TEDGlobal 2011

Malcolm Gladwell: The strange tale of the Norden bombsight

Filmed:

Master storyteller Malcolm Gladwell tells the tale of the Norden bombsight, a groundbreaking piece of World War II technology with a deeply unexpected result.

- Writer
Detective of fads and emerging subcultures, chronicler of jobs-you-never-knew-existed, Malcolm Gladwell's work is toppling the popular understanding of bias, crime, food, marketing, race, consumers and intelligence. Full bio

Thank you.
00:15
It's a real pleasure to be here.
00:17
I last did a TEDTalk
00:19
I think about seven years ago or so.
00:21
I talked about spaghetti sauce.
00:25
And so many people, I guess, watch those videos.
00:28
People have been coming up to me ever since
00:31
to ask me questions about spaghetti sauce,
00:33
which is a wonderful thing in the short term --
00:35
(Laughter)
00:38
but it's proven to be less than ideal
00:40
over seven years.
00:42
And so I though I would come
00:44
and try and put spaghetti sauce behind me.
00:46
(Laughter)
00:49
The theme of this morning's session is Things We Make.
00:51
And so I thought I would tell a story
00:54
about someone
00:56
who made one of the most precious objects
00:58
of his era.
01:00
And the man's name is Carl Norden.
01:02
Carl Norden was born in 1880.
01:05
And he was Swiss.
01:07
And of course, the Swiss can be divided
01:09
into two general categories:
01:11
those who make small, exquisite,
01:13
expensive objects
01:15
and those who handle the money
01:17
of those who buy small, exquisite,
01:19
expensive objects.
01:22
And Carl Norden is very firmly in the former camp.
01:24
He's an engineer.
01:27
He goes to the Federal Polytech in Zurich.
01:29
In fact, one of his classmates is a young man named Lenin
01:32
who would go on
01:35
to break small, expensive, exquisite objects.
01:37
And he's a Swiss engineer, Carl.
01:41
And I mean that in its fullest sense of the word.
01:44
He wears three-piece suits;
01:47
and he has a very, very small, important mustache;
01:49
and he is domineering
01:54
and narcissistic
01:56
and driven
01:58
and has an extraordinary ego;
02:00
and he works 16-hour days;
02:02
and he has very strong feelings about alternating current;
02:05
and he feels like a suntan is a sign of moral weakness;
02:08
and he drinks lots of coffee;
02:12
and he does his best work
02:14
sitting in his mother's kitchen in Zurich for hours
02:16
in complete silence
02:18
with nothing but a slide rule.
02:20
In any case,
02:22
Carl Norden emigrates to the United States
02:24
just before the First World War
02:27
and sets up shop on Lafayette Street
02:29
in downtown Manhattan.
02:31
And he becomes obsessed with the question
02:33
of how to drop bombs from an airplane.
02:35
Now if you think about it,
02:38
in the age before GPS and radar,
02:40
that was obviously a really difficult problem.
02:43
It's a complicated physics problem.
02:45
You've got a plane that's thousands of feet up in the air,
02:47
going at hundreds of miles an hour,
02:50
and you're trying to drop an object, a bomb,
02:52
towards some stationary target
02:55
in the face of all kinds of winds and cloud cover
02:57
and all kinds of other impediments.
03:00
And all sorts of people,
03:02
moving up to the First World War and between the wars,
03:04
tried to solve this problem,
03:06
and nearly everybody came up short.
03:08
The bombsights that were available
03:10
were incredibly crude.
03:12
But Carl Norden is really the one who cracks the code.
03:14
And he comes up with this incredibly complicated device.
03:17
It weighs about 50 lbs.
03:20
It's called the Norden Mark 15 bombsight.
03:22
And it has all kinds of levers and ball-bearings
03:26
and gadgets and gauges.
03:28
And he makes this complicated thing.
03:31
And what he allows people to do
03:34
is he makes the bombardier take this particular object,
03:36
visually sight the target,
03:40
because they're in the Plexiglas cone of the bomber,
03:42
and then they plug in the altitude of the plane,
03:46
the speed of the plane, the speed of the wind
03:49
and the coordinates
03:52
of the target.
03:54
And the bombsight will tell him when to drop the bomb.
03:56
And as Norden famously says,
04:00
"Before that bombsight came along,
04:03
bombs would routinely miss their target
04:05
by a mile or more."
04:07
But he said, with the Mark 15 Norden bombsight,
04:09
he could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel
04:12
at 20,000 ft.
04:14
Now I cannot tell you
04:16
how incredibly excited
04:18
the U.S. military was
04:20
by the news of the Norden bombsight.
04:22
It was like manna from heaven.
04:25
Here was an army
04:27
that had just had experience in the First World War,
04:29
where millions of men
04:31
fought each other in the trenches,
04:33
getting nowhere, making no progress,
04:35
and here someone had come up with a device
04:37
that allowed them to fly up in the skies
04:41
high above enemy territory
04:43
and destroy whatever they wanted
04:45
with pinpoint accuracy.
04:47
And the U.S. military
04:49
spends 1.5 billion dollars --
04:51
billion dollars in 1940 dollars --
04:53
developing the Norden bombsight.
04:56
And to put that in perspective,
04:58
the total cost of the Manhattan project
05:01
