they’re in the Plexiglas
cone of the bomber,
and then they plug in
the altitude of the plane,
the speed of the plane,
the speed of the wind
and the coordinates
of the target.
And the bombsight will tell him
when to drop the bomb.
And as Norden famously says,
“Before that bombsight came along,
bombs would routinely miss their target
by a mile or more.”
But he said, with the
Mark 15 Norden bombsight,
he could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel
at 20,000 ft.
Now I cannot tell you
how incredibly excited
the U.S. military was
by the news of the Norden bombsight.
It was like manna from heaven.
Here was an army
that had just had experience
in the First World War,
where millions of men
fought each other in the trenches,
getting nowhere, making no progress,
and here someone had come up with a device
that allowed them to fly up in the skies
high above enemy territory
and destroy whatever they wanted
with pinpoint accuracy.
And the U.S. military
spends 1.5 billion dollars —
billion dollars in 1940 dollars —
developing the Norden bombsight.
And to put that in perspective,
the total cost of the Manhattan project
was three billion dollars.
Half as much money was spent
on this Norden bombsight
as was spent on the most famous
military-industrial project
of the modern era.
And there were people, strategists,
within the U.S. military
who genuinely thought
that this single device
was going to spell the difference
between defeat and victory
when it came to the
battle against the Nazis
and against the Japanese.
And for Norden as well,
this device had incredible
moral importance,
because Norden was a committed Christian.
In fact, he would always get upset
when people referred to the
bombsight as his invention,
because in his eyes,
only God could invent things.
He was simply
the instrument of God’s will.
And what was God’s will?
Well God’s will was that
the amount of suffering in any kind of war
be reduced to as small
an amount as possible.
And what did the Norden bombsight do?
Well it allowed you to do that.
It allowed you to bomb only those things
that you absolutely needed
and wanted to bomb.
So in the years leading up to
the Second World War,
the U.S. military buys 90,000
of these Norden bombsights
at a cost of $14,000 each —
again, in 1940 dollars,
that’s a lot of money.
And they trained 50,000 bombardiers
on how to use them —
long extensive, months-long
training sessions —
because these things are
essentially analog computers;
they’re not easy to use.
And they make every one
of those bombardiers take an oath,
to swear that if they’re ever captured,
they will not divulge a single detail
of this particular device to the enemy,
because it’s imperative
the enemy not get their hands
on this absolutely essential
piece of technology.
And whenever the Norden bombsight
is taken onto a plane,
it’s escorted there by
a series of armed guards.
And it’s carried in a box
with a canvas shroud over it.
And the box is handcuffed
to one of the guards.
It’s never allowed to be photographed.
And there’s a little
incendiary device inside of it,
so that, if the plane ever crashes,
it will be destroyed
and there’s no way the enemy
can ever get their hands on it.
The Norden bombsight
is the Holy Grail.
So what happens during
the Second World War?
Well, it turns out
it’s not the Holy Grail.
In practice, the Norden bombsight
can drop a bomb into
a pickle barrel at 20,000 ft.,
but that’s under perfect conditions.
And of course, in wartime,
conditions aren’t perfect.
First of all, it’s really hard to use —
really hard to use.
And not all of the people
who are of those 50,000 men
who are bombardiers
have the ability to properly
program an analog computer.
Secondly, it breaks down a lot.
It’s full of all kinds
of gyroscopes and pulleys
and gadgets and ball-bearings,
and they don’t work as well
as they ought to
in the heat of battle.
Thirdly, when Norden
was making his calculations,
he assumed that a plane would be flying
at a relatively slow speed
at low altitudes.
Well in a real war, you can’t do that;
you’ll get shot down.
So they started flying them
at high altitudes at incredibly high speeds.
And the Norden bombsight
doesn’t work as well
under those conditions.
But most of all,
the Norden bombsight
required the bombardier
to make visual contact with the target.
But of course, what happens in real life?
There are clouds, right.
It needs cloudless sky
to be really accurate.
Well how many cloudless skies
do you think there
were above Central Europe
between 1940 and 1945?
Not a lot.
And then to give you a sense
of just how inaccurate
the Norden bombsight was,
there was a famous case in 1944
where the Allies bombed
a chemical plant in Leuna, Germany.
And the chemical plant comprised
757 acres.
And over the course
of 22 bombing missions,
the Allies dropped 85,000 bombs
on this 757 acre chemical plant,
using the Norden bombsight.
Well what percentage of those bombs
do you think actually landed
inside the 700-acre
perimeter of the plant?
10 percent. 10 percent.
And of those 10 percent that landed,
16 percent didn’t even go off;
they were duds.
