Sunday, August 6, 2023

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, April 1953, II: Cutlass to the NBS!


It will not have escaped the attention of the alert reader that this is a technological appendix to a postblogging installment which hasn't posted yet. Why? A difficult work schedule and my own stubborn refusal to face the reality that I wasn't reasonably going to finish the installment before Tuesday. 

Fortunately, we have a science-policy-politics story this week which deserves its prominence at every level, the "AD-X2 controversy," and another story, slowly rolling on to its 1958 denouement, the Chance-Vought F7U Cutlass, announced this month in an attack variant that Chance Vought expects to produce after completing its contract for 90 of the air superiority type. 

Our historical memory of the Eisenhower Administration has over the years veered between a roseate nostalgia for the President of interstates and Brown Vs. Board of Education and an increasing disquiet as the damage done by the Guatemalan and Iranian coups keeps on compounding. There is, therefore, something revelatory about descending from our 20,000ft historical view into the trenches to find incoming Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks receiving a well-deserved bayoneting from Drew Pearson and the 400 employees of the National Bureau of Standards who threatened this week to quit if their boss, Allen V. Astin, were fired.

  Wikipedia has most of the details. I am a bit disgruntled with the National Bureau of Standard's willingness to play along with the McGraw-Hill syndicate's taste for cheap advertorial content, but it was, and is, one of the most essential and innocuous of American bureaucracies. If it were not for con artists' relentless activity, it would not have been involved in testing "lead storage battery additive" effectiveness at all, and it was clear enough by 1953 that there was no magical white powder that could be dumped into a wet battery to extend its life, including the AD-X2 powder marketed through the mails by  Jess M. Ritchie, "CEO" of  Pioneers, Incorporated, an Oakland-based firm that apparently had enough pull on the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, and they upon Sinclair Weeks, to have Dr. Astin fired for having the temerity to provide scientific support postal fraud charges against Pioneers. 

Weeks' Wikipedia biography might be a parody of the life of an old New England Republican, spending more words on the family estate in New Hampshire than on his tenure as Commerce Secretary. I cannot begin to speculate on whether his 1958 departure from the Cabinet was his ineptitude catching up with him, or the state reason, his first wife's last illness. (It seems as though the wife was the one with the pull, anyway.) I would personally regard the whole "AD-X2" story as fatally wounding, but as we'll see when the postblog installment goes up, the Administration had bigger problems. Besides, the President's incapacitating "flu" this month looks awfully like early indications of his first  major heart attack on 24 September 1955. Senator Taft, the Administration's unwilling white knight, is definitely sick, and Dulles' first cancer surgery is less than three years away. These are not well men, so I guess it is a mercy for American politics that Joe McCarthy is self-medicating his own issues. 

By LanceBarber (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0,
Which brings me to something else that is sick. It's not the F7U; I don't want to use all my good material in advance, and Chance-Vought has years to go to a final and well-deserved disgrace over this fiasco. It is, rather, one of the reasons for the F7U's failure, the prior failure of the Westinghouse J46, the final stage in the company's tortured development of a pioneering (working) American axial turbojet, the J30/J34/J46. There are no juicy quotes from Westinghouse about how it is impossible to build a British design with an American work force, as there is from Curtiss-Wright over the J56, and of course there wouldn't be given that the J46 is an all-American design. There was no single cause for the failure of the J46, apart from the electronic control system for its afterburner never being reliable. Westinghouse was simply never able to muster the engineering resources needed to work out the design's bugs. Located in Kansas City, Missouri, because of course it was, thank you, Mr. President, the Westinghouse Aviation Gas Turbine Division might have had trouble hiring engineers in the area, but its basic problem was surely underfunding. 

Government mismanagement of science and technology policy: that's my through line here, and the view from the weeds, before we get back to 20,000ft views of "who won the week" with the political press. A rogue political appointee thinking that he can get away with firing the head of the fucking National Bureau of Standards over some Oakland con artist's magic battery juice is surely a sign of rot at the top. But is it more than that? I think it is. 


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