Malcolm Gladwell

The strange tale of the Norden bombsight

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Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here. I last did a TED Talk I think about seven years ago or so. I talked about spaghetti sauce. And so many people, I guess, watch those videos. People have been coming up to me ever since to ask me questions about spaghetti sauce, which is a wonderful thing in the short term — (Laughter) but it's proven to be less than ideal over seven years. And so I though I would come and try and put spaghetti sauce behind me.




The theme of this morning's session is Things We Make. And so I thought I would tell a story about someone who made one of the most precious objects of his era. And the man's name is Carl Norden. Carl Norden was born in 1880. And he was Swiss. And of course, the Swiss can be divided into two general categories: those who make small, exquisite, expensive objects and those who handle the money of those who buy small, exquisite, expensive objects. And Carl Norden is very firmly in the former camp. He's an engineer. He goes to the Federal Polytech in Zurich. In fact, one of his classmates is a young man named Lenin who would go on to break small, expensive, exquisite objects.


And he's a Swiss engineer, Carl. And I mean that in its fullest sense of the word. He wears three-piece suits; and he has a very, very small, important mustache; and he is domineering and narcissistic and driven and has an extraordinary ego; and he works 16-hour days; and he has very strong feelings about alternating current; and he feels like a suntan is a sign of moral weakness; and he drinks lots of coffee; and he does his best work sitting in his mother's kitchen in Zurich for hours in complete silence with nothing but a slide rule.


In any case, Carl Norden emigrates to the United States just before the First World War and sets up shop on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan. And he becomes obsessed with the question of how to drop bombs from an airplane. Now if you think about it, in the age before GPS and radar, that was obviously a really difficult problem. It's a complicated physics problem. You've got a plane that's thousands of feet up in the air, going at hundreds of miles an hour, and you're trying to drop an object, a bomb, towards some stationary target in the face of all kinds of winds and cloud cover and all kinds of other impediments. And all sorts of people, moving up to the First World War and between the wars, tried to solve this problem, and nearly everybody came up short. The bombsights that were available were incredibly crude.


But Carl Norden is really the one who cracks the code. And he comes up with this incredibly complicated device. It weighs about 50 lbs. It's called the Norden Mark 15 bombsight. And it has all kinds of levers and ball-bearings and gadgets and gauges. And he makes this complicated thing. And what he allows people to do is he makes the bombardier take this particular object, visually sight the target, because they're in the Plexiglas cone of the bomber, and then they plug in the altitude of the plane, the speed of the plane, the speed of the wind and the coordinates of the target. And the bombsight will tell him when to drop the bomb. And as Norden famously says, "Before that bombsight came along, bombs would routinely miss their target by a mile or more." But he said, with the Mark 15 Norden bombsight, he could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 20,000 ft.


Now I cannot tell you how incredibly excited the U.S. military was by the news of the Norden bombsight. It was like manna from heaven. Here was an army that had just had experience in the First World War, where millions of men fought each other in the trenches, getting nowhere, making no progress, and here someone had come up with a device that allowed them to fly up in the skies high above enemy territory and destroy whatever they wanted with pinpoint accuracy.


And the U.S. military spends 1.5 billion dollars — billion dollars in 1940 dollars — developing the Norden bombsight. And to put that in perspective, the total cost of the Manhattan project was three billion dollars. Half as much money was spent on this Norden bombsight as was spent on the most famous military-industrial project of the modern era. And there were people, strategists, within the U.S. military who genuinely thought that this single device was going to spell the difference between defeat and victory when it came to the battle against the Nazis and against the Japanese.


And for Norden as well, this device had incredible moral importance, because Norden was a committed Christian. In fact, he would always get upset when people referred to the bombsight as his invention, because in his eyes, only God could invent things. He was simply the instrument of God's will. And what was God's will? Well God's will was that the amount of suffering in any kind of war be reduced to as small an amount as possible.


And what did the Norden bombsight do? Well it allowed you to do that. It allowed you to bomb only those things that you absolutely needed and wanted to bomb. So in the years leading up to the Second World War, the U.S. military buys 90,000 of these Norden bombsights at a cost of $14,000 each — again, in 1940 dollars, that's a lot of money. And they trained 50,000 bombardiers on how to use them — long extensive, months-long training sessions — because these things are essentially analog computers; they're not easy to use. And they make every one of those bombardiers take an oath, to swear that if they're ever captured, they will not divulge a single detail of this particular device to the enemy, because it's imperative the enemy not get their hands on this absolutely essential piece of technology.


And whenever the Norden bombsight is taken onto a plane, it's escorted there by a series of armed guards. And it's carried in a box with a canvas shroud over it. And the box is handcuffed to one of the guards. It's never allowed to be photographed. And there's a little incendiary device inside of it, so that, if the plane ever crashes, it will be destroyed and there's no way the enemy can ever get their hands on it. The Norden bombsight is the Holy Grail.


So what happens during the Second World War? Well, it turns out it's not the Holy Grail. In practice, the Norden bombsight can drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 20,000 ft., but that's under perfect conditions. And of course, in wartime, conditions aren't perfect. First of all, it's really hard to use — really hard to use. And not all of the people who are of those 50,000 men who are bombardiers have the ability to properly program an analog computer. Secondly, it breaks down a lot. It's full of all kinds of gyroscopes and pulleys and gadgets and ball-bearings, and they don't work as well as they ought to in the heat of battle.


