Supersonic Flight

On Tuesday, October 14, 1947, a B-29 bomber took off in the Mojave Desert in California. Instead of a bomb, it carried another plane.

Chuck Yeager & the X-1

The Bell X-1 “research vehicle” was a rocket fired aircraft. As the bomber climbed, test pilot Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, climbed into the rocket aircraft. At 20,000 feet (6100 meters) the bomber released the new aircraft and Yeager.

Yeager fired the rocket and his small aircraft experienced 6000 pounds of thrust, quickly climbing. At Mach .85, Yeager temporarily stopped accelerating because the aircraft was untested at that speed. No wind tunnel could stream air that fast. He resumed acceleration and, at 40,000 feet, the aircraft passed the speed of sound.

Yeager brought the aircraft to Mach 1.06, a speed faster than any person or machine ever traveled before. Engineers were unsure of what might happen. Some predicted a loss of control or even a disintegration of the aircraft, but it flew straight and steady. Soon enough, Yeager slowed down and landed. That flight heralded the start of the supersonic era.

Engineering Matters

Supersonic flight wasn’t simply a matter of flying continually faster. Fluid dynamics function differently at speeds above the speed of sound. Isaac Newton first published a good guess about the speed of sound by measuring the difference between a flash of light from a cannon at a set distance and the resulting sound. Future scientists continued refining both the speed of sound and also how various properties acted above and below the speed of sound.

The scientists concern was two-fold. First, because air flows over a wing at slightly higher speed than under it, they worried these differences could tear a wing apart as an aircraft approached supersonic speeds. Secondly, crossing the speed of sound creates an extremely thin but strong shock wave that could also damage the aircraft.

Their easiest task was creating a rocket pushing an aircraft beyond the speed of sound. A more difficult task involved keeping the aircraft intact and under control of a pilot.

John Stack & NACA

Researcher John Stack did much of the research into shock waves and supersonic flight during the 1930s. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later renamed NASA) sponsored the research. However, the agency initially declined to fund for a supersonic airplane.

During WWII, NACA remained underwhelmed at the thought of diverting resources for a supersonic aircraft. However, by 1943 they greenlighted limited research to “design features of a transonic airplane could not hurt anyone, providing they did not distract from more pressing business.”

Shortening an extremely long story, Stack worked with Kotcher to build the X-1.


Chemotherapy refers to a group of drugs that fight cancer. Surgery and radiation were the two common anti-cancer therapies before the discovery of effective chemotherapy. Immunotherapy was also studied but showed little promise.


In the 1800s, scientists thought drugs might be able to fight cancer. However, none of them worked well. In the 1910s, scientists discovered how to transplant tumors between mice, enabling them to attempt curing the tumors. Despite attempts with various drugs and hormones, nothing made a substantive difference.

An Accident

The initial breakthrough in chemotherapy was accidental. Both the Allies and Axis engaged in chemical warfare in WWI. They banned it by WWII. However, in recognition either side could break the ban, both continued developing chemical weapons in secret.

On December 2, 1943, Nazi bombers launched a surprise attack on ships near Bari, Italy. One of those ships, the John Harvey, was a floating chemical weapons bunker. Mustard gas combined with seawater and the combination covered sailors from many ships who jumped into the water. The gas was not immediately fatal because seawater diluted the concentration.

Within a day, sailors began suffering illness from mustard gas poisoning. By the end of December 83 of the 628 hospitalized died and an unknown number of civilians were also affected.

Diluted Poison

Milton Winternitz of Yale noted many of those injured by the gas showed marked depletion of bone marrow and lymph nodes. Winternitz speculated the diluted poison might have therapeutic benefits, especially in cancer patients. Early tests with diluted nitrogen mustard proved especially effective for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Due to the illegal genesis of the finding, results were not reported until after the war, in 1946.

Early enthusiasm turned after discovering remissions were brief. However, later scientists found folic acid analogs similar to mustard gas produced better results.

Besides the poisons, experimental work with WWII antibiotics also stumbled upon some substances that fight tumors.

Chemotherapy research continued with Mary Lasker (Albert Lasker’s wife) leading the charge via the American Cancer Society, that Albert named. The group pioneered the public/private partnerships with the US government to research and produce drugs private companies owned. At the time, this seemed the best way to speed along development. However, it was controversial then and remains controversial today.

Today, there are countless chemotherapy drugs to fight cancer. In 2016, about 1.7 million people developed cancer and just over one-third of those died. Worldwide estimates are about 18 million cancer patients every year and many die from the disease.

Military Tank

Towards the late 1800s, Europeans and Americans both worked on the idea of a tire tread. They realized a treaded machine would be useful on rougher terrain. The Holt Manufacturing Company, later renamed Caterpillar, perfected and patented a working tread in 1904.

