In May of 1915, Thomas Edison was asked by a New York Times correspondent to comment on the conflict. He argued that the Nation should look to science.
Image: Thomas Edison in his lab.
"The Government," he proposed in a published interview, "should maintain a great research laboratory.... In this could be developed...all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense."
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels seized the opportunity created by Edison's public comments to enlist Edison's support. He agreed to serve as the head of a new body of civilian experts - the Naval Consulting Board - to advise the Navy on science and technology.
Image: Josephus Daniels. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, c1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36747.
The Board's most ambitious plan was the creation of a modern research facility for the Navy. Congress allocated $1.5 million for the institution in 1916. (NRL)
The role of inventors became vitally important.
The following newspaper article from 1916 outlines inventions and proposals by Louis Gathmann, Nikola Tesla, Rene Bache and others. Some of these seem more like "Science Fiction" than "Science."
The San Antonio Light, San Antonio, Texas, USA, February 13, 1916, Pages 54-55.
New Inventions and Suggestions Offered to Mr. Edison's War Consulting
Board--A Super-Dreadnought of the Air That Can Carry Five Tons of
High Explosives, the Undersea Pipes That Will Set the Ocean Ablaze
About an Invading Fleet, Nikola Tesla's Scheme to Pour Light-
ning from Airships, Wiping Out All Life Beneath Them
Inventor of the Famous Gathmann Gun, That Destroyed the Mightiest Fortresses of Europe
What this country needs more than anything else for purposes of defense is aerial battle-cruisers.
Such fighting craft, built in accordance with plans which I have perfected after many years of experimenting, would operate in the ocean of the air much in the same way as do the marine battle cruisers of today in the ocean of salt water.
The flying machines now used in war are first rate in their way. For scouting purposes they serve admirably. But aircraft that can really fight are lacking.
They will soon arrive. Nothing that at all corresponds to the aerial battle cruiser of my design has hitherto been suggested. It has several novel features, but of these decidedly the most important is that it can remain stationary in the air.
Up to now, in the construction of the heavier than air flying machines, it has been accepted as a fundamental proposition that such a contrivance could stay aloft only by traveling a a great rate of speed. But my air cruiser, while able to travel sixty miles an hour, can just as easily reduce its gait to one mile an hour, or less, if desired.
This means that it can hover. Note that word "hover," for it is all important. I will explain why.
Suppose the case of enemy battleships approaching our coast. An aerial battle cruiser has been dispatched to attach them. The flying craft is 250 feet long and can carry a weight of eight tons. It is operated by ten men, and has on board fifty bombs, each containing 200 pounds of high explosives.
The huge warplane comes almost to a stand-still over each battleship, high enough in the air to be safe from her gunfire. It drops the great bombs, one after another. What can the battleship do? She cannot run away because the hovering foe can travel at twice her utmost speed.
Perhaps the first half-dozen bombs miss her? But each one comes nearer than the last, and finally she is fairly struck. That is enough; it needs only one hit to sink or at least disable her. One or two more hits will finish her, if she still remains afloat.
Now, before going further, I should explain just how this ability to "hover" is obtained. It is simply a matter of utilizing all the propellers--some of which are above and others beneath the machine--for lifting. My arrangement of these is such that every one of the propellers can be used for lifting or for ordinary propulsion, as desired. They are as efficient for one purpose as for the other.
of the Flying Battle Cruiser
The flying battle cruiser would be, so to speak, a "water bird." It would be adapted for resting upon the water, rising from the water, and alighting upon the water. In fact, water rather than land would be its chosen element, when not in the air. This implies that it would have a boat-like hull, to keep it afloat. It would be in effect a huge flying boat, but of such construction that it could rest on land--on smooth ground, that is to say--if required.
It could travel a distance of 300 miles, with an expenditure of eight ounces of liquid fuel per horsepower for each hour. Being able to lift itself vertically into the air, it would not have to make a preliminary run over water or land before rising, as is the case with ordinary flying machines. But its most important advantages, apart from its ability to "hover," would be its independence of wind or weather and its great carrying capacity--the latter enabling it to transport and utilize for purposes of destruction large quantities of high explosives.
