Seeing in the Dark: Aerial Recon in WWII

The Lemelson Center’s annual symposium took place on Oct. 25 and this year we explored the role technology and invention plays in our surveillance society. You can watch the archived video on UStream. In this post, we look at one invention that allowed for wartime surveillance from the sky.

Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections. It’s a General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp, whose prototype was invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT to take aerial reconnaissance photographs at night. Why do I like it? Well, OK, I’m a photography geek. But the tube is elegant yet cool, and it has a great story.

Edgerton had originally invented an electronic stroboscope to study high-speed machinery in motion. But he soon turned his light (and camera) on a vast range of subjects. Applying his solid engineering training, vivid imagination, and good business sense, Edgerton continually adapted and commercialized the technology he had created. In the 1940s, this work took Doc into the sky.

Major George Goddard of the army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) visited Edgerton at MIT in 1939. Goddard had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917 and was appointed instructor of aerial photographic interpretation at the School of Military Aeronautics the following year. He knew firsthand both the value and limitations of aerial photography using existing technology. So he asked if Edgerton and his colleagues could build a strobe that would be powerful enough to take photographs from a plane, at night, from a height of a mile. “We can do that,” Doc said. “We haven’t got it in the house, but we can do that.” (1) That confidence produced an electronic flash system for night aerial photography that delivered information impossible to obtain in any other way.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system. The flash tube (lower center) fits into the reflector at the left. The camera (center), which looks a lot like an oversized 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, is sitting on top of one of the capacitor banks. The serviceman is holding the control box. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The strobe that Doc originally designed to photograph events from the bleachers of Boston Garden provided a technical foundation for his electronic flash for military night aerial photography. But the components of this new flash system were bigger and more powerful than anything Doc had yet built. The flash tube is a tough monster; its 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral, withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally oversized aerial camera.

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

In April 1941, the first experimental unit–camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector–was mounted in a B-18 and tested over Boston. But the system’s most famous test began on June 5, 1944, when an A-20 equipped with the flash took off for France, ahead of the D-day invasion forces. Doc recorded the results in his laboratory notebook on June 7, 1944: “The A-20 (No 449) went on its first mission on Monday night June 5 arriving at the target on June 6 around 130 am. The target was two road intersections south of Caen. Due to clouds the pictures were taken at 800 ft – 2000 ft. The photos were very good but there was no overlap. Some flack [sic] from ground machine guns was encountered at a town named Coustances. Villedieu-les-Poêles was photographed. I stayed up until 5 am to see the negatives out of the dryer.” (2)

Doc continued to tweak the giant flash system even as it saw use in many more missions during the war. One of my favorite runs, though, took place in August 1944, when Edgerton was testing the flash in England. Stonehenge, standing alone on the Salisbury Plain, proved a perfect subject for his experiments.

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. The adaptation of the flash tube from peacetime photography of things like rodeos in Boston Garden to wartime reconnaissance flights over Europe is a testament to Edgerton’s creative mind. Throughout his life, Doc welcomed each new inquiry. “If you don’t wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to do something,” Edgerton quipped, “why, you’re wasting time.” (3)

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum


(1) “History of the Strobe Light,” Edgerton Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., November 27, 1984. Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 116, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(2) Notebook 15, 30 Jan. 1944 – 16 Feb. 1945, pp. 23-24, Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 53, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(3) WGBH Nova, “Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines.” Original broadcast: January 15, 1985.

This post first appeared in Prototype, May 2010 edition.

Can We Control Surveillance Tech?

On October 25, the Lemelson Center will hold its annual New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium and this year’s theme is ripped from the headlines: inventing the surveillance society. We knew we had a hot potato in this topic when we began planning early in 2013, but we had no idea it would soon explode when Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying at home and abroad. To say that this has raised the stakes for us at the Lemelson Center would be a huge understatement. While there are myriad aspects to the ongoing controversy, our symposium will focus on the technology of surveillance and the related issues of social and ethical responsibility.


If history has taught us anything, it is that technology and invention can often escape our control, however good our intentions. If we wait to address social problems downstream after they arise, it is usually too late. It then becomes mostly a futile game of catch-up. The ideal approach is to try to anticipate such problems from the start of major projects, building in front-end attention to the social and ethical impacts of emergent technologies. I say “ideal,” because there are major obstacles to doing so. Mostly it’s a matter of money, but second-guessing an emerging technology in this way may also be criticized and dismissed as a brake on innovation.

Occasionally, though, such foresight is evident. Consider the government’s Human Genome Project, in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) were major players (the latter because of concern over health issues related to radiation from atomic testing and chemical exposure). Both the DOE and the NIH genome programs set aside fully 3-5% of their annual budgets for risk assessment and for the investigation of Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI). While such efforts may not have fully anticipated, much less solved, future problems, at least they were a move in the right direction.