was three billion dollars.
05:03
Half as much money was spent on this Norden bombsight
05:05
as was spent on the most famous military-industrial project
05:08
of the modern era.
05:12
And there were people, strategists, within the U.S. military
05:14
who genuinely thought that this single device
05:17
was going to spell the difference
05:19
between defeat and victory
05:21
when it came to the battle against the Nazis
05:23
and against the Japanese.
05:25
And for Norden as well,
05:27
this device had incredible moral importance,
05:29
because Norden was a committed Christian.
05:32
In fact, he would always get upset
05:34
when people referred to the bombsight as his invention,
05:36
because in his eyes,
05:39
only God could invent things.
05:41
He was simple the instrument of God's will.
05:43
And what was God's will?
05:45
Well God's will was that the amount of suffering in any kind of war
05:47
be reduced to as small an amount as possible.
05:50
And what did the Norden bombsight do?
05:53
Well it allowed you to do that.
05:55
It allowed you to bomb only those things
05:57
that you absolutely needed and wanted to bomb.
05:59
So in the years leading up to the Second World War,
06:03
the U.S. military buys 90,000
06:06
of these Norden bombsights
06:09
at a cost of $14,000 each --
06:11
again, in 1940 dollars, that's a lot of money.
06:13
And they trained 50,000 bombardiers on how to use them --
06:16
long extensive, months-long training sessions --
06:19
because these things are essentially analog computers;
06:23
they're not easy to use.
06:25
And they make everyone of those bombardiers take an oath,
06:27
to swear that if they're ever captured,
06:30
they will not divulge a single detail
06:33
of this particular device to the enemy,
06:35
because it's imperative the enemy not get their hands
06:37
on this absolutely essential piece of technology.
06:40
And whenever the Norden bombsight is taken onto a plane,
06:42
it's escorted there by a series of armed guards.
06:45
And it's carried in a box with a canvas shroud over it.
06:48
And the box is handcuffed to one of the guards.
06:51
It's never allowed to be photographed.
06:54
And there's a little incendiary device inside of it,
06:56
so that, if the plane ever crashes, it will be destroyed
06:59
and there's no way the enemy can ever get their hands on it.
07:02
The Norden bombsight
07:05
is the Holy Grail.
07:07
So what happens during the Second World War?
07:10
Well, it turns out it's not the Holy Grail.
07:13
In practice, the Norden bombsight
07:16
can drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 20,000 ft.,
07:18
but that's under perfect conditions.
07:21
And of course, in wartime,
07:23
conditions aren't perfect.
07:25
First of all, it's really hard to use -- really hard to use.
07:27
And not all of the people
07:30
who are of those 50,000 men who are bombardiers
07:32
have the ability to properly program an analog computer.
07:34
Secondly, it breaks down a lot.
07:38
It's full of all kinds of gyroscopes and pulleys
07:40
and gadgets and ball-bearings,
07:42
and they don't work as well as they ought to
07:44
in the heat of battle.
07:46
Thirdly, when Norden was making his calculations,
07:48
he assumed that a plane would be flying
07:51
at a relatively slow speed at low altitudes.
07:53
Well in a real war, you can't do that;
07:56
you'll get shot down.
07:58
So they started flying them at high altitudes at incredibly high speeds.
08:00
And the Norden bombsight doesn't work as well
08:03
under those conditions.
08:05
But most of all,
08:07
the Norden bombsight required the bombardier
08:09
to make visual contact with the target.
08:11
But of course, what happens in real life?
08:14
There are clouds, right.
08:16
It needs cloudless sky to be really accurate.
08:19
Well how many cloudless skies
08:22
do you think there were above Central Europe
08:24
between 1940 and 1945?
08:26
Not a lot.
08:29
And then to give you a sense
08:31
of just how inaccurate the Norden bombsight was,
08:33
there was a famous case in 1944
08:35
where the Allies bombed a chemical plant in Leuna, Germany.
08:37
And the chemical plant comprised
08:41
757 acres.
08:43
And over the course of 22 bombing missions,
08:45
the Allies dropped 85,000 bombs
08:48
on this 757 acre chemical plant,
08:53
using the Norden bombsight.
08:57
Well what percentage of those bombs
09:00
do you think actually landed
09:02
inside the 700-acre perimeter of the plant?
09:04
10 percent. 10 percent.
09:07
And of those 10 percent that landed,
09:10
16 percent didn't even go off; they were duds.
09:12
The Leuna chemical plant,
09:15
after one of the most extensive bombings in the history of the war,
09:17
was up and running within weeks.
09:20
And by the way, all those precautions
09:23
to keep the Norden bombsight out of the hands of the Nazis?
09:25
Well it turns out
09:28
that Carl Norden, as a proper Swiss,
09:30
was very enamored of German engineers.
09:32
So in the 1930s, he hired a whole bunch of them,
09:35
including a man named Hermann Long
09:37
who, in 1938,
09:39
gave a complete set of the plans for the Norden bombsight to the Nazis.
09:41
So they had their own Norden bombsight throughout the entire war --
09:44
which also, by the way, didn't work very well.
09:47
