Inventing the Military-industrial Complex

Torpedo: Inventing the Military-industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain
Katherine C. Epstein     Harvard University Press   328pp   £30 

The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms
Barry Parker    Prometheus Books   340pp   £22.99

Did physics make the torpedo possible? Barry Parker’s book, The Physics of War, primarily an explanation of the principles of physics behind how different weapons work, claims that it did. Yet Katherine Epstein’s book, Torpedo, a detailed, empirical history of the torpedo in Britain and the United States before the First World War, features no physicists. Instead, Epstein introduces the reader to an array of engineers and non-technical staff, whose decisions were much more than narrow technical judgments. In Parker’s book, even the history of warfare summary-for-undergraduates that alternates with the physics explanations mostly does not support the book’s assertion that physics led to new weapons. Throughout history, scientific understanding often followed deployment and did not guide the development of new weapons. 

Parker’s book (necessarily brief, as he covers all of human history) is a peculiar, American-centric one. He seems indifferent to most existing history on the relationship between science and weapons. Thus, his narrative makes statements that are curious or simply wrong: for example, he calls the Second World War ‘The Great War’. He omits relevant facts: predictably describing Isaac Newton as a heroic physicist and dismissing alchemy as mysticism rather than science, he never tells the reader that Newton – as is well known – was an active alchemist. Even the book’s fundamental premise that physics (the modern discipline) can be traced through history has long since been disproved by historians of science.

The very different approach of these two books is well illustrated by comparing Parker’s explanation of torpedoes with Epstein’s analysis. Parker tells the reader that ‘[a] modern torpedo is a self-propelled projectile’. Epstein explains that American torpedoes were powered by turbine engines whereas British torpedoes used piston engines. She argues that this was due to Britain’s military and financial strength, which gave it superior research and development facilities and thus the ability to pursue incremental improvements to its engines, whereas the weaker and poorer American navy relied on big, risky technical leaps. Thus Epstein shows how technical details help elucidate history; her approach and results align well with recent research on other weapons.

Epstein presents a nuanced understanding of weapons development and acquisition. She argues that the history of the torpedo shows that the British and American navies were not inherently conservative, but rather too enthusiastic for new weapons, as their eagerness exceeded their technical know-ledge. Whereas Parker fails to suggest that technical decisions have wider consequences. He appears puzzled by the fact that, when Robert Whitehead, inventor of the torpedo, sold the rights to his weapon in 1866, ‘the US Navy was not interested in it’. Epstein not only shows that, in fact, the American navy was interested in Whitehead’s torpedo in 1866 but provides important subtlety by highlighting many crucial influences on development, including resources, naval tactics, secrecy and intellectual property. She explains that the American navy – hardly uninterested in the torpedo – decided in 1866 to develop a domestic torpedo rather than buy its weapons abroad. Ultimately, in 1890-1, it did order Whitehead torpedoes, but they were manufactured under license by an American company. 

Developing torpedoes led to close collaboration between private companies and the navies in Britain and the United States. Epstein argues that the first military-industrial complexes thus emerged before the First World War rather than after the Second, as is commonly argued. The business of war, as Epstein’s account makes clear, continued in peacetime. Parker, implicitly denying this overlap, somewhat bizarrely asserts that because a German ship evaded Britain’s navy at Gibraltar in 1914, the Royal Navy was ‘obviously not well prepared for war’, because they ‘hadn’t fought a battle in a hundred years’. It seems the laws of physics do not explain the nuances of history.

Hermione Giffard is a historian of technology, whose PhD thesis was on the history of the jet engine.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email