Birth control pills? The automobile? Antibiotics? Arguably. But in this case it’s radar, and Robert Buderi does a grand job of explaining why in the 500-plus pages of his sometimes technical, occasionally confusing, but always compelling 1996 classic, which I recently reread for the third time.
Perhaps it’s most compelling if you use your microwave (whose magnetron heart is a principal radar component) for more than defrosting bread or reheating coffee. Not to mention having more than a passing interest in astronomy, the battlewagon Texas (one of the first warships to, in 1939, get a working radar) and know some meteorologists who rely on their Dopplers for play-by-play forecasting of severe thunderstorms.
Must be other reasons, too, which would account for why the thirteen-year-old book still has respectable sales, even if only sixteen people have taken the time to review it at Amazon. Could be because this is one of the few accessible books to explore this world-changing technology and the people behind it. Which could be because much of it still is a military secret. The aluminum “chaff,” for instance, first used in 1945 to confuse enemy radar still is very much in use and hardly changed in sixty-five years.
Buderi, a former Business Week technology editor, does drop the ball now and then, and not just because of his understandable inability to penetrate all of the technology’s secrecy before, during and since World War II. Nazi Germany, as he points out, failed to match the radars of the Allies. But not because the Germans didn’t have the earliest lead of all. In 1904, in fact, long before any other country was taking RAdio Detection And Ranging seriously. (Unfortunately Germany’s military and commerce didn’t either).
Buderi dismisses Christian Huelsmeyer’s Telemobiloscope as merely preliminary. But the Duesseldorf engineer’s invention to prevent ships from colliding had all the ingredients except the cathode ray tube, which hadn’t been developed yet, and the radar name which awaiting coining. Nevertheless, Buderi’s book is a winner. There’s simply nothing else like it. But, good as it is, it suffers from its own focus on the Rad Lab at MIT, ignoring or slighting developments elsewhere. Still, it’s a murky subject and Buderi’s book is illuminating, if incomplete.