16 July 2015

The Unconventional Genius of Carl Norden

Carl L. Norden
After the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, the next biggest top secret defense program in the United States at the time was the development and production of the Norden bombsight. The Norden sights were used in all of the United States Army Air Forces heavy bombers (the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress) primarily and it was a Norden sight that bombardiers used to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the Second World War to a close. Despite its crucial role in strategic bombing campaigns in both the European and Pacific Theatres, the Norden bombsight was a Navy program and every Norden sight used by the US Army Air Force had passed through the hands of Navy inspectors. How this state of affairs came to be is the story of how an unconventional but brilliant Dutchman, Carl Norden, came to be employed by the Navy prior to the start of the Second World War. 

Carl Norden was born on 23 April 1880 in Semarang, Java, in what was the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia), the middle child of five siblings in a household with absent father. From a young age, his mother considered him the most reliable and responsible of his siblings- in a sense, he became the "man of the family". He had wanted to become an artist, but when his older brother decided to pursue an artistic career, Carl decided to pursue a lucrative career in order provide for his mother and his siblings, enrolling in the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland and graduating in 1904 as a mechanical engineer. Although Dutch by birth, Norden's father was a naturalized Dutch citizen from German and Norden's own wife was from Austria. Norden's German ties dovetailed into his natural engineering and mathematical prowess- it was said that Carl Norden viewed everything in life in mechanical terms governed by mathematical formulas, the universe being nothing more than a great mechanical timepiece. After his graduation in 1904, he emigrated to the United States where he had a wealthy uncle who had made his fortune in the cotton business. Norden worked for a series of companies as a mechanical design engineer, but it was painfully obvious that he was difficult to employ as he was very much a prima donna. But there was no question of Norden's brilliant mind and after a series of employers over six years, he finally came to work for Elmer Sperry Sr. and his sons, Elmer and Lawrence at the Sperry Gyroscope Company. Norden's mechanical aptitude fit well into the work the Sperrys were doing for the Navy in developing gyroscopes to improve the accuracy of naval gunnery from moving ships. Norden's work with Sperry was invaluable for the company and Norden made many contacts within the Navy as a result. Norden tolerated Sperry as the work was interesting, but the relationship soured when, after solving the problem of gyroscopic oscillation, Norden got what he thought was an insulting $25/week raise as a reward. Norden quit and became a consulting engineer to the Navy, but it was the start of a feud between Norden and Sperry for years. Norden often dismissively told people Sperry "would patent gravity if he could" and Sperry for years tried to legally dispute many of Norden's later patents. 

In 1913, Norden set up shop near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and continued to work on the ship stabilization project for the Navy much to Sperry's chagrin. The Navy was enamored with Norden's genius and that relationship in large part protected Norden from Sperry's multiple legal challenges. With the progress on the ship stabilization project slow in coming, the Navy astutely put Norden's mind to work on other projects, starting the aerial gyroscopes for the aerial torpedo project as well as designing catapults and arresting gear for aircraft carriers. The arresting gear of the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga were designed by Norden himself on his dining room table!

At the time, the Navy was pursing a bombsight program as it felt that the best way to sink ships from the air was via high altitude level bombing. General Billy Mitchell's ship-bombing tests in the summer of 1921 against captured German warships convinced the Navy that it had to find a way to sink ships at sea. The Navy's Bureau of Ordinance (BuOrd) was responsible for the bombsight program and many different types, including some from Sperry, were tested. Officers with the Aviation Section of BuOrd came to know Carl Norden from his work on the aerial torpedo project as he had been consulted as an outside expert to evaluate Sperry's work (something which truly irritated Sperry to no end). They were impressed with the comments made in the reports and not knowing who Carl Norden was, found a report signed "Norden". A quick check of the Brooklyn telephone book and a few calls got the officers from BuOrd in touch with Norden who agreed to review the Navy's bombsight program. The gyroscopic stabilization work he had done for the ship and aerial torpedo project dovetailed neatly into the bombsight problem as Norden recommended that the bombsights be not only gyroscopically stabilized, but also connected to either an autopilot or pilot director so that during the bomb run, the bombardier was the one "flying" the aircraft. Eventually modifying existing bombsights turned out to be a failure and the BuOrd and Norden decided to start from scratch and create a whole new bombsight that would launch the Norden bombsight into aviation history. 