A few such aerial warcraft would be of vastly more practical use for the defense of our coasts than all our seacoast fortifications. An enemy fleet would be literally at their mercy.
Each would cost about $800,000* apiece--a mere trifle compared with the expense of building one of our modern dreadnoughts. Incomparably more efficient that the unwieldly Zeppelins, they would possess an important advantage over the latter in the fact that, carrying no gas, they could not explode. The Zeppelin, like the huge dinosaurian reptiles of a past geologic age, is destined soon to become extinct. Smaller and more up-to-date machines for navigating the air will drive it out of existence.
The superdreadnought (sic) is another overgrown monster which, like the Zeppelin, must soon become extinct. Its usefulness has already almost passed. How is it to be imagined that the nations will continue to build warcraft of this type, at a cost of $15,000,000 apiece, when a much more formidable type of battleship can be constructed for $5,000,000?
Let me explain what such a battleship should be like--the sort of battleships we ought to have at the present moment of national emergency.
It should be relatively small--not more than 450 feet long and with a low freeboard, so as to present a small target to the enemy. Narrow in proportion to its length, it should have great speed--as much, perhaps, as thirty knots. Its armor should cover it whale-back-fashion, so that any projectiles striking it would be likely to glance off.
It should have only two guns, one at the bow and the other at the stern. But they should be big guns, of at least eighteen-inch calibre--their projectiles, torpedo shells, car-
rying five hundred pounds of high explosive. Such guns need weigh no more than the 14-inch rifles carried by our newest dreadnoughts; for the torpedo shell is much lighter than the armor-piercing shell so long favored by our Navy Department, having thin walls, with space inside to contain a bursting charge proportionately larger.
No moving turrets. The ship itself, by the control of its rudder, would do the aiming. It would be like the action of a man who points a pistol, and the accuracy obtained would be great. One should remember that, when such huge torpedo shells are used, a single fair hit is usually enough to sink or disable the most formidable battleship.
As for classes of fighting ships other than the battleships--such, for example, as the armored cruiser--we do not need them. In real fighting ships only one class is required; and it is represented by the type of battleship I have described, which is capable of destroying at a blow any craft that floats.
Inventor of Wireless Power Transmission and Discoverer of the High Frequency, Alternating Elec-
trical Current. (In an Interview)
At this moment there is available to the belligerents in Europe an effective means by which the present conflict could be brought to an abrupt termination within twenty-four hours--and which would forever after make war an impossible thing.
The various parliaments for peace which have been initiated are laudable notions. But they are only the shadows of hope; dreams built upon a beautiful if not an altogether impracticable philosophy.
With immeasurable less ado, with certainty and dispatch the men may be removed from the trenches; arbitrarily, unconditionally and probably without loss of life--not ever again to return.
The means proposed to accomplish this would immediately and automatically materialize reality by the application of an existent, concrete force--the brutal fact versus abstract theory.
So soon as either the Entente Allies or the Central Powers should develop and adopt the invention described the war would end. To continue, would result in the sure and speedy annihilation of the nations against which it might be employed.
Human resistance to this terrific instrument of death and devastation would be physically impossible. It could not be checked or combated by any means now in existence. And it would be as irresistible as it would be effective.
War is without reason or excuse; a horror greater than a thousand infernos, real or Dante-pictured. Engines of slaughter have been the creations of a war-mad people. They are symbols of a barbaric blood lust--without the pale of civilization and Christianity.
Yet we have wars. And as a natural accompaniment there are employed the most improved death-dealing machines of the age.
In ancient times men fought man to man, with the strength and sinews of their arms, with skill and might of sword and lance, hand to hand. And prowess and brawn and stamina and mastership--individual supremacy in generalship--won their battles, much as they are won to-day in the boxing ring. In modern warfare men are merely pawns, their fighting ability supplanted by the destroying capacity of machinery. And there have recently been produced such tremendous and before undreamed-of instruments of destruction that the world stands paralyzed with amazement and horror at the havoc they work.
