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Failure Leads to Tech Advances, Says Rutgers-Camden Historian
CAMDEN Want to succeed? Be ready to fail, says a Rutgers-Camden historian, who notes that big ideas dont come with the alleged light bulb moment, but emerge after countless acts of failure.
According to Philip Scranton, a Board of Governors professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, complex problems, like global warming or cancer, could be solved with time, money, science, and a kind of commitment that tolerates failure. His recent research likens contemporary challenges to the efforts of World War II Allies to produce a jet engine without actually knowing how.
Significant attention has been given to how the development of the jet engine gave the Allies the upper hand in the Cold War. The Rutgers-Camden scholar offers the first comprehensive look into how they actually got the jet engines to work.
After World War II, the U.S., France, and Great Britain were facing a common technical uncertainty and each country approached it differently.
What do you do when you dont know how to do it yet? Three different nations were trying to solve the same problem of creating the jet engine, states Scranton.
The Nazis first developed the jet engine, but because of the poor quality of metals used, the engines burned out within 24 hours of flying time. Intent on becoming a great power after the Nazis destroyed much of its machinery, France employed German engineers after World War II to produce a jet engine, just like the Americans hired the Nazi rocket design team under Wehrner von Braun. About eight years later, after lots of trial and error, the French were in possession of a reliable model.
During wartime, Great Britain was actually the first of the Allies to develop the jet engine. Still suffering a tremendous economic impact from the war, Britain had little capital to invest in engine development, but eventually sold several successful versions to the United States. The inexperienced but wealthy U.S. didnt completely understand how jet propulsion worked. In the Korean War era, after scores of failed prototypes, the U.S. spent $2.5 billion on one new American-designed engine - more than what was spent on the atomic bomb. This was the jet that propelled the famous B-52 bombers and in time, early commercial jet planes.
The Americans lack of experience was overcome by money, says Scranton. But they got good fast.
The Rutgers-Camden historian has been researching the international development of jet engines for the past five years. This past spring, he spent two months working in French military and technical archives. Scranton kept his French language skills intact by reading French mystery novels for the past two decades. Next month he will present a seminar titled French Jet Propulsion Development: Technical Challenges and Transnational Developments, 1945-1960 to the French Governments Ministry of Finance and Industry in Paris. In 2003-04, Scranton served as a senior fellow at the Smithsonian Institutions National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He also spent time studying military archives in Great Britain.
Scrantons interest in the Cold War era has to do with how the problem of innovation was addressed and overcome.
They didnt know what they were doing; they were out on a limb, he says. But they were willing to fail until they got something that worked.
The author of nine books and numerous scholarly articles, Scranton is a noted expert on the history of technology and manufacturing, and has presented at conferences around the world. His latest book is titled Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925.