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MIT Better World

That’s the premise of Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2019), a new book by Jonathan Gruber ’87, professor of economics at the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and Simon Johnson PhD ’89, the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In this excerpt from the chapter, “The Postwar Invention Boom,” the authors remind us of the role science, engineering, and MIT have played in America’s success story.
Vannevar Bush [PhD 1916, former professor and dean of the MIT School of Engineering] was a master of managing perceptions. He understood firsthand that “engineers” of the day were regarded by senior military personnel as “in all probability a thinly disguised salesman, and hence to be kept at arm’s length”—and he insisted that his team be referred to consistently as scientists. In one sense, this was accurate, as the people he hired, particularly for the Rad Lab [the MIT Radiation Laboratory, which researched radar], were actually scientists, mostly physicists.
Realistically, however, most of their wartime efforts were devoted to applications that should more accurately be regarded as engineering—applications of existing knowledge to practical problems—rather than as science, the creation of new knowledge through theory and controlled experiments. Still, their strong training in science served these “engineers” well once they could take their wartime experiences, including with hands-on electronics, back to their labs—and onto inventions such as digital computers and semiconductors.

Image: Courtesy of Public Affairs
Vannevar Bush Courtesy MIT Museum

The postwar invention boom was boosted by the fact that the devices and processes developed under the NDRC [National Defense Research Committee] (and its successor, the higher-profile and better-funded Office of Scientific Research and Development [OSRD]) were to some extent rough and ready— everyone was in a hurry to make things work and deploy robust versions into combat situations. The flip side was that many interesting problems became more obvious, both in terms of basic science and potential further improvements for products….

As a direct continuation of the government-supported wartime aerospace program, it was the Americans who brought the next generation of jet engine–based flight technologies to scale. It was America, not exhausted and cash-strapped Britain or broken Germany, which proved best positioned to take advantage of the related commercial developments….

Of all the wartime science projects, radar can undoubtedly claim the longest list of useful spin-off products. Modern commercial air travel is made possible by hundreds of radar systems across the United States. Much of the useful information in weather reports is based on some form of radar.

Astronomy was transformed by the creation of radio telescopes. Particle accelerators and microwave spectroscopy can also trace their lineage back to the MIT campus—as can the nuclear magnetic resonator (the basis for modern magnetic resonance imaging, MRI) and the maser (used in atomic clocks and spacecraft, and forerunner of the laser), for which work Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1952 and 1964, respectively….

Old Washington hands like to emphasize that “personnel is policy”—meaning that who you hire has a major impact on what gets done. But conversely, who gets trained to do what, while working for the government, can have significant impact on what they think about—and invent—later. Judged in those terms, the wartime science effort propelled a generation forward in terms of scientific and industrial achievement. Ten Nobel Prizes can either be traced back to work done at the Rad Lab or were won by people who spent formative years building radar systems.

Most of the postwar top science advisors to government cut their teeth somewhere in the OSRD, most commonly at the Rad Lab. Right through to the Nixon administration, thinking about science policy—and what exactly to support—was shaped by people who had worked alongside Vannevar Bush.