Human Genome Project logo

Human Genome Project logo (color) Credit: the U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs (

That privacy issues were deeply implicated with the genome project was recognized early on. There was a real danger that personal genetic information could get into the wrong hands or be used inappropriately, with truly scary consequences for individuals, including denial of employment and health insurance. One might reasonably ask why the same care has not been taken with information and communications technologies that have allowed the NSA to do what it does. Why were we taken by surprise by both government and commercial abuse of digital innovations? Perhaps it’s because they emerged over a relatively long period of time and from a disparate set of players, whereas the Human Genome Project(s) had much more the flavor of a crash program like the Manhattan Project, with its reliable funding, central management, and tightly controlled access.

Yet, as with the genome project, government- and particularly military-sponsored R&D played a critical role in the launching of today’s breakthrough digital technologies, and they still do. The Internet owed its birth to the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, which developed ARPANET. With national security as the over-arching motivation and justification, keeping the new technologies in control and out of the wrong hands had to be a major concern. Because of the veil of secrecy, I can’t say if there was actually an attempt to establish regulations with respect to the privacy issues that bedevil us today. Perhaps there was, but clearly the events of September 11 have fundamentally changed the rules of the game.

A major factor in the whole problem of management and control was the privatizing of government R&D, resulting in hybrid organizations combining private and government sectors (see Kevin R. Kosar, “The QuasiGovernment: Hybrid Organizations with Both Government and Private Legal Characteristics,” Congressional Research Service, June 22, 2011.). The pattern was established after the Second World War with the creation of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs)—so-called GO-CO (government owned, contractor operated) organizations. The first of these was the Air Force’s RAND Corporation, established in 1947 in Santa Monica, California. Government atomic weapons labs like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories soon followed suit. Such quasi-government arrangements allowed for much more flexibility in terms of spending, procurement, hiring, personnel adjustments, and more rapid technology transfer from basic research to application.

Entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Part of the Department of Energy, the Lab is run by a contractor.

There were clear advantages to this model, but it has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism over the last decade because of the potential for corruption, lack of accountability and oversight, and loss of government control of research. In particular, the FFRDCs greatly complicated the problem of regulation. More than a decade ago, public policy expert Ann Markusen argued persuasively against privatizing national security. She pointed out that government out-sourcing requires strong management, but “such capacity is undercut by the unpopularity of regulation and unwillingness to spend on it” (“The Case Against Privatizing National Security,” June 2001).

As I write, the question of governmental oversight of the National Security Agency’s data-mining, monitoring, and outright spying is being hotly debated. Perhaps NSA was and is indeed working within its own regime of regulation and accountability. But the cosy relationship today between government agencies like NSA and the companies they outsource to makes it far too easy for classified government innovation and information to flow into the commercial sector, where there is little if any incentive for regulation. The Snowden case was a prime example.


PRISM logo via WikiCommons.

Today, I often hear it argued that no one should have been surprised by the revelations of government spying. After all, social media users, not to mention on-line shoppers, have willingly, with little if any apparent concern for the consequences, already ceded much of their personal privacy to corporations. As my colleague Jeff Brodie noted (with tongue firmly in cheek), “we want our cake, we want the icing, and we want to eat it without gaining weight.” (A penetrating satire on this incredibly self-destructive social behavior is David Egger’s recent novel on the ultimate perils of Big Data, The Circle.)

Invention and innovation, however, can also be powerful forces for democracy and the public good. Recent history has shown that cell phones and social media have made it far more difficult for dictators to control information. Such technology has clearly been crucial to the Arab Spring, for example. But it is also a double-edged sword that can be used by ill-intentioned regimes to undermine democracy in unprecedented ways. With mounting concerns for national security, surveillance technologies are not going away. But is it too late to bring them back under at least some semblance of democratic control?

Keep It Secret. Keep US Safe.

During our Inventing the Surveillance Society symposium on Oct. 25, we will be featuring World War II posters from the Archives Center in an “objects out of storage” program in the Museum’s 1East corridor.

Posters were one of the largest mediums for advertising during World War II.  Advertisers invented new art styles, designs, and propaganda campaigns. One campaign related to promoting privacy.

During the U.S.’s involvement in WWII (1941-1945) posters were a medium produced largely for people on the home front. They provided guidance on ways that people could feel that they were helping the war effort—one of which was maintaining secrecy.

Espionage and sabotage were serious concerns for U.S. citizens during the war. The American film industry contributed to the paranoia by producing numerous films about spies. Also, government censorship meant that credible information was hard to find, and therefore people relied more heavily on rumors as information regardless of their truth.

WWII poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000037.

These factors encouraged the production of government posters stressing the importance of national security and deterring information leaks and sabotage. They made people feel that secrecy and protecting their privacy was a patriotic duty. One series of posters was the “careless talk” campaign. “The beauty of the ‘careless talk’ campaign was that people could feel involved in the war, playing a part and combating the enemy, merely by doing nothing and keeping their mouths shut,” historian O.W. Riegel concluded.

Caricatures and stereotypes were typically used in posters at this time. Often the leader of the country symbolized the country itself—i.e. Hitler came to symbolize Nazi Germany. These caricatures sometimes took a monstrous form.

An unforeseen consequence of these types of posters was that they increased paranoia about spies by making it seem like there was a spy around every corner. It also made people wary of being suspected of espionage.

WWII Poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000046.

