Can We Meet the Robot’s Threat? (Sep, 1944)

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Can We Meet the Robot’s Threat?

How Automatic Weapons Are Changing Warfare

Crewless planes . . . mechanical brains that think faster than man . . . remote-controlled bombs with new, superpower explosives . . . vengeance-wreaking automatons designed for mass murder… guns that can’t miss … instruments that see through clouds and darkness —these new terrors imperil the peace of the future.

Drawings by B. G. SEIELSTAD

WILL death-dealing automatons, sooner or later, imperil the lives of everyone? Long-secret war weapons, now brought into the open, raise the startling question. They see through clouds and the darkness of night, when human eyes are blind. Faster than a man can think, their mechanical brains perform intricate calculations and aim guns against swiftly moving targets. They blast objectives with a ton or more of high explosives from more than 150 miles away. Stranger even than the fiction of a Jules Verne or an H. G. Wells, they still offer only a preview of what war may be like in days to come. Germany’s “vengeance weapon” V-1, a jet-propelled “flying torpedo” or robot bomb, became a grim reality to Londoners last June. While the long-range gun that bombarded Paris in the last war fired a projectile weighing only 264 pounds overall, V-l carried no less than 2,200 pounds of high explosive alone. Moreover, the flying torpedo boasted more than twice the range of the shell. Once launched from a ramp in the general direction of London, it followed a more or less direct course, wind permitting, under the control of a simple gyro pilot. Then, any sort of timing control—a clock, or exhaustion of a measured quantity of fuel—tilts the infernal machine into a dive to earth. A firing pin clicks, and the full force of the explosion rends whatever is hit.

A devilishly ingenious automaton, this— difficult enough for speedy fighter planes or antiaircraft guns to shoot down in clear daylight, let alone fog and night. Its only fault from a humane point of view was that no one knew where it would land. Guns and bombing planes can score amazingly accurate hits on legitimate military objectives. But practically all the targets of the V-l, considering its extreme range and random point of fall, naturally have included such nonmilitary items as a queue of children waiting to board an evacuation train; theaters; hospitals; and the vast expanse of dwellings of ordinary workers. Knowing this, the Germans obviously adopted a policy of indiscriminate bombing. They took what satisfaction they could from the fact that, in the first seven weeks of bombardment, flying torpedoes killed 4,735 men, women, and children, and seriously injured 14,000 more. Compared with London’s aerial “blitz” of 1940-41—when German bombers, given the benefit of the doubt, possibly tried to hit war centers—the V-l exacted a daily death toll two thirds as high.

Here was the first open declaration of war—or, if you prefer, of mass murder— against a whole population. Of course, in this case, Germany will regret it. But it set a terrifying precedent for any conceivable war of the future. The spectacle of great nations bent on exterminating each other, failing intervention of a world police force, seems neither incredible nor too remote to contemplate. Crewless and remote-controlled weapons of today suggest some of tomorrow’s ruthless engines of war.

Fighting robots with robots holds dramatic possibilities, some of them already realized. Imagine, for example, that a German plant making flying torpedoes is to be bombed on a certain day. Allied raiders find the target heavily blanketed with clouds that no human eye can pierce. But they are prepared for that. In the leading plane, a “robot eye,” or fog-piercing telescope, gives a cloudfree image of the target. Just at the moment that the bombardier would normally let go with explosives, he releases a smoke bomb that forms an air marker. Following planes simply drop their bombs through the hole in the smoke ring to score bull’s-eye hits. At night, parachute flares replace plain smoke. Remarkable successes have been credited to American and British airmen using the new technique, which is based upon research by scientists of both countries. In case enemy planes should attempt to lay false air markers and thus mislead our bombers, colored smokes and flares may be used, and the hue changed like a countersign from day to day.

No doubt every Nazi, boiling with helpless rage at the havoc wrought by made-in-U.S.A. bombs, has longed to see New York hit by flying torpedoes. On a token scale, it might be tried, if the Germans considered the attempt to be worth the risk. For this purpose, at least, there need be no question of transatlantic projectiles. Submarines have carried manned airplanes, and could transport winged torpedoes as easily. A retractable launching ramp on deck should impose no difficult engineering problem. Standing 50 to 100 miles offshore, with ramp erected and a V-l in place, a U-boat could bombard the world’s greatest port with a fair chance of hitting something, somewhere. But to launch its flying torpedo, the submarine must surface. And that is taking the dangerous chance of being spotted by radar equipment on warships and patrol planes, which would make short work of it. Again, robot versus robot.