While engineers experimented developing working treads for tractors their use in war was obvious. In 1903, French artillery captain Léon Levavasseur envisioned an armored tractor with a cannon mounted to the front. Austrian officer Günther Burstyn envisioned a similar device with a rotating gun turret. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells published a whole short story, The Land Ironclads, in 1903 about motorized armor fighting machines. Similar to the countless failed attempts at tractor treads, some work went into their ideas but nobody developed a working machine.


With the outbreak of WWI, armies immediately realized the value of Holt’s tractors. The vast majority of WWI was fought in trenches. Soldiers would try running from their trench to the other, usually unable to break through a barrage of gunfire. However, they reasoned that an armored Holt tractor might work.

By the end of WWI, about 10,000 Holt tractors saw combat. American and English troops used modified Holt tractors from the beginning. The French initially determined to build their own treaded tractor but, by 1915, decided to also use modified Holt tractors.

By the time of WWI, other tractors proved more technologically advanced. However, due to their history as a tractor company, they were available in large quantities. The ability to quickly produce many tractors surpassed technological advantages other manufacturers might offer.

Various allied forces worked throughout the war to create and improve the tank. The word “tank” was the codename for the project of developing a weaponized tractor. Although the French and English tried using technology from their respective countries, Holt tractors proved the least costly and most widely available.

Despite their technological superiority producing motors and cars, the Germans only built one type of tank and deployed only 20 of those. Their tank, the A7V, was enormous and required 18 soldiers to operate. They also used about three dozen captured British tanks.

After WWI

Tanks did not begin to make a material dent in fighting until the end of the war and, even then, their impact was minimal.

Against the advice of colleagues, a rising officer in the US, Lt. Col. Patton, decided to join the newly formed US Tank Brigade. Between the wars, Americans under Patton continued improving their tank and Germans developed their own Panzer division. However, it was the French who built the largest number of tanks. The Soviets developed a capable tank and built about 5,000 but Stalin eventually executed the head of the project, Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The lack of tanks at the outbreak of WWII cost countless Russian lives though they later redeveloped their tank brigade. Despite the obviousness of the answer in hindsight, various generals argued during the period between the wars whether horses were obsolete.

Whereas tanks developed too late in WWI, they were a central weapon in WWII. Tanks remain a central weapon in all modern armies.

Catalytic Converter

Catalytic converters prevent knocking in engines without leaded fuel.

Houdry was a Frenchman working on high-octane fuels. His initial focus were race cars. Sun Oil sponsored the early work, in the 1930’s, moving Houdry to the US. The fuel work was a success but could not be use in mass production because the catalysts that allow the use of high-octane fuel would be destroyed by lead, which was then used in gasoline to increase compression to prevent knocking.

Time went by (during WWII, Houdry was a vehement anti-Nazi). Eventually, it became clear to Houdry and others that lead fuels caused serious environmental problems.

Houdry developed “catalytic cracking” to create high octane fuels via the use of a catalyst. Initially, fighter airplanes relied on high high-octane fuels. Correspondingly, this gave a substantial edge to Allied forces during WWII.

After the war, Houdry created and patented the catalytic converter allowing engines to run on lead-free gasoline. He patented the innovation in 1956 with a 1952 innovation date, assigning the rights to his company, Oxy-Catalyst Company.

His patent expired Apr. 16, 1970, less than a year before the newly created US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established Dec. 1970, labeled leaded gasoline as a threat.

Subsequently, the United States and most European government banned cars that required leaded gasoline in the 1970s.

Nuclear Weapons

Caltech professor Robert Oppenheimer lead a team of researchers at Los Alamos to invent the atomic bomb. Along with some of the most noteworthy physicists in the world, he oversaw the development of the nuclear bomb.

The Manhattan Project, like the code-breaking at Bletchley Park, was intensely secretive. Los Alamos, in New Mexico, was built to house the many scientists, technicians, and other soldiers working on the bomb.

Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr worked alongside countless others towards the goal of creating a super-weapon to defeat Hitler’s Nazis. Einstein did not live in Los Alamos but consulted on the project. von Neumann did not live at Los Alamos but visited frequently, helping to develop the technology.

On August 6, 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Furthermore, three days later, August 9, the US dropped the second and last nuclear bomb ever used in war on Nagasaki, Japan. Thereafter, Emporer Hirohito announced an unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, ending WWII.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Oppenheimer, 1965.

On Dec. 21, 1953, the US government revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance due to his opposition to war. He died in 1967, age 62.

The Gadget in the test tower. Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
First Nuclear Weapon

Game Theory

Game theory serves as the foundation of systematized decisionmaking and modern economics.

Indeed, Minimax game theory underlies modern economics and is responsible for countless economic insights, many of which won Nobel Prizes.