(Laughter)
09:50
So why do we talk about the Norden bombsight?
09:52
Well because we live in an age
09:55
where there are lots and lots
09:57
of Norden bombsights.
09:59
We live in a time where there are all kinds
10:01
of really, really smart people
10:03
running around, saying that they've invented gadgets
10:05
that will forever change our world.
10:07
They've invented websites that will allow people to be free.
10:09
They've invented some kind of this thing, or this thing, or this thing
10:12
that will make our world forever better.
10:16
If you go into the military,
10:19
you'll find lots of Carl Nordens as well.
10:21
If you go to the Pentagon, they will say,
10:23
"You know what, now we really can
10:25
put a bomb inside a pickle barrel
10:27
at 20,000 ft."
10:29
And you know what, it's true; they actually can do that now.
10:31
But we need to be very clear
10:34
about how little that means.
10:36
In the Iraq War, at the beginning of the first Iraq War,
10:39
the U.S. military, the air force,
10:42
sent two squadrons of F-15E Fighter Eagles
10:44
to the Iraqi desert
10:47
equipped with these five million dollar cameras
10:49
that allowed them to see the entire desert floor.
10:51
And their mission was to find and to destroy --
10:54
remember the Scud missile launchers,
10:57
those surface-to-air missiles
10:59
that the Iraqis were launching at the Israelis?
11:01
The mission of the two squadrons
11:03
was to get rid of all the Scud missile launchers.
11:05
And so they flew missions day and night,
11:08
and they dropped thousands of bombs,
11:10
and they fired thousands of missiles
11:12
in an attempt to get rid of this particular scourge.
11:15
And after the war was over, there was an audit done --
11:18
as the army always does, the air force always does --
11:20
and they asked the question:
11:22
how many Scuds did we actually destroy?
11:24
You know what the answer was?
11:26
Zero, not a single one.
11:28
Now why is that?
11:30
Is it because their weapons weren't accurate?
11:32
Oh no, they were brilliantly accurate.
11:34
They could have destroyed this little thing right here
11:37
from 25,000 ft.
11:39
The issue was they didn't know where the Scud launchers were.
11:41
The problem with bombs and pickle barrels
11:45
is not getting the bomb inside the pickle barrel,
11:48
it's knowing how to find the pickle barrel.
11:50
That's always been the harder problem
11:53
when it comes to fighting wars.
11:55
Or take the battle in Afghanistan.
11:57
What is the signature weapon
12:00
of the CIA's war in Northwest Pakistan?
12:02
It's the drone. What is the drone?
12:04
Well it is the grandson of the Norden Mark 15 bombsight.
12:07
It is this weapon of devastating accuracy and precision.
12:11
And over the course of the last six years
12:15
in Northwest Pakistan,
12:17
the CIA has flown hundreds of drone missiles,
12:20
and it's used those drones
12:23
to kill 2,000 suspected
12:25
Pakistani and Taliban militants.
12:27
Now what is the accuracy of those drones?
12:31
Well it's extraordinary.
12:34
We think we're now at 95 percent accuracy
12:36
when it comes to drone strikes.
12:39
95 percent of the people we kill need to be killed, right?
12:41
That is one of the most extraordinary records
12:44
in the history of modern warfare.
12:46
But do you know what the crucial thing is?
12:48
In that exact same period
12:50
that we've been using these drones
12:52
with devastating accuracy,
12:54
the number of attacks, of suicide attacks and terrorist attacks,
12:56
against American forces in Afghanistan
12:59
has increased tenfold.
13:01
As we have gotten more and more efficient
13:04
in killing them,
13:06
they have become angrier and angrier
13:08
and more and more motivated to kill us.
13:11
I have not described to you a success story.
13:14
I've described to you
13:17
the opposite of a success story.
13:19
And this is the problem
13:21
with our infatuation with the things we make.
13:23
We think the things we make can solve our problems,
13:25
but our problems are much more complex than that.
13:28
The issue isn't the accuracy of the bombs you have,
13:31
it's how you use the bombs you have,
13:34
and more importantly,
13:36
whether you ought to use bombs at all.
13:38
There's a postscript
13:42
to the Norden story
13:44
of Carl Norden and his fabulous bombsight.
13:46
And that is, on August 6th, 1945,
13:49
a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay
13:52
flew over Japan
13:55
and, using a Norden bombsight,
13:57
dropped a very large thermonuclear device
13:59
on the city of Hiroshima.
14:02
And as was typical with the Norden bombsight,
14:05
the bomb actually missed its target by 800 ft.
14:08
But of course, it didn't matter.
14:11
And that's the greatest irony of all
14:14
when it comes to the Norden bombsight.
14:16
the air force's 1.5 billion dollar bombsight
14:19
was used to drop its three billion dollar bomb,
14:23
which didn't need a bombsight at all.
14:27
Meanwhile, back in New York,
14:30
no one told Carl Norden
14:32
that his bombsight was used over Hiroshima.
14:34
He was a committed Christian.
14:37
He thought he had designed something
14:39
that would reduce the toll of suffering in war.
14:41
It would have broken his heart.
14:44
(Applause)
14:47