That's not to say that Norden's genius resulted in success. For most of the 1920s, many of the literally handcrafted Norden sights had dismal performance. But Norden wasn't one to give up and the Navy was an incredibly accommodating employer. Well aware of Norden's personality- they nicknamed him "Old Man Dynamite", they gave him tremendous latitude as long as he kept delivering results in the form of progressive improvements to his bombsight designs. Unlike most engineers, Norden did his own drafting. He didn't have an extensive engineering library, he preferred to work with his slide rule, a set of engineering tables and a few select references. He often stayed at his mother's home in Zurich, Switzerland, to ponder mechanical problems and develop solutions. His drawings and correspondence were then delivered to the US Navy by diplomatic pouch from US embassy in Switzerland. The State Department wasn't keen on this but high level pressure from the US Navy encouraged diplomatic officials to be as accommodating to "Old Man Dynamite" as possible. Sometimes it was his family he sent to Switzerland so he could be alone to solve some problems back in New York. Also unique to the Navy's relationship with Norden was that any patents were held by the Navy and classified as top secret. In this way, not only was Norden shielded from Sperry's legal challenges, but it also meant that the Navy didn't have to follow the prescribed competitive bidding rules to pay Norden for his work. Many of Norden's patents sponsored by the Navy from the 1920s and 1930s weren't even declassified until 1947! In contrast to the US Army Air Corps (forerunner of the US Army Air Forces) who held open competitive bidding in its own bombsight program and trialled bombsights from several different manufacturers, the Navy only did business with Norden and Norden alone. In fact, the Navy was Norden's only client! 

Theodore Barth at a circus held for Norden employees
As work on the Norden sights continued in the 1920s, BuOrd recommended that Norden partner up with an engineer to start moving the bombsight project towards mass production. Knowing Norden well, the Navy partnered him up with a former Army colonel and engineer by the name of Theodore Barth and it was the start of a very close relationship between the two men for many years. Norden's own children regarded Barth as a secondary father figure in their lives, so close was Barth to Norden. It was Barth who was tasked by the Navy to take Norden's designs and put them into production. Compared to Norden, Barth was very personable and possessed quite a bit of business acumen as well- Norden may have been the brains of the operation but it was Barth who made everything work and kept everyone happy. During the Second World War, Barth took it as his job to take care of all of the employees that were building bombsights. He often gave away baseball tickets and even rented out Madison Square Garden for a circus just for Norden's employees. 

From the time Norden was contacted by the Aviation Section of the Bureau of Ordinance to the delivery of the first production bombsight to the fleet, the Norden Mark XI, nine years had elapsed. During those nine years Norden progressively refined the design of what was essentially a clocklike analog computer that was gyroscopically stabilized and linked to the autopilot. The Navy, though, did hedge its bets just a bit- during that time it had contracted with General Electric for a back up bombsight design called "Scheme B" or the Mark XIII. After three years, the Navy found the GE bombsight was woefully inferior to Norden's designs and canceled "Scheme B". 

Norden M-1 bombsight
By the early 1930s, the US Army Air Corps became aware of the Norden program and was keen to get its hands on the bombsights for its own testing. The head of the Army Air Corps, General Henry "Hap" Arnold (who would head the USAAF during the Second World War), was shocked to hear of the working arrangement between the Navy's BuOrd and Carl Norden, from Norden not even being a US citizen to the fact that Norden did a lot of his work abroad in Switzerland and then sent drawings back via diplomatic couriers to New York City for Theodore Barth and Navy officials to review. The Navy wasn't about to change the way it did business with Carl Norden to assuage General Arnold's concerns, though. It basically came down to something along the lines "If you want Norden bombsights for Army bombers, this is the arrangement you have to live with!". As a modest concession, though, the Navy had the FBI provide a security detail for Norden and agents were planted in Norden's production facilities in New York City to root out any foreign spies. At all times, at least two armed agents were with Norden at all times. There is an apocryphal story that when Norden wasn't getting his way with the Navy, he'd insinuate he'd leave the United States and go to work for the British. He would later remark it was empty threat "As no self-respecting Dutchman would ever work for the British!"

By 1928, Norden was at work at a massive improvement to the Mark XI sight called the Mark XV. He delivered the Mark XV prototype to BuOrd in 1930 and it was this sight that pretty much ended the GE alternate bombsight program. The bombsights that came from the Mark XV design were known as the Norden M-series sights and those would become standard on American heavy bombers.  By this point, however, the Navy was drifting away from relying on high altitude level bombing at sea as dive bombing was explored by units in the fleet. But the arrangements between the Navy and Carl Norden remained with his New York City factory essentially being a Navy factory! By 1934, Norden's bombsights became the standard for the Army Air Corps, first being installed on Martin B-10s. It's estimated that approximately $1.5 billion was spent on the development and production of Norden bombsights. 

Carl Norden was passed away in 1965 in his beloved Switzerland. His company lived on as Norden Systems to be acquired by Westinghouse which was in turn acquired by Northrop Grumman. Norden and Barth also set up a second company called Barden to manufacture bombsight components- Barden is still  around today, fabricating ball bearings for a variety of industries including aerospace. Carl Norden was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1994. 

Source: America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 by Stephen L. McFarland. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, pp 45-76. Photos: Norden Systems Division via Stephen L. McFarland's book, Wikipedia

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