The Leuna chemical plant,
after one of the most extensive
bombings in the history of the war,
was up and running within weeks.
And by the way, all those precautions
to keep the Norden bombsight
out of the hands of the Nazis?
Well it turns out
that Carl Norden, as a proper Swiss,
was very enamored of German engineers.
So in the 1930s,
he hired a whole bunch of them,
including a man named Hermann Long
who, in 1938,
gave a complete set of the plans
for the Norden bombsight to the Nazis.
So they had their own Norden bombsight
throughout the entire war —
which also, by the way,
didn’t work very well.
(Laughter)
So why do we talk about
the Norden bombsight?
Well because we live in an age
where there are lots and lots
of Norden bombsights.
We live in a time
where there are all kinds
of really, really smart people
running around, saying
that they’ve invented gadgets
that will forever change our world.
They’ve invented websites
that will allow people to be free.
They’ve invented some kind of this thing,
or this thing, or this thing
that will make our world forever better.
If you go into the military,
you’ll find lots of Carl Nordens as well.
If you go to the Pentagon, they will say,
“You know what, now we really can
put a bomb inside a pickle barrel
at 20,000 ft.”
And you know what, it’s true;
they actually can do that now.
But we need to be very clear
about how little that means.
In the Iraq War, at the beginning
of the first Iraq War,
the U.S. military, the air force,
sent two squadrons
of F-15E Fighter Eagles
to the Iraqi desert
equipped with these
five million dollar cameras
that allowed them to see
the entire desert floor.
And their mission was
to find and to destroy —
remember the Scud missile launchers,
those surface-to-air missiles
that the Iraqis were launching
at the Israelis?
The mission of the two squadrons
was to get rid of all the
Scud missile launchers.
And so they flew missions day and night,
and they dropped thousands of bombs,
and they fired thousands of missiles
in an attempt to get rid
of this particular scourge.
And after the war was over,
there was an audit done —
as the army always does,
the air force always does —
and they asked the question:
how many Scuds did we actually destroy?
You know what the answer was?
Zero, not a single one.
Now why is that?
Is it because their weapons
weren’t accurate?
Oh no, they were brilliantly accurate.
They could have destroyed
this little thing right here
from 25,000 ft.
The issue was they didn’t know
where the Scud launchers were.
The problem with bombs and pickle barrels
is not getting the bomb
inside the pickle barrel,
it’s knowing how to
find the pickle barrel.
That’s always been the harder problem
when it comes to fighting wars.
Or take the battle in Afghanistan.
What is the signature weapon
of the CIA’s war in Northwest Pakistan?
It’s the drone. What is the drone?
Well it is the grandson
of the Norden Mark 15 bombsight.
It is this weapon of devastating
accuracy and precision.
And over the course of the last six years
in Northwest Pakistan,
the CIA has flown hundreds
of drone missiles,
and it’s used those drones
to kill 2,000 suspected
Pakistani and Taliban militants.
Now what is the accuracy of those drones?
Well it’s extraordinary.
We think we’re now at 95 percent accuracy
when it comes to drone strikes.
95 percent of the people
we kill need to be killed, right?
That is one of the most
extraordinary records
in the history of modern warfare.
But do you know what the crucial thing is?
In that exact same period
that we’ve been using these drones
with devastating accuracy,
the number of attacks, of suicide attacks
and terrorist attacks,
against American forces in Afghanistan
has increased tenfold.
As we have gotten more and more efficient
in killing them,
they have become angrier and angrier
and more and more motivated to kill us.
I have not described
to you a success story.
I’ve described to you
the opposite of a success story.
And this is the problem
with our infatuation
with the things we make.
We think the things
we make can solve our problems,
but our problems are much
more complex than that.
The issue isn’t the accuracy
of the bombs you have,
it’s how you use the bombs you have,
and more importantly,
whether you ought to use bombs at all.
There’s a postscript
to the Norden story
of Carl Norden and his fabulous bombsight.
And that is, on August 6, 1945,
a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay
flew over Japan
and, using a Norden bombsight,
dropped a very large thermonuclear device
on the city of Hiroshima.
And as was typical
with the Norden bombsight,
the bomb actually
missed its target by 800 ft.
But of course, it didn’t matter.
And that’s the greatest irony of all
when it comes to the Norden bombsight.
the air force’s 1.5 billion
dollar bombsight
was used to drop
its three billion dollar bomb,
which didn’t need a bombsight at all.
Meanwhile, back in New York,
no one told Carl Norden
that his bombsight was used
over Hiroshima.
He was a committed Christian.
He thought he had designed something
that would reduce the toll
of suffering in war.
It would have broken his heart.
(Applause)