Technology and Warfighting: The Mystique of the Norden Bombsight

Courtesy of War History Online
The Bombsight inside a World War II era bomber. Courtesy of War History Online
Book on the History of the Norden Bombsight, which claimed the weapon used as later as during the Vietnam War! Courtesy of Norden Retirees Club
Book on the History of the Norden Bombsight, which claimed the weapon was used as later as during the Vietnam War!
Courtesy of Norden Retirees Club

In the summer of 2009, My Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) Commanding Officer pointed to a reprint of an old World War II photo in my textbook and claimed “This device is one of the key innovations that helped the Allies win the war”. Staring at the picture of the mechanical device in front of me, I thought the Norden bombsight looked more like an unsophisticated paperweight rather than a precursor to the modern computer. But who was this inventor Norden? But how effective was the Norden bombsight? How did it work? Did the research and development price justify the cost? I stumbled across an interesting TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell that challenged my preconceived notions from my AFJROTC curriculum and answered some of my questions of the bombing device.

The first question Malcolm Gladwell answered was who was Norden. Carl Norden was born in Switzerland around 1880. He studied to become an engineer at the Federal Polytech in Zurich. Gladwell claimed that Norden was a typical European engineer – egotistic, resilient, and hard working. Just before World War I, he immigrated to New York. Consumed with interest for the physics of bombing, Norden created the Norden Mark 15 bombsight. He claimed the device was so accurate the bombardier could, “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 20,000 feet.” Carl Norden was also a very religious Christian and believed that the device could limit collateral damage.

Courtesy of TED
Malcolm Gladwell at TED. Courtesy of TED

Norden’s invention, The Mark 15 bombsight, was awkward in use, yet it still attracted the Army. The unwieldy device weighed about 50 pounds. The bombardier, after getting a visual line of sight on the target would manually input: the altitude of the plane, the speed of the plane, the speed of the wind, and the coordinates of the target. Gladwell claimed the bombsights were “essentially analogue computers.” The Army was so intrigued by this device that it invested $1.5 billion in 1940 dollars to develop this technology. According to Gladwell, the Army bought 90,000 of these devices at a price of $14,000 per unit leading up to World War II. Ultimately, the U.S. Army trained over 50,000 bombardiers on how to use the Mark 15. The Army heavily embraced operational security to protect the bombsight: bombardiers had to swear never to reveal any secrets about it, it was not allowed to be photographed in public, the device itself contained a self destruction mechanism, and outside the bombers the device had to have an armed detail to guard it. The Army built up a sense of mystique over its ‘secret weapon’ to winning the Second World War.

Courtesy of PBS
The bombsight in action! Courtesy of PBS

On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell then gave an acrimonious criticism of the Norden bombsight. Just like the Navy officers that criticized Billy Mitchell’s sinking of the Ostfriesland, Gladwell claimed that the Norden was only evaluated in controlled environment training simulations. He thought the device was overly hard to program and maintain. The view of the bombardier could be obscured by clouds, which forced the plane to fly exposed or risk an inaccurate bombing run. Gladwell backed up his case with evidence, as he cited the 1944 failed bombing of the Leuna Chemical Plant, in which Allied bombers using the Norden bombsight only managed to drop 10% of their ordinance on target. He also criticized the operational security of the Norden device, as Norden had hired German engineers, who later gave a complete set of schematics to the Nazis in 1938. He then paralleled his criticism of the Norden device to the failure of the Scud hunts of the Gulf War and drones, which he viewed as escalating the Global War on Terror. His scathing critic challenged the luster of the bombsight.

Malcolm Gladwell on the Norden Bombsight

Some of the Army brass thought that the Norden device could be the make or break piece of technology to win the war. Technology can only go so far, and if untested in realistic contemporary battlefield conditions will fail at the decisive point of battle. In my ROTC land navigation experience, I was trained on using terrain association and dead reckoning with only a protractor and a compass, rather than using a GPS, which could become distorted due to atmospheric conditions. While the precision of Norden bombsight seemed to be ‘the next thing,’ carpet bombing and nuclear devices, coupled with bloody infantry assaults and occupation, won World War II. Despite massive investment and effort by the technology enamored Army, the mystique of the Norden bombsight failed to hold up in the field according to Malcolm Gladwell.

Sources:
Allison, William T., Jeffrey Grey, and Janet G. Valentine. American Military History: A Survey From Colonial Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle Rive, NJ: Pearson, 2013.

Dufrene, Dennis. Technology in World War II That Changed History. “War History Online”: http://www.warhistoryonline.com/featured-article/technology-in-world-war-ii-that-changed-history.html JAN. 2013.

Malcolm Gladwell’s TED speaker blog: http://www.ted.com/speakers/malcolm_gladwell.html
TED Talks. “Malcolm Gladwell: The strange tale of the Norden bombsight.” OCT. 2011. http://on.ted.com/Gladwell11

“The Norden Bomb Sight.” ‘Flight.’ 16 August 1945. pp. 180-181. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1945/1945%20-%201626.htm

Pardini, Edward. “The Legendary Norden Bombsight.”: http://www.nordenretireesclub.org/level2/pardini.htm

PBS. “War Plane Gallery: Key Innovations.”: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/warplane/programfeature8.html

lThe Norden Bombsight p. 180.

The Norden Bombsight from another viewpoint p. 181.

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