National Service in War and Peace


Forgotten history. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt from “A history of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: National Service in War and Piece (1925-1975)”

During World War II, some 2,000 separate projects for the Army, Navy, and National Defense Research Committee were pursued by Bell Laboratories.

These projects, in addition to major radar and gun director systems, included an encompassing range of specialized communications equipment designed for aircraft, ground, and shipboard applications. The systems were also designed for use in areas from battlefield to worldwide, including global high-speed radio teletypewriter and telephone systems having a degree of message security never before known.

Greatly improved sonar systems, a new magnetic airborne detector for locating submarines, proximity fuzes, and extremely sensitive and rugged magnetic mines were other innovations of the Bell System during the war years.

Such little-known stories as the origin of the bazooka, the development of an acoustic torpedo that during a critical period sank 39 German U-boats and seriously damaged 18 others, and the establishment of communications lines by paying out wire from aircraft are part of the service to our nation provided by Bell Laboratories and Western Electric.

In the area of materials research, important contributions were made in the familiar fields of dielectrics, synthetic rubber, and magnetic materials, and a most significant advance was achieved in the separation of the U235 isotope.

The Bell Laboratories School for War Training was established, and thousands of officers were trained in the proper use and maintenance of communications and weapons systems. No less than 650 different instruction books were written and published for this educational enterprise.

Bell Laboratories and Western Electric produced all of the fire control radar used in Navy ships-from submarines to battleships-during World War II.

The M9 antiaircraft equipment was designed by Bell Laboratories and built by Western Electric.

A new era in defense technology began in the early 1950s with the Bell System development of the Nike-Ajax Air Defense System, the heart of which was a computer-controlled guided missile.

Later systems included antiaircraft systems deployed in 1955, the Nike-Zeus antimissile system demonstrated in 1962, the prototype Safeguard anti- missile system deployed in 1974.

David Lilienthal, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, stated in his book Big Business: A New Era that the Bell System was asked to manage the Sandia undertaking for the AEC.

Colin Berkshire