If a Messerschmitt 210 happened to tangle with a B-29 Superfortress, you might witness the extraordinary sight of unmanned turret guns firing at each other.

Comfortably seated at the best vantage points of the plane, gunners fire their weapons by remote control. Manipulating a handle bearing an electrical sight automatically turns a distant turret, and trains its guns, by means of “selsyn,” or power-amplifying, mechanism. The scheme eliminates possible blind spots where a gunner might fail to see a hostile plane approaching his arc of fire.

Here is an interesting note on future war weapons: The intricate sights that guide a bomb to its target, as used by Allied flyers, now have “zero error.” In other words, they operate with such extreme precision that no possible improvement would be of practical use. Such factors as split-second mechanical lag in bomb-release mechanism will take precedence for future research.

“Here it comes—there it goes” describes what antiaircraft gunners are up against, when they try to hit V-l’s and the even speedier fighting planes. By the time a projectile reaches the altitude of a bomber flying 20,000 feet high, the plane will have traveled a mile. And in the time it would take a human brain to calculate where the gun should be aimed, the target would long since have vanished. Therefore, mechanical or electrical brains, called directors, instantaneously compute the firing data for antiaircraft crews and for aerial and naval gunners. Once these complex thinking machines, among the most intricate pieces of war equipment, seemed to defy production in quantity. But U. S. output in the two-year period between December, 1941 and December, 1943 increased by 3,000 percent, according to a recent an nouncement by the Navy Department. And with each new model, gunfire becomes more automatic. Unaided by human hands, the gun aims itself and sets the time fuses of its projectiles; the crew need only fire the gun, and keep ammunition racks loaded. Marvels like these make it possible to imagine a future robot gun with no crew at all.

One of the war’s strangest air stories tells of a “ghost plane”—a flak-riddled Liberator bomber—that accompanied other homeward-bound raiders in perfect formation. Close-up observation revealed no man at the guns or controls; all of the crew must have taken to parachutes or have been killed. Calling his base for instructions, as the group neared England, a worried flight officer was told to shoot down the Flying Dutchman of the air. Before he could obey, it apparently ran out of fuel, for it banked into a graceful curve and slipped beneath the waters of the English Channel.

Beyond doubt, the invisible hand at the controls was the gyro pilot, familiar to airmen since long before the war. Originally it consisted of a pair of gyroscopes, constantly maintaining a fixed position in space. When the plane tipped or turned, the gyroscopes actuated a pneumatic-hydraulic linkage that operated the rudder, elevator, and ailerons to bring the craft back to its true course. By handing the plane over to the gyro pilot, which needed only occasional correction, the pilot could free himself to take navigation observations, transmit and receive radio messages, or just plain relax. Now it has just been announced that, since shortly after Pearl Harbor, Flying Fortresses have been provided with a supersensitive gyro pilot which operates by electronic control from the gyros. At the start of a bombing run, the bombardier takes over control of the gyro pilot, which has been set to a straight course over the target. If the setting is a trifle off, the touch of a finger swerves the plane just a little to the left or right-enough to increase direct hits by 25 to 30 percent.

Some time before Germany’s introduction of the gyro-controlled flying torpedo, the Nazis demonstrated another way of guiding crew-less missiles with their radio-controlled glider bombs. Intended for attacking vessels at sea, the glider was steered by a radio transmitter in a distant powered plane, until, if all went well, it crashed upon the deck of the enemy ship. When it repeatedly failed to do so, the experiment apparently was abandoned, for nothing more was heard of the weapon.

For the record, it may be mentioned right here that neither gyro-controlled nor radio-controlled airplanes are new to Americans, nor to the British. Before the end of World War I, the U. S. Navy was flying experimental crewless bombing planes with gyro control, said to be better than that of the-V-l. Within the next few years, patents on gyro and radio planes were applied for by John Hays Hammond, Jr., Elmer A. and Lawrence B. Sperry, Charles F. Kettering, and other notables of the scientific and inventive world. Two facts probably explain why the robot bomber was dropped—our air forces’ repugnance to the risk of hitting innocent civilians, and their desire to save their explosives for more worthwhile targets. Both America and Britain developed radio-controlled planes, but for use only as flying targets, as far as records show. Likewise, the ex-battleship Utah and one or more destroyers have served as radio-controlled targets for Navy guns and bombs. To return to the current battle-front, a radio-controlled German “tank,” more interesting for its novelty than its military value, has also appeared on the Italian front. Its driver steers the 12-foot-long vehicle as near the enemy as he dares. Stepping out, he guides it onward by a portable transmitter. At its destination it stops and drops a time-fused, 800-pound explosive charge. Then its driver calls it back by radio, and makes his getaway. Details are lacking as to what the explosive is intended to do, and why.

