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 1917 outlines inventions and proposals by Nikola Tesla, Hugo Gernsback and H. Harmann. This is one of the first times the idea of Radar is suggested in history.
The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Sunday Morning, August 19, 1917.
All have the merit of novelty. Mr. Tesla's invention is a way of detecting submarines before they can be seen. That of Mr. H. Gernsback, editor of the Electrical Experimenter, is a method of blinding the submarine so that its commander cannot take aim with his torpedoes. That of Mr. Hartman is a small submerged fort, containing torpedo tubes, for protecting the entrances to harbors from attacks by submarines.
RUMORS have been printed that Mr. Tesla had invented an electric ray that would destroy submarines at a considerable distance. These rumors, while distorted, are based upon actual facts. Mr. Tesla's device is a tremendously powerful electric ray that while it will not destroy a submarine, will be reflected back from it in such a way as to reveal its presence and position, thus making its capture or destruction a comparatively easy matter. Describing it to H. Winfield Secor, Mr. Tesla said:
"If we can shoot out a concentrated ray comprising a stream of minute electric charges vibrating electrically at tremendous frequency, say millions of cycles per second, and then intercept this ray, after it has been reflected by a submarine hull, for example, and cause this intercepted ray to illuminate a fluorescent screen (similar to the X-ray method) on the same or another ship, then our problem of locating the hidden submarine will have been solved.
"Suppose, for example that a vessel is fitted with such an electric ray projector. The average ship has available, say, from 10,000 to 15,000 horsepower. The exploring ray could be flashed out intermittently, and thus it would be possible to hurl forth a very formidable beam of pulsating electric energy, involving a discharge of hundreds of thousands of horsepower.
"Imagine that the ray has been shot out and that in sweeping through the water it encounters the hull of a submarine. What happens? Just this: The ray would be reflected, and by an appropriate device we would intercept and translate this reflected ray, as for instance by allowing the ray to impinge on a phosphorescent screen, acting in a similar way to the X-ray screen. The ray would be invisible to the unaided eye.
"Consider that a concentrated ray from a searchlight is thrown on a balloon at night. When the spot of light strikes the balloon, the latter at once becomes visible from many different angles. The same effect would be created with the electric ray if properly applied. when the ray struck the rough hull of a submarine it would be reflected, but not in a concentrated beam--it would spread out; which is just what we want. Suppose several vessels are steaming along in company; it becomes evident that several of them will intercept the reflected ray and accordingly be warned of the presence of the submarine or submarines.
"The Teutons are clever, you know, very, very clever, but we shall beat them," said Dr. Tesla confidently.
"There is one dead sure way of making a ship torpedo proof, and that is by making it invisible," he writes. "No one will deny this. For if the submarine commander can't see his quarry he can't torpedo it. In order to understand what I mean let us try a few very simple experiments:
"Light up a powerful auto searchlight to-night. The auto must be in the dark. Now station yourself fifty yards away. Do not look directly into the shaft of light. Can you tell where the driver sits? You cannot. You simply see the light shaft, that is all. But you can't see where the car is, and whether it is the right or the left searchlight that is lighted.
NIKOLA TESLA'S suggestion for detecting submarines at a distance is the projection of an invisible concentrated ray comprising a stream of minute electrical charges vibrating at a frequency of millions of cycles per second. This ray on striking the hull of a submarine would be reflected and the reflected ray could be caught on a fluorescent screen at the mouth of a submerged periscope tube on the same or on other ships.
"Now then, imagine for a minute that you are the submarine commander, with your eye glued to the as yet submerged periscope. Slowly and cautiously you raise the periscope tube till it is a foot or more above the water. Rapidly you turn it in a circle to scan every point of the horizon. Nothing but blue sky and the ocean. You keep on turning. Suddenly like a bolt of lightning comes a ball of white fire that makes your eyes water.
"Donnerwetter!" you say--presuming that you are a German U boat commander. Down comes the periscope, while you wipe your eyes stupidly.
"Now to torpedo a ship you must know several things. First, you must know how far away it is from you. Second, you must know in what direction the ship is traveling. Third, you must know its speed.
"And with a powerful searchlight trained full on your periscope you would of course know where the ship was, but you could not possibly know how far away it was from you, whether it was
"My idea then is this: Mount on the ship four powerful searchlights. High up in the crow's nest are two observers scanning the water with their glasses. The instant the top of a periscope is observed, let us say on the port side, the crow's nest gives the position to the two port searchlight attendants. By means of a foot-operated switch, the current is turned into the
"The main requirements of the plan are VERY powerful electric searchlights. Hundreds of thousands of candle-power MUST be used, otherwise the scheme is foredoomed to failure. Perhaps large parabolic mirrors to reflect the sunlight could be used with fair cloudless skies, for there is no stronger or more blinding light than sunlight. On a clear day this would be perhaps preferable to using electric searchlights."
THE submarine fort has just been patented by Mr. Hartman. It is a vertical cylinder of steel, of from 25 to 30 inches inner diameter, divided into three compartments, the middle one of which is for the operator. The upper compartment contains a powerful electric searchlight; the lower a storage battery. There are also devices for supplying the operator with oxygen and for absorbing the carbon dioxide exhaled by him. Water pressure gauges, volt and ammeters, switches, telephones, etc., are provided for his use.
A small motor operating a propeller enables the man to turn his "fort" around.
The idea is to lower several of these "forts" into the sea, suspended from steel ropes, outside the entrance to a harbor. The searchlight would then explore the surrounding waters, and the operator would watch for U boats. On seeing one he could either telephone its position to those ashore or could discharge small, short-range torpedoes at it from the torpedo tubes.