However, even though it seem a paradox, it remains for the nation most disposed to peace to create a yet greater agency of destruction than any thus far contrived. Not one which merely will surpass present weapons in degree, but one which will out-Herod Herod in battle equipment, one which will prove an all-efficient means of widespread annihilation on a gigantic scale; against which no army or nation could survive, and against which there could be offered no adequate defense or protection.
And it is now possible for either of the principals at war readily and quickly to devise and construct an effective equipment of such destructive apparatus in sufficient numbers to bring the enemy nation to cry for peace. It would make little or no difference as to the fact of terminating hostilities if both factions should equally so equip themselves at the same time, since the equipment to which I refer could not effectively be employed either in offensive or defensive operations against similar equipment. The nation first perfecting and adopting it, however, would have the advantage in that they would be in a position to name the terms of settlement.
Cities by Wires from Airships
Practically no new thing in the arts and sciences would need to be invented or created for the production of such an engine of destruction. The various fundamental elements and essential parts required in its construction already are developed and generally in use. It remains only for the designer, the artisan, the electrician and the manufacturer to co-operate in producing and assembling them into a composite whole.
It may be conceded that the bomb air raids by dirigibles thus far have failed of decisive results; that they have only added to the general suffering and horror of it all. And--here is the point:
These same air craft might readily be converted into means by which cities and forts and munition factories could be reduced to beds of whitened ashes and which could exterminate every living thing from the face of the earth.
One single demonstration of the stupendous demolition made possible by such a weapon would be all sufficient to bring the opposing forces instantly to sue for terms of peace.
Although several devices might be employed for this purpose, I shall cite but one to show how readily either enemy faction could establish a method of warfare which would make for the immediate termination of war.
An airship of the gas or Zeppelin type developing 200 to 400 horse power could be equipped with a high voltage electrical generator. For the project intended almost the full energy of the engines might be devoted to driving the dynamo, since the speed of the craft in operation would be a secondary consideration.
From a suitable feel in electrical connection
with the dynamo thin wires would be low until their nether ends reached to within a certain distance from the ground or the tops of buildings of a city. Through these suspended wires there would be discharged several million volt currents of electricity.
Between the lower ends of the wires and the earth there would then be formed a tremendous arc, which would consume with its terrific [unreadable word] not only every human being and living thing, but also every building and every atom of combustible material over and near which this incendiary arc should pass.
The destructive radius would be at least seventy-five to one hundred yards from the electrical generation of engines of, say, 200 horse power, although with engines of 500 horse power the radius of incendiary effect might easily be two hundred to three hundred yards or even more; especially if the wire area were extended by the use of stretcher bars under the airship.
a Device Would Bring Peace
A highly sensitive automatic regulator controlling the reels constantly would adjust the length of the lowered wires to maintain proper distance between the discharge end of the wire and the earth to produce and preserve an uninterrupted arc.
If the craft were provided with auxiliary engines for motive power it might travel with considerable speed, sweeping a path clear of every form of life and every vestige of man's creation. Also, such a craft could sail at a great height--sufficiently high, in fact, to be barely visible to the naked human eye, and certainly well beyond the range of anti-aircraft guns.
Two or three such arc-ships side by side travelling (sic) parallel with an enemy's lines would leave in their wake a mass of smoldering ruins of bomb-proof trenches, supply trains, munition wagons, gun carriages, fences, homesteads and villages, and strewn through all the charred and fire-shrivelled bodies of soldiers fallen [unreadable]-less before this irresistible and all-consuming force.
Particularly if such an arc-ship raid were made at night the chances of repulsing or even reaching the enemy fleet would be practically nil.
No sane government would hesitate al-[unreadable] flying the white flag in face of such a gruesome cataclysm. Surrender, swift and final, would be the only human alternative.
Moving in squadrons or line abreast, a fleet of these aircraft could sweep over large cities, even such as London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Petrograd or Constantinople, and leave them a blackened, smoking and lifeless ruin.