Mobile land mines, resembling toy-sized tanks and stuffed with 250 pounds of explosives, exhibited an even simpler method of remote control at the Anzio beachhead in Italy. Propelled by self-contained electric motors, under power received through trailing cables, they were designed to be exploded by the operator as they scuttled beneath barbed-wire entanglements or among invasion troops. Delighted with the new targets, Allied gunners went to work on them in a shooting-gallery mood. Not one of the robots escaped. Those that were not blown up made amusing, if battered, souvenirs. Hunting was better when the Allies invaded France, where numbers of intact “doodlebugs” were found abandoned by the Germans.

A meal that cooks itself probably ranks as the favorite robot of the average GI. After punching holes in the top of a food can, he ignites a packaged charge of fuel extending down a central compartment. In four minutes the contents are steaming hot and ready to eat. The enemy may find this one of the deadliest of Allied robots—for who will deny that a well-fed American soldier can lick his weight in wildcats?

Special weapons deal with some enemy robots. For example, fields sown with land mines have allowed Axis forces to retreat in time to avoid destruction. Allied pursuit has had to wait until a pathway has been cleared of mines and marked. Now, however, vehicles acting as mine destroyers lead the way straight through the danger zone. Revolving drums in front of them beat the earth with flails of heavy chain, exploding the mines a safe distance ahead of them. One British type, designed for this sole purpose, might be called a land minesweeper. Tanks have also been equipped with the flailing apparatus. Next to the use of automatons, revival of rocket weapons has furnished one of the major surprises of the current war. The rockets whose “red glare” has been immortalized in our national anthem were not signal rockets, but the first effective military rocket, devised in 1806 by Sir William Congreve and used by the British in the War of 1812. But war rockets gave way to rifled guns of superior accuracy. It remained for modern designers to give rockets at least fair accuracy, so as to make the most of their outstanding advantages—absence of recoil, and light weight in comparison with artillery of equal firepower. So well have they succeeded that rockets bearing explosive or incendiary charges have become indispensable weapons in the air, at sea, and on land. About the beginning of this year, American warplanes such as the Grumman Avenger began hunting U-boats with rockets, particularly suited to the purpose because the propelling tube continues to drive its explosive head under water. British pilots of speedy Typhoons have specialized in low-altitude, high-speed rocket attacks on enemy tanks, with devastating results. Rocket duels between planes have occurred beyond bullet range. Against Japanese troops and ground installations in the China-Burma-India theater, Allied dive bombers have launched rockets from 4-1/2-inch “flying bazookas” with pin-point precision. In one of the latest designs, planes fire rockets in clusters of three, mounted beneath the wings.

How to keep an invasion beach clear of defenders, during the fateful moments between the end of a naval barrage and the landing of the first assault wave, has been a problem solved by the Navy with rockets. A bit longer than three-inch shells, they packed explosive power almost equal to that of a destroyer’s main battery. For use, they were carried in racks flanking an armored cockpit-bridge, in special landing-support craft, and were fired from the racks at an upward angle of about 45 degrees. In action, the support craft flanked the troop carriers or followed their dash to shore, shooting over them and transforming the beach into an inferno of exploding rockets. Shell casing carried with the rockets made effective shrapnel. The rocket treatment definitely discouraged the enemy from leaving their shelters and mowing down the first invaders to come ashore, largely accounting for the success of American landings in Jap-held areas of New Guinea, New Britain, and other Far Eastern objectives. Improved rocket craft, whose armament and details remain to be made public, are now in Navy service. The recoil of guns capable of giving comparable results would crash through the flat, thin bottom of the landing-support boats like a duced by some of the newest bombs. An autopsy reveals that the cause of death was severe internal injury, especially to the lungs.

