On Rockets, Boiling Whale Heads, and H-bombs


Today’s nerdy must-read: Neal Stephenson on the development of rockets. In the article, Stephenson talks about the surprising confluence of Hitler’s obsession with superweapons, the development of nuclear weapons, and the ensuing Cold War that married the technologies of rockets and bombs — and what this series of historical coincidences teaches us about technological “path dependency” and “lock-in.” In a particularly telling passage, Stephenson writes: “…consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.”

This article is primarily about rockets, but its larger lessons are about technological advancement in general, and how we as a society tend to lock ourselves into one path and stay on it. Here’s a snippet:

There is no way, of course, to guess how rockets might have developed, or failed to, were it not for the fact that, during the 1940s, the world’s most technically sophisticated nation was under the absolute control of a crazy dictator who decreed that vast physical and intellectual resources should be hurled into the project of creating rockets of hitherto unimagined size. These rockets, which were known as V-2s, were worse than useless from a military standpoint, in the sense that the same resources would have produced a much greater effect had they been devoted instead to the production of U-boats or Messerschmitts. Accordingly, the victorious nations showed only modest interest in their development immediately following the war. It is reasonable to suppose that little more would have been done with them, had it not been for another event, happening at the same time, even more bizarre and incredible than the seizure of absolute control over a modern nation-state by a genocidal madman. I refer, of course, to the sudden and completely unexpected development of nuclear weapons, undertaken over the course of a very few years by a top-secret crash program atop a mesa in New Mexico.

Read the rest for a wonderfully lucid retelling of well-known history, from a technological perspective. See also some previous coverage of Stephenson: What’s Neal Stephenson Building Down There?; Neal Stephenson Calls “Bulshytt”; How One Man Solved a “Baroque” Mystery; and The Best Essay Ever – On Cable Laying??

(Photo by Alan Vernon, used under Creative Commons license.)