Perhaps not even the most war-crazed politician ever would venture such an immeasurable and unpardonable outrage against mankind, involving as it would the burning of helpless women and children and non-combatants.
And yet such heinous offenses against civilization and the once recognized rules of [unreadable]
have been and still are being committed. Even though it be on an insignificant scale as com-[unreadable]-ed with the possibilities of the device suggested for the arc craft, yet one may not forget that such incendiary raids are being carried on [unreadable] the limit of the means thus far developed that they might attempt with more destructive [unreadable]-ncles is seriously open to question.
However, it is largely due to the fact that the [unreadable]-ial raids with present equipment do not make for decisive results that the peers continue to tolerate such revolting tactics of war [unreadable], electing to take the gambler's chance of escape in future.
But--and this is the humanitarian side to this suggested engine of annihilation--if either belligerent should equip and place in active service an effective fleet of these arc-producing, incendiary air craft and should make due announcement to enemy nations of a proposed [assault] upon its cities or its forces in the field. Such an act would be equivalent to serving notice of a demand for surrender--and beyond. [Unreadable]-advanture it would promptly and unconditionally be accepted.
Torpedoes Steered by Sound Waves and--Girdling the Nation With Military Roads
by Rene Bache
The European war naturally has [unreadable]-lated inventors in contriving devices for the destruction of human life and property. The creation by Secretary Daniels of the Naval Advisory Board, with Mr. Edison at its head, to pass upon the practicability of the various suggestions gave an added impetus to invention. Besides the schemes and plans that come to the Advisory Board and to the Navy Department directly are still others which are received by the Army Board of Ordnance and Fortifications. These latter [total] alone three hundred a month on the average.
Of course, the great majority are "crazy" inventions--fantastic and impractical. [But] some of these have the germ of an excellent idea--one at least worthy of experimentation and development. Dozens of such are [now] under test.
Besides the Gathman airship and the Tesla suggestion the most interesting are two [unreadable] come from the West. The first of these is a plan by Mr. Bernard MacDonald, a mining engineer of South Pasadena. Mr. MacDonald recognizes that one of the greatest factors of our national unpreparedness is the lack of roads along our coasts and boundaries which would allow a speedy concentration of [troops] against an invasion at any point. He would have the government build a military highway of concrete fifty feet wide all around the country. The building would be done by an a-[unreadable]-mented United States army.
The road would be located fifty miles inland from the coasts, thus removing it beyond shooting distance of a hostile fleet. The same distance would be preserved along the borders north and south. Telephone stations would be placed at regular distances along the road allowing rapid communication in time of need and the rushing of forces to the imperiled places. Hundreds of minor roads would lead from the girdling highway to the coast cities and other hundreds would lead into the regular roads behind the girdle.
Image: A Map Showing the Location of Suggested Main Military Roads to Parallel the Coasts and Boundaries of the United States.
The National Good Roads Association is [agitating] a somewhat similar plan, with the addition of a central military highway across the [core] of the country. The map on this page is a rough illustration of the scheme, and shows where the border and coast girdling highways, as well as the central highway, [unreadable]-d cross the barrier of the Rockies.
One second suggestion is to incinerate an invading fleet by setting fire to the ocean around it! This would be done by the connection of batteries of great oil tanks at various points along the coast. From these res-[ervoir] pipes would be carried underground into the sea and along the ocean bed from fifteen to twenty miles out from land. Pumps of great [power] would be constructed to force crude oil through the pipes when necessary.
Oil, being lighter than water, rises to the surface. On the approach of a hostile fleet, [the] pipes in range of the ships would be put to work and tons of oil be forced through them. The oil would rise and spread over hundreds of feet. When the ships steamed into these oily points on the ocean's surface a flock of airplanes would be sent from shore. Their occupants would be armed with incendiary bombs, which would be dropped upon the oil, igniting it.
Image: A Diagram That Illustrates the Suggested Method of Protecting Our Coasts by Conveying Oil from Protected Reservoirs Through Pipes Twenty Miles Out to Sea. Upon the Approach of an Invading Fleet Oil Would Be Forced Through the Pipes, Would Rise to the Surface, and, Ignited by Bombs from Aeroplanes, Would Surround the Enemy With Lakes of Fire.
