Things we got wrong (or did we?) Predicting the Atomic Navy (1939)

Things we got wrong (or did we?)

In 1939, a book was published called “Sea Power and Today’s War” / by Fletcher Pratt

Murray Fletcher Pratt (25 April 1897 – 10 June 1956) was an American writer of science fiction, fantasy and history. He is best known for his works on naval history and on the American Civil War and for fiction written with L. Sprague de Camp. (He was also a contemporary of one of my favorite writers of all time Isaac Asimov).

This particular book was written in the summer of 1939 and was an attempt to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s navies from a technical perspective. The usual chapters on the battleship being the backbone of any world power’s navy was predominant as is to be expected from any book written before Pearl Harbor and the first gruesome years of struggle during the Second World War.

What was most interesting to me was his surprising information about potential new developments. In the latter part of his book, he discusses some possible changes that might be coming which might have an impact on the way future wars would be fought.

In a section called “Atomic Power” he notes:

“The scientists at M.I.YT in Boston, where they have a cyclotron, or atom smasher, claim to be within measurable distance of realizing the dream of tapping reserves of power within the structure of the atom. Under the impulse of war needs, which always supply a spur to invention, they might conceivably make it.

“But even if it comes the effect on naval warfare would be slow and not quite so profound as imagination likes to picture, The greatest result would, of course, be that giving every ship so powered unlimited cruising range. “Atomic power” would not be power itself, but heat – vast reserves of heat from an insignificant quantity of combustible material. A warship using atomic power would still find boilers and engines necessary; it could dispense with nothing but the present fire rooms. There would not even be much saving in weight, for an atom-smashing machine is a cumbersome and weighty device.

Thus no very small ship, such as a torpedo motorboat or submarine could use the new source of power, and it might be limited to battleships, carriers and large cruisers. For ships of these classes, it would take a good deal of time to install. Ships would either have to be taken off duties on which they were urgently needed to make the installation, or it would have to wait to be built into new craft.”

The author goes on to write about a “death ray” that uses short wave radio frequencies that was barely able to kill a mouse no less a man. His prediction was that such a ray would be centuries in the future in the making. Rocket powered planes were also beyond the reach of man’s abilities since the speed of acceleration would kill any human being and the solution to the issues lie long in the future if at all.

The most interesting thing about the book is not what he got wrong but how much he came close to getting right.

It will be interesting to see if I can find other books he wrote that may shed some light into how he knew about Atomic Power long before the Manhattan Project was known.

He was not without controversy, however.

In an article by Henry Wessells in AB Bookman’s Weekly for 30 June 1997 it was noted that “Pratt was a syndicated naval correspondent for the New York Post, and his views stirred up controversy as early as December 9, 1941, in the aftermath of his comments on Pearl Harbor and what it revealed about the state of readiness of the American Navy. He apparently lost this job after speculating incorrectly on the outcome of a naval engagement.”

His banishment must have been short lived however since he went on to write many Navy themed books and articles for a number of publications including:

    • America and Total War . New York : Smith & Durrell, 1941.
    • Ships, Men — and Bases , by Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy with Fletcher Pratt. Philadelphia : Curtis Publishing Company, 1941. An eight page pamphlet : “ This article from the April 5, 1941, issue of The Saturday Evening Post , has been reprinted for the Navy Department in the interests of National Defense. ”
    • What the Citizen Should Know About Modern War . New York : W.W. Norton, 1942.
    • The Navy Has Wings . New York : Harper, 1943.
    • U.S. Army : A Guide to Its Men and Equipment . Racine, Wisconsin : Whitman, 1943.
    • The Navy’s War . New York : Harper, 1944. With a foreword by the Honorable Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy. 14
    • My Life to the Destroyers . New York : Holt : 1944. With Captain L.A. Abercrombie.
    • Short History of the Army & Navy . Washington D.C. : Infantry Journal, 1944 (wraps).
    • Night Work : The Story of Task Force 39 . New York : Holt, 1945.
    • Empire and the Sea . Illustrated by Inga Stephens. New York : Holt, 1946.
    • Fleet Against Japan . New York : Harper, 1946.
    • The Marines’ War : An Account of the Struggle for the Pacific from Both American and Japanese Sources . New York : William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1948.

Pratt was also the inventor of a set of rules for naval war gaming, which he created before the Second World War. This was known as the “Fletcher Pratt Naval War Game” and it involved dozens of tiny wooden ships, built on a scale of one inch to 50 feet. These were spread over the floor of Pratt’s apartment and their maneuvers were calculated via a complex mathematical formula.

The full story can be found here: Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game (1940). A book on the Fletcher Pratt Naval Wargame

The book is probably pretty hard to find. I have a new source of reading that is called the HATHI Trust. HathiTrust began in 2008 as a collaboration of the universities of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance) and the University of California system to establish a repository to archive and share their digitized collections. HathiTrust quickly expanded to include additional partners and to provide those partners with an easy means to archive their digital content.

While you have to be a member to download the material, if you know what to look for (which I am still learning) an entire new world of books opens up for the dedicated researcher.

Mister Mac


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