Above: women testing lots of cordite explosive for purity at a factory in Scotland. Not only did the war effort bring millions of women into the workplace, it created unprecedented opportunities for women in scientific and technical fields which had heretofore been closed to them.
One day after The Times broke the story of Britain’s munitions crisis, Admiral Lord John Fisher resigned in protest of Winston Churchill’s handling of the Gallipoli operation, precipitating a cabinet shakeup which removed Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and replaced him with Conservative Arthur Balfour. Anxious to keep the career naval officer in some sort of useful role, today the Balfour Admiralty appoints him to chair a new Board of Invention and Research (BIR). It is the latest example of the universal trend towards nationalization of scientific research and technological development for the needs of wartime — a “struggle of invention,” in the words of science fiction writer H.G. Wells.
Explaining the purpose of the new office to Admiral Jellicoe, the hidebound commander of Britain’s Grand Fleet, Balfour expresses hope that routinized testing of new designs will allow the weapons and equipment approved by the BIR to be mass-produced quickly without burdening the regular military command structure.
I feel that we ought not to rely simply upon repeating accepted models, but that both as regards anti-submarine devices and aircraft we ought to originate as well as copy. I have therefore got the Government to consent to the appointment of a small Inventions Commission under the First Lord of the Admiralty, but otherwise separate from the Department, housed elsewhere, and with no executive authority. It will in the main be largely composed of men of science, and I have asked Lord Fisher to be Chairman. I hope for some really good results. Even if nothing better happens, the Department (of War) will by this arrangement be relieved of the labour and responsibility of forming a judgement on the countless inventions which daily pour into it.
Indeed, tens of thousands of suggestions are flowing into government offices all the time, requiring educated consideration to screen out the bad ideas and test the best ideas. But human beings are contentious creatures, and when it is terminated at the conclusion of the war in Europe to be replaced by a permanent Admiralty Department of Scientific Experiment and Research, the BIR will have earned the rueful nickname of ‘the board of intrigue and revenge,’ having already begun to dissolve in September of 1917. Fisher is hardly a noncontroversial figure within the Navy, while military officers and civilian scientists find it difficult to overcome mutual suspicions and clashes of culture, and the BIR does not receive as much support or resources as its best advocates desire. The Great War is putting science in the service of the state like never before, but that doesn’t mean it is a smooth transition.
Convening for the first time on July 19th, the BIR is mainly concerned with naval warfare inventions, especially air power and antisubmarine weapons. One of the committees set up within the BIR is the Antisubmarine Detection Investigation Committee, or ASDIC. While some of the projects explored by ASDIC seem ridiculous to us now — training seagulls to poop on periscope lenses, arming cormorants with bombs, or teaching sea lions to dive on submarines with depth charges — the board’s efforts will result in the invention of sonar and the hydrophone. Other subcommittees deal with aeronautics, air defense, aerial photography, submarine and surface ship construction, all sorts of military ordnance, and chemical weapons, often with unexpected implications reaching far beyond the battlefield.
Sir William Crookes, President of the Royal Society, led his organization to offer its services to the government shortly after the war began. Belatedly taking up this offer to put its best minds to work, the government puts Crookes on the Scientific Panel of the BIR alongside Sir Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, and Sir Oliver Lodge, a key figure in the development of radio technology. Joseph John Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, sits on the BIR’s Central Committee with Lord Fisher, chemist Sir George Beilby, and engineer Sir Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine.
Meanwhile, this month Lloyd George sets up a parallel Munitions Inventions Department, and the Privy Council creates their own committee for science and technology research. These overlapping efforts will tend to detract from one another at times, but together they reflect an emerging consensus in Britain that the nation has fallen behind in a scientific arms race. When the British Science Guild holds their annual meeting this month, chemist William Ramsey is openly critical of the government’s slow acceptance of the situation, excoriates newspapers for giving air to cranks, and blames the academic preference for classical studies over the natural sciences for the situation. In January of 1916, evolutionary biologist Ray Lankester — a former professor to Wells — will coin the phrase ‘neglect of science’ to call for a sea-change in public attitudes, warning that “the future prosperity, and even the continued existence, of the British Empire is absolutely dependent” on an altered course.
By necessity, the Great War is turning into a huge scientific leap forward across a broad spectrum of human knowledge: the infant study of meteorology is growing by leaps and bounds. Medical science is making rapid progress against diseases and wound infections. Mechanical engineers are inventing the tank. Chemistry breakthroughs such as Chaim Weizmann’s process for creating acetone, a key ingredient of high explosives, will be so common during this conflict that historians of science will one day refer to it as ‘the war of chemists.’ We have never been the same since.