Besides game theory, von Neumann eventually modeled the lenses behind the Los Alamos plutonium nuclear bomb.

As a Jewish refugee from Europe whose home country was occupied by the Soviets, von Neumann was a vehement anti-fascist and anti-communist. Eventually, he used game theory to urge the US to destroy the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.

“If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say, why not today? If you say today at five o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?”

John von Neumann, 1950

Like many involved in early nuclear work, von Neumann died young, from cancer, at 53.

Assault Rifle

Assault rifles can shoot repeatedly and rapidly without reloading.

Nazi’s realized that in most fire-fights soldiers were less than 400 meters. While traditional machines guns could shoot considerably further, their range was unhelpful. Furthermore, the weight of both the weapons and ammunition became a liability.

In response, Nazi’s invented a light weapon with smaller and lighter ammunition. Their weapon combined a traditional rifle with a machine gun. It was light and easy to handle. After several prototypes, they settled on Sturmgewehr 44, the first mass-produced modern assault rifle, in 1943.

The Soviet Army a rifle to counter the German weapon. Their rifle needed to be light and fire rapidly but, given the large number of uneducated Russian troops, also easy to operate. After several earlier attempted, Soviet Mikhail Kalashnikov invented the AK-47, completed soon after WWII.


Early bell suits that contained air hoses allowed people to function underwater. These bell diving suits were heavy and dangerous. Later systems relied upon compressed air and regulators, yet these were still large and impractical.

In 1942 Nazi-occupied France, Frenchmen Cousteau and Gagnan invented the first practical underwater breathing apparatus, Aqua-Lung.

In their system, called open-circuit, the air is expelled as the diver breathes out. This is sub-optimal for commandos, because the bubbles may reveal their location. However, it functioned well enough that Cousteau used the system to fight fascist Italy.

In 1952, American Major Christian Lambertsen invented and patented a closed-circuit “rebreather” used by underwater commandos since it does not create bubbles. He named this Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA. Eventually, SCUBA became the term for both closed and open-circuit systems.

Cousteau made early underwater films during the war and increased his visibility after the war, becoming a well-known advocate ocean environmentalist.

Refrigerated Trucks


Frederick Jones

Refrigerated trucks, invented by Frederick Jones, enable modern commerce. Jones is somewhat of an innowiki aberration in that he 1) invented something useful with enormous impact, 2) successfully commercialized it, 3) managed to keep the business and build it out, and 4) was a minority.

We’d like to have a long list of innovators with these attributes but it just doesn’t happen all that often. Two-thirds don’t even make money from their own work, much less do it while working under the stress of racism in the United States in the 1940s.

Jones was a self-taught engineer. African Americans could theoretically enter engineering schools during this time but, as MIT delicately puts it: “only a few students of color were able to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

Jones was bi-racial and, depending on the history either abandoned by his parents. Whichever the case, he was raised by a priest in Cincinnati starting at age seven. Sent to work as a janitor at age 11, his mechanical aptitude landed him a job as in auto repair by age 14. Eventually, in 1912, he moved to Minnesota to work as a mechanic on an enormous farm.

Despite segregation and over racism his engineering skills shined in WWI where he learned more advanced mechanical devices. During the interwar period, Jones invented refrigerated trucking.

In WWII, his trucks were especially useful for transporting blood and his company, US Thermal Control Company (later renamed Thermo-King), grew much larger. After the war, they eventually became ubiquitous in the grocery industry.

Despite his work was useful in both wartime and civilian infrastructure, enabling the modern grocery store, there was little recognition beyond commercial success during his lifetime. He died in 1961. Thirty years later, in 1991, President Bush Sr. posthumously awarded Jones the National Medical of Technology.

Eventually, in 1997, Ingersoll Rand acquired Jones’ Thermo-King for $2.56B in cash, where it remains today as a functioning company.

Jet Engine

An RAF pilot he thought up the jet engine and tried convincing the English military to fund development. When they refused, he created a private company to develop his jet engine, Power Jets Ltd. Undercapitalized, development of the new engine plodding along slowly.

During WWII, the Allied forces realized the military potential of the jet engine.

The United Kingdom nationalized Whittle’s company, Power Jets, in 1944. Rolls-Royce and GE received Whittle’s work under the assumption they could accelerate the production of workable engines. Investors tripled their initial investment, but Whittle received nothing. A lifelong soldier there is no record that he complained.

Knighted in 1948, Whittlemoved to the US in 1977. He spent the remainder of his life in military academia, never from his jet engine.

Later in life Whittle met former Nazi jet engineer Hans von Ohain who proclaimed Whittle was years ahead of the Germans. But for a lack of funding the jet engine would have been finished significantly sooner.

“If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely World War II would not have come into being.”

Hans von hain