In thinking about how this advertising might relate to our contemporary society I have observed that current advertising and propaganda about U.S. citizens being spied on comes from the private sector, rather than the government. But I think that you can ask the same question of WWII posters that you can of contemporary advertising: Is encouraging people’s fear of spying in order to convince them to increase their privacy a good strategy? Do the ends justify the means? Join us for our symposium, Inventing the Suveillance Society, to explore these kinds of questions.

Inventing the Surveillance Society

We are being watched. Anytime we enter a building, place a phone call, swipe a credit card, or visit a website, our actions are observed, recorded, and analyzed by commercial and government entities. Surveillance technologies are omnipresent—a fact underscored by the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet and Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency earlier this year. It’s clear that we live in a “surveillance society” driven by a range of innovations, from closed-circuit TV cameras to sophisticated data mining algorithms. But how did our surveillance society emerge, and what is the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on our everyday lives?


To tackle these questions, the Lemelson Center is presenting Inventing the Surveillance Society, a symposium that explores the role of invention and technology in a modern world where our actions (and transactions) are constantly being monitored. The symposium will bring together scholars, inventors, policymakers, members of the media, and the public to discuss the historical evolution of surveillance technologies, and their contemporary societal implications. The symposium will be held on Friday, October 25 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  All events are free and open to the public and will be available via live webcast.

As I’ve told friends and colleagues about our upcoming symposium, I’ve encountered some mild surprise that a history museum would be convening this kind of conversation. Let me provide a few reasons why the Lemelson Center and the National Museum of American History are the right place for this discussion and describe how our approach will be different than what you typically see on the 24-hour news cycle.

The President said we should do it. As a Smithsonian (i.e. federal) employee, I listened closely when my boss, President Obama, made remarks on the heels of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. In his June 7 news conference, the President suggested that the American public will need to “discuss and debate” the “balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy.” With our symposium, we are providing a free, public forum for exactly this kind of discussion here at the Smithsonian.

Widespread public access. Think tanks and university department host these kinds of programs all the time, but they tend to operate at a somewhat rarified level; unless you’re a scholar or policymaker, it can be tough to get on the invitation list. Here at the museum, admission is free and we welcome all comers. And if you’re not in D.C., then you can tune in via a live webcast. By hosting a very public event, we believe we’re fulfilling our Smithsonian mission—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—in a way that will be accessible to the broadest number of people. We hope you’ll participate in the discussion.

Current events in historical perspective. Over the last several months, questions about surveillance have been debated daily in newspapers and on current affairs news programs. They rightly focus on breaking news—that’s their job. However, the emergence of the surveillance society did not occur overnight. As a museum, we can present the long view on surveillance and hopefully uncover some insights that will illuminate our current era.

Trade catalog for "The Detectifone", 1917

As demonstrated by our museum collections, surveillance technology has a long history. Trade catalog, Carl Anderson Electric Corporation, 1917, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Surveillance is not new. Since ancient times, kings and pharaohs have dispatched spies to gather intelligence on things happening both inside and outside the kingdom. And over the last 150 years or so, those direct, human observations have been augmented by a range of new inventions that have improved the watchers’ ability to capture, store, and analyze their observations. Yet, a symposium dedicated only to the history of surveillance wouldn’t be very relevant, so we plan to explore both the historical emergence of the surveillance society and its contemporary implications. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, so it’s crucial that the museum convene conversations like this to explore and document current topics like surveillance that will be historically significant in 50, 100, or even 200 years.

Focus on invention and technology.  In the news, the conversation about surveillance tends to be framed in terms of legal and ethical issues: how do we balance national security and personal liberty?  However, few pundits stop to consider the technological basis of the surveillance society. As with past symposia that have explored topics likes spaceflight, food, and sustainable architecture, the Lemelson Center’s 2013 program will specifically examine the surveillance society through the lens of invention and technology.

CCTV Trade Catalog, 1989,

Trade catalog, Crest Electronics, Inc., 1989, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

At its heart, modern surveillance is fundamentally driven by technology. For example, the invention of the daguerreotype and the phonograph in the 19th century created new kinds of recorded evidence that were more trustworthy than faulty memories or hearsay.  Similarly, 20th century office technologies like the dossier, the carbon form in triplicate, and the filing cabinet were mundane (but crucial) innovations that enabled government and commercial bureaucracies to gather, store, and retrieve information about us. Today, autonomous cameras record your entrance into a building—or through a red-light intersection. Massive data warehouses store terabytes of information about our credit card transactions and website clickstreams, so that sophisticated data mining algorithms at Amazon and Netflix can suggest the kinds of books and movies it believes we would enjoy. Clearly, the advance of technology has expanded the scope and strategic value of surveillance. Accordingly, the symposium’s emphasis on invention should provide new insights that go beyond the familiar privacy-security debate.

So that’s the advance scoop on Inventing the Surveillance Society, our annual Lemelson Center symposium, coming to the National Museum of American History on Friday, October 25. Check out the program here—we hope you’ll attend or check out the live webcast! In the coming weeks, I’ll say more about our featured speakers and what they’ll be discussing—stay tuned!