Aeroplanes are interesting toys but are of no military value. Ferdinand Foch, French Marshal, soldier and military theorist
So we had some of the brightest minds from around the world developing their fancy machines, mainly used to address commercial applications but none of these made a serious impact. It was only as minds were used with belligerent intent that things started to move forward rapidly.
Arthur Pollen was a writer who specialised in naval matters, that is of the bell-bottom rather than the belly-button variety. He attended a Royal Navy gunnery exercise off Malta in 1900 and was surprised to see that accuracy was pretty poor, even as close as a mile the number of hits achieved was minimal.
Pollen surmised that some form of calculator or computer might be designed to evaluate the relative motion of a ship during the time delay while the shell travelled towards a target. It should therefore be possible to calculate the direction and elevation that gunners should use.
Lord Kelvin, one of the giants of British scientific development, gave his name to the thermodynamic temperature scale that set the value for absolute zero. His less famous brother James Thomson worked in thermodynamics too and shared his interest in low temperatures, working on forecasting the movement of glaciers. Much of James’s work however was based upon the prime energy source of his time which was water; he worked at the science of waterwheels, water pumps, water turbines and fluid dynamics.
He is of interest to us because in 1876 he built upon earlier work on mechanical devices to solve differential equations and developed the first differential analyser. This analysed tidal flows; it used a ball, disk and cylinder and solved the equations by the principles of integration.
Lord Kelvin, then considered to be Britain’s top scientist, proposed to Arthur Pollen that his brother’s differential analyser might be investigated as a potential solution to develop a fire control system for the Royal Navy.
Pollen worked with Thomson within the Linotype Company to develop a plotting device that captured the relative motions, adding a gyroscope to eliminate the movement of the host ship but unfortunately at that time a solution proved elusive.
In 1909 Pollen founded the Argo Company and developed the Argo system which claimed to be the first electrically-powered mechanical analogue computer.
However his work was sidelined by a naval lieutenant, Frederic Dreyer, who worked closely with him as one of Pollen’s naval liaison team. Dreyer went on to produce his own system, the Dreyer Fire Control System, and through his military connections managed to secure most of the market.
While Pollen had sold some Argo systems to the Russian Navy prior to WWI, no other country had placed orders; his relationship with the Royal Navy had all but broken down.
In WWI the British defeat at the naval battle of Jutland was to some degree blamed upon the shortcomings of the Dreyer system. It had obviously delivered a poor performance, but it was not entirely clear if this defeat was more about poor tactical performance than inadequacies of the Dreyer system.
In 1926 what did become clear was Dreyer’s plagiarism; a Royal Commission granted Pollen £30,000 in compensation for the business that he could be shown to have lost; one of the many legal actions that would routinely punctuate the progress of the computer market.
It was the military again that inspired one of the earliest analogue computers when it tackled the issue of accuracy in dropping bombs from aircraft.
This sight was more than a visual device – it used a gyroscope to take over and manage the automatic pilot to ensure a stable bomb run. The sight had a telescope and a series of motors and gyroscopes to retain the sight on a fixed point below. A small analogue computer required manual entries of the altitude, the ground speed and any wind speeds, and from these it calculated the release point. Some of these manual factors were later improved by linking the sight with radar.
A German spy, Herman Lang, worked in the Norden factory and managed to acquire the details of the design in 1938 so Carl Zeiss later produced the Lotfernrohr 7 version that was used by the Luftwaffe.