Any one who has seen oil in great quantities [sitting] on water will have no doubt of the [fate] of the invaders. Before the ships could [unreadable] through the blazing area their crews would be suffocated or blasted by the heat. [Most] probably the magazines, igniting, would [blow] the vessels to pieces. At any rate, in this [oily] funeral pyre the sea power of the army would, even if not entirely destroyed, be so broken as to be useless.
A very interesting and practical device is a shell loaded with chains and balls. Its main [use] would be cutting wire entanglements. There are, as the pictures of it on this page show, three forms of the chain and ball shell. [In] one chain and weights are not connected to the shell, but are merely held within it.
Image: The Ball and Chain Bearing Shell for Cutting Wire Entanglements. The Three Plans Show Different Arrangements of the Interior Missile for Varying Conditions.
The projectile--like shrapnel--has a bursting charge of high explosive, which may be placed in the rear end, or in the middle, or in both ends, divided. The bursting charge is so controlled by a time fuse as to explode a short distance in front of the enemy's entanglements. The projectile flies to pieces. The chain and weights are thrown out--the latter in opposite directions, so that the chain is tautened.
The chain, thus held stretched by the weights, and retaining the original impetus given by the gun in firing the projectile, tears its way through the entanglements and rends them literally to pieces.
The drawings of this novel projectile shown here depict different ways of placing the bursting charge, which in each instance is represented by the bland space inside--whether at the rear, in the middle or at both ends when the charge is divided.
Another important device being considered is a torpedo steered by wireless telephony, the deadly impetus of which is directed by sounds emanating from the vessel to be destroyed itself! It is designed to accomplish the involuntary suicide not only of battleships, but of submarines. By means of sound waves emanating from approaching vessels the torpedo will, says the inventor in his patent application, "without control automatically steer itself toward the ship that is to be destroyed and even change its course with the movement of said ship." Even if brought to a halt for any reason it starts again as soon as a ship comes within its radius of action and steers toward it to destroy it.
Image: Torpedo Steered by Sound Waves, Which Indicates Its Position by a Jet of Water, Which Is at Night Illuminated by a Small Searchlight Carried by the Torpedo.
This torpedo may be used as a mine if desired, being provided with a special mooring device so arranged that the torpedo automatically disengages itself as soon as a vessel enters its sphere of action, whereupon it starts [out] and steers straight for the ship.
On the front end of the torpedo is a series of small telephone receivers--more properly described as microphones--which are sensitive to sound vibrations in water. These receivers are connected, severally and respectively, with devices inside the torpedo for steering, propulsion and so on. Thus two of them steer the steel fish vertically--one up and the other down--and two horizontally.
Electromagnets and clockwork inside the torpedo so operate in response to the vibrations communicated through the microphones as to steer it, propel it and even start an internal combustion engine or set off a charge of high explosive at the proper moment. The torpedo moves always in the direction of the object from which the emerging sound proceeds--particularly toward the propellers of a steamship, which are the most vulnerable and important part of such a vessel. With her propellers smashed a battleship would be helpless.
Another interesting device is an "anaesthetic" (sic) submarine invented by Carl M. Wheaton, of Newton, Mass. The submarine is provided with a novel kind of gun, mounted vertically, so as to shoot a projectile from beneath into the bottom of a ship that is attacked. The projectile is hollow, and through it an anaesthetic (sic) gas is poured into the vessel, putting the crew to sleep.
Image: Patent Office Plan Showing How the "Anaesthetic Submarine" Pours Its Gases Through the Pierced Hull of a Battleship.
The idea is that the submarine, its presence unsuspected, approaches so close to the bottom of the ship as to be almost in contact therewith. The tubular projectile, when discharged does not wholly leave the gun, its butt end being still retained within the muzzle thereof. Its front end passes through the vessel's bottom up to a "shoulder," which prevents it from penetrating further. Then it only remains to turn on the gas.