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Capsules Reveal Once Highly Classified Pieces of WWII Air Campaign

Two shipping barrels opened by the Commemorative Air Force contain one of the more intriguing technologies of the second world war

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Recently museum curators found some historic treasure when they opened two metal drums that had been sealed for decades, Matt Novak writes for Gizmodo. 

The de facto time capsules were first discovered in 1953 by children looking for objects to make a raft out of. They emptied out a few to build their boat, and then the father of some of the children, Dale Burand, collected two others, bringing them into his barn where he built a workbench out of them. Over the decades, Burand never opened the drums. But they finally saw the light of day when Burand donated the barrels to the Texas-based Commemorative Air Force, an organization that restores, displays and flies historical military aircraft primarily from the World War II era. 

During a small ceremony at Dallas' executive airport, the organization opened them last week, Ken Molestina reports for CBS News DFW

“We know that this is the type of container that contained aircraft parts so we knew that we were going to pull something interesting out of these containers,” CAF Curator Keegan Chetwynd tells Molestina.

What curators found inside were two Norden bombsights, once a highly classified piece of technology that the U.S. believed would give their bombers pinpoint accuracy against the Germans and Japanese.

“The response when we opened them was really interesting,” Chetwynd tells Novak. “We had a lot of folks tuned in on Facebook Live, and there was quite a bit of excitement around the containers. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but was ecstatic when I saw that they were bombsights new in their boxes.”

The Norden bombsight is one the most intriguing technological developments from World War II. In a 2011 TED Talk, author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the sight, which is essentially an early example of an analogue computer run by gears, ball bearings, levers and pulleys.

One of the challenges of early aerial warfare was the fact that dropping bombs from great heights is very inaccurate and difficult to calculate. But Swiss émigré engineer Carl Norden thought it was a challenge he could overcome. So he designed the complex bombsight, which was mounted in the clear plexiglass capsule at the front of American bomber aircraft.

Inputting the plane’s altitude, speed, wind speed and other data, boosters claimed the sight could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet, and under perfect conditions, it probably could.

The U.S. government spent $1.5 billion developing the sight—for comparision, the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb cost $2 billion—eventually buying 90,000 of them at $14,000 a pop. They were so secretive about the design that crews were instructed to never speak about the sight if captured, and the Nordens themselves were built embedded with incendiary devices so they would be destroyed in the event of a plane crash. When installing or removing them from planes, Gladwell says, the sites were accompanied by armed guards handcuffed to the Norden.

But in practice, the aerial computers didn’t work as planned. Bombers often flew in heavy cloud cover. Tactical changes meant planes flew at altitudes higher and faster than the conditions the sights were designed for. And many aerial raids took place at night, a fatal flaw for the Norden since a bombardier needed to see his target to use the machine properly.

“The Norden had only a 20-power telescope, so you couldn't even see a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet, much less hit it. You could make out a factory, but that was about it," writes Norden historian Don Sherman. “It was also very easy to defeat the Norden when it was used at high altitudes. Smoke screens worked just fine, ground fog was a barrier and the simple fact was that the year of the most disastrous B-17 raids, 1943, saw an unusual amount of bad weather over Europe.”

In fact, Gladwell says that after 22 raids on a 757-acre chemical plant in Leuna, Germany, the Allies dropped 85,000 bombs, most of them under the guidance of the Norden sight. Only ten percent of those bombs ended up within the perimeter of the complex.

And, as it turns out, all the secrecy wasn’t necessary; a German spy in Norden’s workshop, Hermann Lang, had given the Nazi’s the plans for the site in 1938.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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