Invention That Changed the World is the great and largely
untold story of the colorful band of brilliant scientists who
created the microwave radar systems that not only helped win World
War II but set off a veritable explosion of scientific achievements
and technological advances that have transformed our daily lives.
begins in September 1940 with the arrival in Washington of a team of
British scientists bearing England's most closely guarded
technological secrets, among them the cavity magnetron, a
revolutionary new source of microwave energy that was to pave the
way for radar systems small enough to fit on planes and ships. The
magnetron's arrival triggered the most dramatic mobilization of
science in history as America's top scientists enlisted in the
"war within the war" to convert the British invention into
a potent military weapon. Developed in a top-secret rush at the
Radiation Lab on the campus of MIT, microwave radars eventually
helped destroy Japanese warships in the Pacific, brought down Nazi
buzz bombs over England, and enabled Allied bombers to
"see" through cloud cover over Germany and Japan.
atomic bomb ended World War II, in many ways radar won it. Capturing
all the drama and excitement of the race to develop radar, The
Invention That Changed the World then follows the postwar
careers of the radar scientists as they applied the knowledge gained
from their wartime work in many different fields. The Rad Lab was an
incubator for science and technology on a scale perhaps
unprecedented in history. Among their many achievements, radar
veterans were instrumental in creating the field of radio astronomy
and discovering nuclear magnetic resonance, the transistor, and the
maser, breakthroughs that led to the Nobel Prizes. In the continuing
push to develop early warning systems during the Cold War, other
radar men helped create the basis for digital computer memories. In
very practical ways, radar and its spin-offs continue to evolve.
technological thriller better than the best of Tom Clancy" --
Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making
of the Atomic Bomb
Read the New York Times Book Review:
June 22, 1997
THE INVENTION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and
Launched a Technological Revolution.
By Robert Buderi.
Illustrated. 575 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $30.
In the desperate summer of 1940, when Luftwaffe bombers were
softening up England for a German invasion, the British put almost
all their secret military inventions into a black metal box and
loaded it onto a Canadian ocean liner for a trip to the
still-neutral United States. There, top British officials hoped, the
Americans would manufacture the weapons needed to win the war.
''The Invention That Changed the World,'' by Robert Buderi,
focuses on one of the secrets in that box, a ''resonant cavity
magnetron.'' Invented more or less by accident a few months earlier
and not well understood even by its builders, it produced radio
energy thousands of times stronger than anything else operating at
useful wavelengths. It would eventually form a backbone of the
American and British radar systems.
In the popular imagination, the great technological
breakthrough of World War II -- and its greatest legacy -- is the
atomic bomb. But with an impressive level of detail, Buderi backs up
the old saw of the electronic engineers: that while the atom bomb
ended the war, radar won it.
Buderi, who was formerly the technology editor of Business
Week, concentrates on the scientists in the Radiation Laboratory
(the ''Rad Lab'') at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a
powerhouse of radar engineering purposely misnamed to mislead spies.
The lab did not invent radar (both the British and the Americans
were using versions invented years before), did not work alone in
improving it and did not last through the cold war period. But it
was a nexus, an archway through which crucial ideas and people
The book sets out to be a nonfiction technothriller on the
order of Richard Rhodes's ''Making of the Atomic Bomb.'' It does not
quite match the scope or verve of that work, and sometimes lacks its
clarity too. But Buderi provides an impressive overview of his
A torrent of modern technology runs through this book.
''We invented all kinds of things,'' said Robert R. Everett, one of
the little-known scientists presented here, ''not because we were so
smart, but because we were the first people who had the problem.''
Buderi traces many of those things, describing, for instance, the
ever-accelerating game of measure and countermeasure during World
War II: the development of radar, then the development of radar
jamming and then the use of the jamming itself as a weapon. (Leading
up to D-Day, boats towed big balloons that on radar would look like
warships and troop transports.)
Buderi also lays out the accidental discoveries. In the
early days of 1944, for example, Rad Lab scientists were using radar
to detect a tower at a distance of six miles, but by spring, when
humidity increased, the system did not work anymore. To their
frustration, Buderi writes, scientists had developed a radar that
was tuned to the natural frequency of water vapor, an annoyance that
eventually led to the microwave oven.
The book, part of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's
Technology Series, wisely does not limit itself to science and
technology; it describes as well the sociology of science, so to
speak. Unlike the atomic bomb, radar was not a single invention, and
not something that the military was clamoring to have. Once radar
was developed, there existed the separate but equally important task
of persuading the armed forces to use it effectively.
Finally, Buderi explains that radar has been the root of a
wide range of achievements since the war, producing a veritable
family tree of modern technologies. Because of radar, astronomers
can map the contours of far-off planets, physicians can see images
of internal organs, meteorologists can measure rain falling in
distant places, air travel is hundreds of times safer than travel by
road, long-distance telephone calls are cheaper than postage,
computers have become ubiquitous and ordinary people can cook their
daily dinners in the time between sitcoms, with what used to be
called a ''radar range.''
Radar, Buderi says, was the ''quiet revolution'' of World
War II, and ''its pioneers experienced a largely silent glory
compared to the Oppenheimers, Tellers and other nuclear bomb
makers.'' With this book, their revolution may still be quiet, but
their glory is no longer silent.