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Harnessing the Genie: Science and technology Forecasting for the Air Force, 1944-1986.

Harnessing the Genie: Science and Technology Forecasting for the Air Force, 1944-1986

By Michael H. Gorn * Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1988.

Michael Gorn's history of science advising and technology forecasting for the U.S. Air Force begins in General "Hap" Arnold's car. En route to organizing a separate Air Force, Arnold had stopped to consult with aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman of the California Institute of Technology. Arnold asked von Karman to "make me a report" (p. 13) suggesting how the scientific breakthroughs of the Second World War would lead to the military technologies of the future. Arnold justified the independence of the Air Force on the uniqueness of its principal tool; thus, he wanted to enter the postwar years with a clear agenda for the development of aircraft.

For help in forecasting the future of airpower, von Karman called together university scientists who had distinguished themselves in war research. This group became the Science Advisory Board (SAB), a permanent link between civilian science and military engineering. As the SAB grew during the 1950s, it spent more effort on immediate technical problems, and its influence waned. Every mid-decade the Air Force initiated a major forecasting project, but it staffed each from the growing cadres of uniformed and civilian scientists employed by the military. Gorn concludes that because the boards writing the reports were more closely tied to the Air Force, the reports became less visionary and more narrowly focused on current weapons systems.

Only Bernard Schriever's Project Forecast had the impact of von Karman's report, Toward New Horizons. As manager of the Atlas missile program and organizer of the Air Force Systems Command, Schriever created the corporate structure of the modern Air Force. In 1964 he called together a group of five hundred scientists from universities, think tanks, military laboratories, and industry. Schriever expertly organized the flow of speculation and technical expertise along an organizational matrix. Innovations dreamed up by scientists were passed to panels of military engineers more expert on future military threats and policies. The expected breakthroughs then were clumped together into imaginary weapons systems, costs were estimated, and a final forecast report was compiled. What circulated through the military and aerospace industries as the "state of the art," therefore, was a negotiated agreement between those who speculated about technology and those who speculated about threats and resources. Schriever understood how to manage this negotiation.

Gorn writes well, but his scope is narrow. Large sections of the book simply summarize Air Force documents. He makes few connections with larger issues in military technology and the aerospace industries. For instance, Gorn never discusses how the institutional ties of von Karman or Schriever allowed them to fulfill their own prophecies. Also, many of the scientists writing the reports were employed by aerospace corporations, yet Gorn never questions their interests in setting a research and development agenda for the Air Force.

The information Gorn presents on the Air Force provides some interesting parallels to the efforts of corporations to balance independence with control as they hired university-trained scientists in the early years of the industrial research laboratories. Otherwise, there is little in this book that will directly interest the business historian.

Glenn E. Bugos is a research fellow in history at the California Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988 with a dissertation on program management in the American military and aerospace industries.
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Author:Bugos, Glenn E.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1989
Words:573
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