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Malcolm Gladwell - Writer
Detective of fads and emerging subcultures, chronicler of jobs-you-never-knew-existed, Malcolm Gladwell's work is toppling the popular understanding of bias, crime, food, marketing, race, consumers and intelligence.

Why you should listen

Malcolm Gladwell searches for the counterintuitive in what we all take to be the mundane: cookies, sneakers, pasta sauce. A New Yorker staff writer since 1996, he visits obscure laboratories and infomercial set kitchens as often as the hangouts of freelance cool-hunters -- a sort of pop-R&D gumshoe -- and for that has become a star lecturer and bestselling author.

Sparkling with curiosity, undaunted by difficult research (yet an eloquent, accessible writer), his work uncovers truths hidden in strange data. His always-delightful blog tackles topics from serial killers to steroids in sports, while provocative recent work in the New Yorker sheds new light on the Flynn effect -- the decades-spanning rise in I.Q. scores.

Gladwell has written four books. The Tipping Point, which began as a New Yorker piece, applies the principles of epidemiology to crime (and sneaker sales), while Blink examines the unconscious processes that allow the mind to "thin slice" reality -- and make decisions in the blink of an eye. His third book, Outliers, questions the inevitabilities of success and identifies the relation of success to nature versus nurture. The newest work, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, is an anthology of his New Yorker contributions. 

He says: "There is more going on beneath the surface than we think, and more going on in little, finite moments of time than we would guess."
 

More profile about the speaker
Malcolm Gladwell | Speaker | TED.com