Counting 75 Years Of Aberdeen Pride


November 29, 1992|By MIKE BURNS

As Aberdeen Proving Ground observes its diamond anniversary this year, the brilliant facets of its military history have been well polished for public display.

And none is prouder of the base's accomplishments than Leonard C. Weston, who retired last year after 24 years as historian for APG -- the proving ground side, not the adjoining Edgewood chemical research land that was administratively absorbed in 1971, he emphasizes.

Carved from some of Harford's richest agricultural land and prime hunting marshes, APG proved to be a reliable, growing source of income for the county. And since the first test shell was fired just after New Year's Day in 1918, the post has repeatedly proved its worth to the military, Mr. Weston said.

Perhaps its most fruitful period was just before and during World War II, when it was credited with developing the Jeep, the M-1 rifle, the electronic computer and the bazooka tank-killer.

The birth of the bazooka was an extraordinary stroke, the only major weapon actually born at Aberdeen Proving Ground, according to Mr. Weston. But, he says, it brought no rewards to its inventor.

Leslie Skinner, a captain in the ballistics research laboratory working on rifle-grenades, got the idea just as World War II was beginning. Without authorized funds or official approval, he conceived and developed the bazooka.

When the proving grounds held the Armed Forces Day display of weaponry for visiting dignitaries in 1942, Captain Skinner fired a dummy round from his prototype bazooka at one of the parading tanks.

That aroused official interest in the bazooka (named for a unique long-tubed musical instrument played by the comedian Bob Burns), and the weapon was quickly developed for use against German panzers in North Africa.

But poor Skinner was summarily banished to Pasadena, Calif., for his impertinence, and was kept from his passion, working with rockets.

"Skinner was not the only one who did not get his deserved reward for the work he did here," observed Mr. Weston.

That was also the fate of the creators of the world's first working electronic computer, initially designed to crank out bombing tables for artillery rounds tested at APG.

These tables contain lengthy complicated formulae of a hundred variables needed to fire a round on target. Computed by hand, the tables for all sorts of weather, charges and conditions take an enormous time to compile.

A pair of University of Pennsylvania engineers came up with the idea of a gigantic electro-mechanical device that they claimed could do the job much more rapidly. But the president's National Defense Research Committee rejected the idea because it would take too long to construct.

The engineers then approached Col. Leslie Earl Simon, the innovative director of APG's ballistic research lab, who gave them a quiet go-ahead, Mr. Weston said.

John W. Mauchly and John Presper Eckert proceeded to build the ENIAC -- a 30-ton monster of switches and dials that filled a room -- which finally became operational just as the war ended.

When the two men tried to sell the military on building more units for various computations, they were again turned down. Then they tried and failed with IBM.

Undaunted, they developed the vacuum-tube computer Univac and launched a financially shaky company with the help of Sperry Rand Corp.

"Today's computer has its origins right there with ENIAC," Mr. Weston said. "The main difference was that it [ENIAC] had no central stored memory, which is essential to modern computers."

Both Eckert and Mauchly made some money from their computer pioneering, "but they lost the chance to become wealthy because the court ruled that ENIAC had been in the public domain for more than one year," which legally erased their patent on the device, Mr. Weston explained. (The court also ruled that an Iowa State physicist had developed an earlier model of electronic digital computer, though it had never been used for large-scale computing.)

Colonel Simon also missed the financial rewards, but a research building at Aberdeen bears his name.

"His work on statistical quality control did more for the war effort, I believe, than any other single man," Mr. Weston declared.

To build up wartime forces rapidly, the military began buying items by the thousands that it had only purchased by the dozen in two decades of peacetime. The Army could not test each unit as it used to do.

Simon ingeniously adapted the idea of statistically choosing samples of equipment for testing to ensure quality control. It was a concept pioneered at Bell Laboratories but rejected by most of American industry as unworkable.

"Simon was in many ways the true predecessor of W. Edwards Deming," the management guru who revolutionized Japanese industry when it was rebuilt after the war and generated a new school of management theory, Mr. Weston said.

After World War II, the proving ground concentrated almost exclusively on testing new military ordnance rather than on devising or extensively developing new equipment. That specialization, plus tighter rules on funding and authority, crimped the opportunities for instinctive World War II-type innovation, Mr. Weston explained.

"I wonder if these remarkable things would ever have been developed today, or if those men would have dared to try."

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