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No. 148:

Today, we try to aim a gun from a rocking platform. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In the war of 1812, warships fired banks of guns broadside at a nearby enemy. 75 years later, they carried long-range guns that fired from turrets. Aiming broadside from rolling ships had been hard enough. But firing at a target a mile away was a whole different cup of tea. Elting Morison writes about a test in 1899. Five American ships took turns firing at a ship's hulk a mile away. 25 minutes later they'd scored only two hits.

By this time ship's guns had telescopic sights and mechanisms that let gunners move them fairly quickly. The standard drill was to set corrections for the range, aim the gun roughly, and then wait until the ship's roll put the target in the sights.

In 1898 an English admiral, Percy Scott, watched his men at target practice. All but one was doing miserably. That one gunner had evolved his own aiming tactic. He kept his eye on the sight, and he moved the gun continually, until he could feel the synchronization between his aim and the motion of the ship. What he was doing was subtle, yet it took advantage of skills that most people already had. It coupled the man and the machine.

Scott adopted this technique and quickly set remarkable records in marksmanship. In 1900 an American Naval officer, William Sims, met Scott in the Far East and learned all about his new technique. By 1905, the continuous-aim firing method had become standard U.S. Navy practice, but not before Sims had learned a grim lesson about innovation in organizations.

Sims's attempts to interest the U.S. Navy in continuous aiming met a brick wall. He was told that English equipment was no better than ours, so if our men couldn't hit the target, it was because our officers didn't know how to train them. And they told Sims flatly that continuous-aim firing wasn't possible. Sims finally went straight to Teddy Roosevelt, who decided to give him a try. He abruptly made Sims the Chief Inspector of Target Practice. And by 1905 a single gunner did more in a one-minute test than the five ships did previously in 25 minutes.

What that unknown English sailor did was to bypass method and go straight to the task. He didn't think about mastering standard technique, but about how to do the job. Scott recognized the importance of what he'd done. And Sims championed the idea.

Today, we ask ourselves how to shorten these three steps toward putting a good idea into play. How do we escape the mental strait-jackets that keep us from seeing new possibilities? How do we give our organizations the capacity to recognize a good idea? And how do we show people what new ideas can do for them? Not easy tasks -- not one is an easy task.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Much of this story was obtained from an unpublished manuscript provided by Norman E. Duncan of Houston. However, much of the story has been published: Robertson, R. G., Failure of the Heavy Gun at Sea: 1898-1922, Technology and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 3, July, 1987, pp. 539-557.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1607.


Drawing by Maria Zsygmond-Baca, courtesy of Peter Gordon