Thirdly, when Norden was making his calculations, he assumed that a plane would be flying at a relatively slow speed at low altitudes. Well in a real war, you can't do that; you'll get shot down. So they started flying them at high altitudes at incredibly high speeds. And the Norden bombsight doesn't work as well under those conditions.


But most of all, the Norden bombsight required the bombardier to make visual contact with the target. But of course, what happens in real life? There are clouds, right. It needs cloudless sky to be really accurate. Well how many cloudless skies do you think there were above Central Europe between 1940 and 1945? Not a lot.


And then to give you a sense of just how inaccurate the Norden bombsight was, there was a famous case in 1944 where the Allies bombed a chemical plant in Leuna, Germany. And the chemical plant comprised 757 acres. And over the course of 22 bombing missions, the Allies dropped 85,000 bombs on this 757 acre chemical plant, using the Norden bombsight. Well what percentage of those bombs do you think actually landed inside the 700-acre perimeter of the plant? 10 percent. 10 percent. And of those 10 percent that landed, 16 percent didn't even go off; they were duds. The Leuna chemical plant, after one of the most extensive bombings in the history of the war, was up and running within weeks.


And by the way, all those precautions to keep the Norden bombsight out of the hands of the Nazis? Well it turns out that Carl Norden, as a proper Swiss, was very enamored of German engineers. So in the 1930s, he hired a whole bunch of them, including a man named Hermann Long who, in 1938, gave a complete set of the plans for the Norden bombsight to the Nazis. So they had their own Norden bombsight throughout the entire war — which also, by the way, didn't work very well.




So why do we talk about the Norden bombsight? Well because we live in an age where there are lots and lots of Norden bombsights. We live in a time where there are all kinds of really, really smart people running around, saying that they've invented gadgets that will forever change our world. They've invented websites that will allow people to be free. They've invented some kind of this thing, or this thing, or this thing that will make our world forever better.


If you go into the military, you'll find lots of Carl Nordens as well. If you go to the Pentagon, they will say, "You know what, now we really can put a bomb inside a pickle barrel at 20,000 ft." And you know what, it's true; they actually can do that now. But we need to be very clear about how little that means.


In the Iraq War, at the beginning of the first Iraq War, the U.S. military, the air force, sent two squadrons of F-15E Fighter Eagles to the Iraqi desert equipped with these five million dollar cameras that allowed them to see the entire desert floor. And their mission was to find and to destroy — remember the Scud missile launchers, those surface-to-air missiles that the Iraqis were launching at the Israelis? The mission of the two squadrons was to get rid of all the Scud missile launchers. And so they flew missions day and night, and they dropped thousands of bombs, and they fired thousands of missiles in an attempt to get rid of this particular scourge.


And after the war was over, there was an audit done — as the army always does, the air force always does — and they asked the question: how many Scuds did we actually destroy? You know what the answer was? Zero, not a single one. Now why is that? Is it because their weapons weren't accurate? Oh no, they were brilliantly accurate. They could have destroyed this little thing right here from 25,000 ft. The issue was they didn't know where the Scud launchers were. The problem with bombs and pickle barrels is not getting the bomb inside the pickle barrel, it's knowing how to find the pickle barrel. That's always been the harder problem when it comes to fighting wars.


Or take the battle in Afghanistan. What is the signature weapon of the CIA's war in Northwest Pakistan? It's the drone. What is the drone? Well it is the grandson of the Norden Mark 15 bombsight. It is this weapon of devastating accuracy and precision. And over the course of the last six years in Northwest Pakistan, the CIA has flown hundreds of drone missiles, and it's used those drones to kill 2,000 suspected Pakistani and Taliban militants. Now what is the accuracy of those drones? Well it's extraordinary. We think we're now at 95 percent accuracy when it comes to drone strikes. 95 percent of the people we kill need to be killed, right? That is one of the most extraordinary records in the history of modern warfare.


But do you know what the crucial thing is? In that exact same period that we've been using these drones with devastating accuracy, the number of attacks, of suicide attacks and terrorist attacks, against American forces in Afghanistan has increased tenfold. As we have gotten more and more efficient in killing them, they have become angrier and angrier and more and more motivated to kill us. I have not described to you a success story. I've described to you the opposite of a success story.


And this is the problem with our infatuation with the things we make. We think the things we make can solve our problems, but our problems are much more complex than that. The issue isn't the accuracy of the bombs you have, it's how you use the bombs you have, and more importantly, whether you ought to use bombs at all.


There's a postscript to the Norden story of Carl Norden and his fabulous bombsight. And that is, on August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay flew over Japan and, using a Norden bombsight, dropped a very large thermonuclear device on the city of Hiroshima. And as was typical with the Norden bombsight, the bomb actually missed its target by 800 ft. But of course, it didn't matter. And that's the greatest irony of all when it comes to the Norden bombsight. the air force's 1.5 billion dollar bombsight was used to drop its three billion dollar bomb, which didn't need a bombsight at all.


Meanwhile, back in New York, no one told Carl Norden that his bombsight was used over Hiroshima. He was a committed Christian. He thought he had designed something that would reduce the toll of suffering in war. It would have broken his heart.



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

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.

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.