How the Rad Lab at MIT was more important than Los Alamos
in defeating the Nazis; Radar Won the War, the Atom Bomb Ended It
Most of us have heard the story of the Manhattan Project, which was the gargantuan effort to take a scientific theory (a sustained nuclear chain reaction) and turn it into a reality (the atomic bomb) for the war effort. In one of the largest scientific mobilizations ever, a number of physicists and other scientists were shipped off to Los Alamos, New Mexico in one of the most secret labs in the nation.
The story has been told in many books and movies; my personal favorite is Day One, an account that stretches from Leo Szilard’s initial idea, to Oppenheimer and General Groves setting up the lab on an old boys ranch in New Mexico.
That secret lab eventually built both a uranium and a plutonium bomb (nicknamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”). The effort actually went well beyond the Los Alamos laboratory – for one thing they needed enough purified materials (Uranium 235 and Plutonium, both of which had to be separated); this involved the efforts of labs in Oak Ridge Tennessee, Berkeley (under the direction of Nobel prize winner Ernest Lawrence whose cyclotrons played an important role) and dozens of other locations.
The reason many of these scientists participated was because they were afraid the Nazis would develop the bomb first.
Though every schoolboy knows that the atomic bomb helped end the war, it seems like the Japanese may have been on their last legs anyways and Germany had already surrendered by this time.
The real impact of the Manhattan project and nuclear power came after the war; in the Cold War and the nuclear arms race (which involved more destructive Hydrogen bombs).
On the other hand, most schoolchildren (including most MIT students) don’t know the full story of the Rad Lab, another laboratory that had an equal, if not greater, impact on the outcome of World War II. This was the “radiology lab” at MIT which was housed in a “temporary building”, called building 20.
In this lab, many of the nation’s leading scientists perfected radar, building it from a crude tool of bouncing very large (and imprecise) radio waves into the highly accurate system for tracking airborne and seaborne objects (using centimeter length waves) which we think of today as a staple of all air and sea travel.
Radar stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging, and while its history goes
back to the nineteenth century when Hertz bounced radio waves off of metallic substances, it was the efforts of the Rad Lab scientists that turned it into the must-have, reliable tool it is for today’s military and civilians.
I actually got to know this building well – I spent many late nights there working on my thesis when I was a student at MIT; While I knew that the
ratty old building had something to do with radar and world war two, I
didn’t know the full history until recently.
It turns out that the Rad Lab was a continuation of the work of a privately owned predecessor lab, known as the Loomis Laboratory. In her excellent
book, Tuxedo Park, Jennet Conant, writes of this private laboratory that
was set up Alfred Loomis, a wall street banker who became one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country (and later, a respected scientist in his own right).
Loomis started funding scientific projects at his private lab and made many
discoveries related to radio waves and microwaves, including the first EEGs, with the help of professional scientists like Robert Wood (From Johns Hopkins), George Kistiakowsky (who would play an important role in both radar and nuclear weapons development), and Ernest Lawrence, whose cyclotron Loomis helped fund and get off the ground.
As Germany started to attack the British Isles (well before the US had
entered the war), Loomis and others saw the importance of helping England hold off the German attacks using innovations in science.
The German U-boats (submarines) were sinking British American ships in the Atlantic, and the German bombers had shifted from daytime to nighttime bombing of London, making it very difficult for the Brits to defend themselves.
The development of radar proceeded quickly during this time only because men like Loomis were pushing its development from a theory, incorporating some of the top findings from the British physics community, who sent a mission to Washington in 1940 to share information with “the yanks” since they were on the verge of being defeated by the Nazis.
The US military, it turns out, was hesitant to use this untested technology
(as they were initially hesitant about the atomic bomb, thinking it was a
weapon for the “next war”).
Loomis, Vannevar Bush (who was head of the Carnegie Institute),
Karl Compton (President of MIT), and many others were put into a committee called NDRC (National Defense Research Committee) by FDR. This is the kind of bipartisanship we don’t see much of today, since many of these men were not Democrats nor supporters of FDR.
The NRDC was setup specifically to oversee scientific developments that could impact the war effort – and two of the main committees were the “radar committee” and the “uranium committee”. Since WWI, which was the first mechanized war, forward thinking members of the scientific and political establishment had come to realize that science and technology could be the decisive factor in winning wars.
Like many accomplishments in our nations history, much of the technology developed in WWII was from fear that others (namely, the Germans at thisz time), might get there first.
According to Tuxedo Park, Loomis was instrumental not just in setting up this lab but in pushing its research forward, even before there was adequate funding from the government. He did this by using his own funds and cajoling his contacts in industry to develop prototypes when formal funding hadn’t been approved or before the military had even agreed to use the equipment.
If Loomis hadn’t done this, it’s very possible that the radar advancement would’ve gotten caught up in government bureaucracy , and radar development may not have happened fast enough to help England (and later the Americans) in the course of the war.
In the book, Conant tells the story of Loomis, Lawrence, and many other prominent scientists and their impact on the development of this revolutionary technology in detail. While some primitive radar existed in both Britain and the US before the war, the real issues were in miniaturization – both in getting the size of the waves down (for better accuracy) and the size of the senders and receivers so they could become airborne and practical (originally radar was not very accurate and required separate sending and receiving devices, which were very large antennas).