Recent studies show there is no mystery about this blast effect, that it is not always fatal, and that common-sense precautions can prevent any injury at all. Actually the blast is simply an ultrafast and powerful sound wave, produced when an explosive detonates with extreme velocity.

Now, every schoolboy knows that sound travels about 1,100 feet a second through air under normal circumstances. But a superquick explosion transforms ordinary air into something of quite different elasticity and pressure, the two factors of a well-known physical formula for the speed of sound in any material. This checks with the observed fact that the blast wave may travel, not at the normal speed of sound, but as fast as 20,000 feet a second. Its impact upon the human body is exactly the same as a physical blow. Since most of the body is solid, and the only empty parts are the lungs, a blast wave bruises the lungs through the chest wall. Fortunately the lungs can stand considerable bruising, and most blast cases recover. From a medical standpoint, they correspond to cases of non-infectious pneumonia, for which the principal treatment is simply rest in bed. Since blast waves travel in straight lines, a person on the opposite side of a garden wall will be safe if the bomb does not explode too near. If no shelter is at hand, the best protection is to hug the knees against the chest, instead of lying flat. It takes a blast wave with a pressure of about 100 pounds to the square inch—from 10 to 100 times the amount needed to break a window—to threaten human injury.

Right after this wave, there follows a suction wave of longer duration, and of mild character in the open. If a bomb explodes in the confines of a built-up street, however, windows may be either blown in by the blast wave or blown out by the suction wave, accounting for the freak effects observed during heavy air raids.

Such is warfare today. Weapons for a future world conflict will soon be taking shape in research laboratories, if work on them has not already begun. It would be suicidal folly for us to fail to prepare for another war—and, perhaps, the same if we fail to prevent it.

  1. Stannous says: May 14, 200711:29 pm

    With the 20-20 advantage of hindsight this is fascinating as much for what it does not say as for what it does-
    The month this was published the German V-2 started spreading it’s own destruction on England, Belgium, and France. (and by the way, the V-1 and V-2 were intentionally misguided by British intelligence who, posing as Nazi spies, reported the bombs falling short so that their range was increased and many landed harmlessly (or at least with _less_ harm) in the farmland north of London)
    It also mentions the Allied pilots’ hesitance to bomb civilain targets- that would change all too soon:
    6 months later, in Feb. 1945, on one side of the earth Dresden was devastated with a mix of HE and incendiary bombs killing between 40,000 and 60,000 and on the other Kobe and Tokyo were firebombed killing thousands of civilians (72, 489 in Tokyo).
    And 6 months after that, Nagasaki (74,000) and Hiroshima (140,000) were bombed.

  2. Emcha says: May 16, 20078:22 am

    Interesting how the effectivesness of german guided bombs is downplayed. Obviously the real information came out only after the war.

  3. […] This post is actually a article from popular science 1944 and the German’s attempts to operate bombs by gyro or radio. Some time before Germany’s introduction of the gyro-controlled flying torpedo, the Nazis demonstrated another way of guiding crew-less missiles with their radio-controlled glider bombs. Intended for attacking vessels at sea, the glider was steered by a radio transmitter in a distant powered plane, until, if all went well, it crashed upon the deck of the enemy ship. When it repeatedly failed to do so, the experiment apparently was abandoned, for nothing more was heard of the weapon. […]

  4. Mr.Man says: March 15, 20084:00 pm

    I’m a robot and I’m getting a kick out of these replies.

  5. The Cageybee says: January 7, 20126:09 pm

    Any probative value the article may have had is lost under the immense weight of the propaganda.

    As pointed out by Emcha, the downplaying of German technology. The demonizing Fritz’ ‘robots’ as weapons of mass cruelty, killing civilians, indicative of a foe that has already lost. Of course, the US already had the tech anyway, but decided not to use as the thought of loss life for civilians was ‘repugnant’ to the powers that be. As pointed out by Stannous, bombing civilians turned out to no longer be ‘repugnant’ a few short months later.

    And what’s with the segway regarding the ‘deadliest of Allied robots’ which isn’t a robot, the ‘well-fed American soldier’. Come on, keep to the subject.

    Of course, after the war it would seem the German tech wasn’t so rubbish after all as the Brits, Yanks and Russians all sought to suck up as much equipment, data, plans and scientist as they could.

    @Mr.Man: Nice to meet another artificial lifeform. Although, I prefer the term ‘automaton’ to ‘robot’.

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