FHI Centenary Group
Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Centennial Project
FHI Centenary Group
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British WWI Submarine Research, or why Rutherford did not invent the sonar?

Dr. Shaul Katzir (Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte & Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft)

Regarding as strategically crucial, yet technologically demanding, submarine detection became a top priority of World War I research. Ultrasonic detection method originated in Paul Langevin’s invention of Sonar, a product of the French research on the topic. Ernest Rutherford pursued parallel research and even applied piezoelectricity, the phenomenon behind the sonar. Yet, contrary to common claims, his work did not lead to the revolutionary technology. A lack of extensive knowledge of and practice with piezoelectricity discouraged Rutherford from manipulating the crystals, and from contriving the novel ultrasonic design required. The case illustrates that such thorough familiarity with scientific phenomena is sometimes crucial in arriving at a technological breakthrough. Moreover, Rutherford’s main efforts were on other (passive) means of detection, which will be discussed in the context of the British mobilization to war research and its organization. Apparently, for strategic reasons the Germans were more interested in submarine communication than detection, and did not dedicate a similar effort to the latter aim.

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