It turns out the British had one part of the answer, which was a magnetron, and the physicists that descended on Cambridge, MA at the Rad Lab
en masse solved many of the practical problems of how to send and
receive radio waves from the same device ,and came up with dozens of miniaturized models of this new technology .
The government funding finally came through and this temporary building they had set up at MIT, building 20 (it never had a “real” name because it was meant to only be temporary) became a full-fledged operation churning out one advancement after the next.
The lab kept expanding as Loomis and his team kept coming up
with new applications – airborne radar to help bombers locate bombing targets, airborne radar for submarine detection, which allowed England to stop the bleeding of ships from the German submarine menace, and airborne bomber to bomber navigation which played a critical role in reducing the damage done to England by German’s formidable air force.
Before airborne radar was a reality, clunky ground-based radar was used to determine the approximate location of the German incoming bombers and then these coordinates were transmitted verbally to British pilots, which made it pretty difficult for them to intercept the German pilots.
The innovations in the Rad Lab were critical to stopping the bombing of London and the UK by intercepting first German aircraft, and later in the war, the other deadly new weapon, the guided missile (or V-1 missiles that were shot by Germany at the UK).
The temporary “building 20” at MIT where the Rad Lab lived
Loomis was able to attract some of the top physicists to the lab because of his association with men like Ernest Lawrence, who earned the Nobel prize because of the cycolotron Loomis helped him build.
This lab wasn’t technically under the jurisdiction of the military (unlike the Los Alamos lab during the war), and as a result, it was a free-wheeling, skunkworks like operation where the scientsts were free to “invent” whatever they thought they might need.
This was partly because the military didn’t realize it needed radar until after the US was dragged into the war and air power was finally recognized as the “new reality” of war. If anything, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 showed the military just how vulnerable US forces were to air power.
Although airplanes had been present in WWI (the flying “aces”), it didn’t become the decisive factor in warfare it’s considered today until the second World War.
Without developments related to radar at the Rad Lab, the Allies would have been at the mercy of the German war machine, which in many ways was ahead of the Allies at the beginning of the war.
It is a wonder that the Nazis, who were so great at creating offensive weapons, didn’t get to have this advantage first. Without the work of the Rad Lab,it’s very possible that the Nazis would have defeated Britain and taken over the UK before Pearl Harbor, which means we might be in a very different world today (If you want to see what this might be like, read Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle, or watch the Amazon TV series)!
When the military finally started to take the uranium bomb idea more
seriously (in the parallel Uranium committe of the NDRC), Loomis and Lawrence played key roles, helping to recruit many prominent physicists from the Rad Lab to the Manhattan project. For example, one of Lawrence’s key proteges from Berkeley, Luis Alverez, played a critical role in the development of many of the radar systems that went into production.
This led to a new billion-dollar industry when the United States entered the war with the Army and the Navy realizing the new reality and asking for radar systems on every single ship and every single airplane. Alvarez himself would later go on to be part of the Manhattan project and receive the Nobel prize in physics.
Similarly, another of Lawrence’s apprentices at Berkeley, Robert Oppenheimer (known as “Oppie” to scientists) went on to become the director of the Los Alamos lab which produced the atomic bomb.
Since most of the basic research around radar had been done at this point, and the Rad Lab was so well funded, others were able to take over and finish production models after key physicists went to Los Alamos to help solve bomb-related problems.
The lab was able to take the initial research and crank out all types of anti-aircraft, anti-submarine, anti-ship and anti-missile technology, not to mention the precursor to today’s GPS systems, all by using radio waves.
After Germany was defeated and radar was in broad use by
Allied forces, the decision was finally made to shut down the Rad Lab on August 5, 1945, since the technology was now in the hands of commercial manufacturers.
This decision was followed with a number of press releases and announcements about the important accomplishments of this lab and the scientists who had been there in the war, but these were upstaged by the momentous news of the atomic bomb drop the next day.
For example, according to Conant, Time Magazine was going to have a cover story about the work of the lab on radar and its decisive role in helping England stand up against the (seemingly) overwhelming numbers
of German submarines and bombers.
After the war, MIT chose not to tear down this temporary building right away as a testament to how important the Rad Lab had been to the war. When I was a student there in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I remember being surprised at how often, when I wanted to find out about some new lab or program, it would be housed in this shoddy old building.
It turned out that it continued to be a “skunkworks” type building for MIT, housing new labs and departments for many years, ranging from Minsky’s work on linguistics, to the Experimental Study Group, to Doc Edgerton’s strobe lights. Basically, something that didn’t have budget or office space elsewhere ended up in this “temporary” building. It was finally torn down in 1998 for the new Stata center, which houses the computer science department at MIT.
Conant writes near the end of Tuxedo Park:
“The men who worked on the atomic bomb were hailed as heroes, and countless books and Hollywood movies would recount their exploits, while the daring and inventive minds who create radar were large forgotten…
Only the Rad Lab veterans knew better, knew that if radar had not kept the Germans from defeating England, the war might have been over before America entered the contest. Everyone who had worked at the laboratory understood the decisive role their deadly devices.
Had played in speeding the day of victory, and it was a reflected in a remark by DuBridge (later President of CalTech, who was director of the Rad Lab) that became something of an unofficial slogan, their badge of honor:
Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it.“