Towers of Terror

From Thence to Hence


War and Progress


Explosives were the love of chemist Alfred Nobel’s life. He managed to blow up his laboratory several times. Even the death of his brother in an accidental explosion did not deter him from continuing his quest for the ultimate explosive. His crowning achievement was dynamite, invented in 1866. Subsequently, dynamite became the weapon of choice in many wars to follow, especially in the World Wars of 1914-1919 and 1940-1945.


In 1905, Albert Einstein made his famous proclamation, E=mc2. This little formula states that tiny bits of matter can be converted into enormous quantities of energy. A whole world war went by, but this formula was not found to be useful. Technologies used in WW-I were amazing by standards of those times. Motorized transports could whiz personnel over not-too-rugged terrain. Tanks were invented for travel, trample and shoot over more hostile territories. Machine guns made killing faster. Submarines, called U-boats, equipped with torpedoes were horrific sinking machines on the ocean. On land, bombs and poison gas proved effective annhilants. Wireless telegraphy sent messages far and quick. In effect, the needs of war were the mother of invention and engineers created machines, gizmos and techniques to outfox the enemy. No one however got to use the promises of Einstein’s equation.


Dr. Einstein never quite figured out how to convert matter to energy, but Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard did. If history had taken a different course, the fruits of this equation may have first led to the development of atomic energy and not the bomb. Soon after Fermi and Szilard’s realized how to sustain a nuclear reaction, another war was brewing. Around 1939 Hitler was actively carrying out his promises of expanding the Deutschland, and exterminating the undesirables. In his most significant contribution to the cause of destruction, Dr. Einstein, forsake his longstanding and deeply belief in pacifism and wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a letter signed solely by him, Einstein told Roosevelt “it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power … would be generated”. The letter also stated that using this reaction “extremely powerful bombs, of a new type, could be constructed”.


The US government and the allied research machinery took the matter seriously and research into nuclear fission moved rapidly. In 1942 the Manhattan Project was set up to manufacture the bomb. Many years of painstaking work bore fruit on July 16th 1945. Ironically, the German’s had already surrendered. In a remote corner of New Mexico, at the Alamogordo Test Range in the Jornada del Muerto desert the test site was chosen and code named “Trinity”. The first atomic bomb, called “Gadget” blew up from a tower at “Ground Zero”.  Dr. Robert Oppenhiemer, the Director of the Manhattan project, watched the blast and quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”


“Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, two atomic explosives used on the civilians of two Japanese cities brought about the final end to the world war. The wartime needs for mass destruction, created the abominable bomb, and subsequently nuclear power, followed by huge body of nuclear knowledge and the political trauma of an escalating nuclear arsenal.


While the First World War was the real catalyst to technological inventions, the Second World War took them to higher levels of perfection. Many, if not the most, came from the German war machinery, and the Allied forces were quick to copy and sometimes surpass. Many if not the most, of these have proven to be of great value for civilian applications.


Sonar is the use of sound waves to locate objects and proved to be an effective tool for finding submarines. Today the civilian use of sonar is varied and widespread. Radar does the work of sonar in the air and it is the basis of our air transport and defense systems. The jet engine powered some later German aircraft. The rocket was developed by the Germans to carry bombs over large distances. Both these technologies have profound impact today.


Other innovations were seeded during the wars and. Electronic communications (radio, jamming, cryptography) made attack management miraculous. Innovative kinds of ammunitions made destruction easier. Warship and submarine technology reached new heights. A large body of techniques was developed for the management of warfare and supply chains. An artificial harbor called the Mulberry harbor revolutionized loading and docking of ships. Underwater oil pipelines provided nearly indestructible energy supply. Command and control centers linked by radio communications provided coordinated attacks. Modern warfare techniques have roots in the Second World War. Aircraft technology matured with the advent of fighters, transport planes and even in-the-air refueling.


After the end of the war, came the long Cold War (1945-1991). The momentum of the technological developments in the two massive wars spearheaded the innovation during the Cold War. The nuclear arms race was probably the only regrettable use of technology in the Cold War. The rest of the innovations during this period have served humanity rather well.


The most important Cold War invention was the transistor (in 1945), which led to the Integrated Circuit. The world of today is largely shaped by the applications of semiconductors. The transistor made the computer possible. One of the first computer built was the ENIAC (1946) used 19,000 vacuum tubes, consumed 150 kilowatts of power and rarely worked continuously for more than an hour without needing repairs. The transistor revolutionized the reliability, size and utility of electronic equipment.  The value of computers was recognized quickly and the first supercomputer, the CRAY-1 was commissioned in 1976. The CRAY-1 was seven feet tall and nine feet wide, and was powered from its own electrical substation. However, this monster had less computing power than the average PC of today. 


Space was the next frontier, and the Russians fired the first shot with Sputnik. John F. Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon and Neil Armstrong’s small step was a historical leap for mankind. Communication satellites soared to 36,000 km over the earth in geostationary orbits and revolutionized low cost communications and today offer entertainment choices beyond belief. Simple inventions such as microwave ovens, smoke detectors, and myriads of electronic gadgets are the products of the Cold War. The immensely popular Global Positioning System (GPS) was started in 1970 and can pinpoint locations on earth with uncanny accuracy.


At the hottest point of the Cold War the ARPANET was conceived. The system was originally conceived of as a way to let computer users attached to disparate networks exchange data with each other. It was also supposed to be based on a technology that would route information around damaged parts of the network to a safe arrival at its final destination. Today we bask in the glory of its commercial offshoot, the Internet.

While we can argue that historically war has been the mother of all inventions, it is not entirely true. Undeniably, war has been the catalyst and war has been the driving force, for most of the 20th century. Since the 1990’s, the tables have turned. Today, innovation is driven almost entirely by commercial value. Products, services, components, technologies and inventions have flooded the market, chasing consumer dollars. The defense establishment has woken to the realization that it is easier to use commercial technology in warfare than to develop them.


The tail has started to wag the dog. The mighty military complex depends upon civilian resources to construct the war machinery. Increasingly the hardware and the software used in the high tech war machines come from off the shelf components and innovations. In fact, suddenly the whole concept of military is being challenged. The enemy today is not a technological giant such as Germany or USSR, but a smaller country or no country.


The Bush administration has reluctantly announced that the looming war against terrorists may have only a small component of military might. The enemy is not a country but a scattering of “cells of terrorism”. These cells may exist, like viruses, on any host, including quite reluctant hosts. Canada, England, France, USA, and such holier-than-thou places harbor swarms of cells that go undetected. Tanks and bombers will not be the effective weapons of choice. What will this “new war” look like, is unknown. The military establishment was created to break things and kill people, en-mass. When there is no en-mass plundering needed, the many thousands years of experience of fighting wars suddenly become as useful as a slide rule.


Must we reinvent the whole notion of warfare? Looks like that. What will be the new methodology and technology of war? We still do not know. Possibly, the new war will consist of cells of antiviral agents hunting for viral cells. Possibly it will be composed of rhetoric and saber rattling coupled with guerilla strikes and economic meddling. As the clouds of war strengthen, we will see a new storm of action.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at




Partha Dasgupta