8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II

Michelle Powell-Smith - January 26, 2017

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The “nose” of a pigeon-guided missile. Smithsonian

The Pigeon Guided Missile

The pigeon-guided missile, part of Project Pigeon or Project Orcon (Organic Control), was the brainchild of psychologist and animal behaviorist B.F. Skinner. While missiles were relatively simple technologically, guidance technology did not exist. The U.S. government gave Skinner a $25,000 grant to attempt to design a pigeon-guided missile. Pigeons were relatively intelligent, trainable, and had excellent vision, making them an ideal choice for the project.

Skinner had already successfully trained pigeons to complete basic tasks, like pressing a lever, for food. He built a mock nosecone with seats for several pigeons, in individual tiny cockpits and electronic screens. The pigeons were taught to peck when they saw the target, in this case, an image of an enemy ship. If the ship moved toward the outer areas of the screens, the pigeons’ pecking at the target on the screens steered the missile, and the target returned to the center of the screen.

Each missile would have one to three pigeon pilots; their pecking at the target would pull cables that steered the missile to its target. Skinner’s pigeon control system worked; he successfully tested it, illustrating the effectiveness of the birds as pilots. For the birds, unfortunately, the pigeon-guided missiles would have been a kamikaze mission.

While the idea and logic was sound, and the use of animals in World War II common, government support for Project Pigeon was limited. Support was withdrawn after the successful trials in 1944, and Project Pigeon did not proceed. It was briefly revitalized from 1948 to 1953, and ended with the introduction of electronic guidance systems. While the pigeon-guided missiles Skinner’s training of the pigeons was effective enough that his pigeons could still peck their targets several years later.

Skinner went on to continue his studies and work with animals, as well as creating a range of inventions. Some of those inventions remain influential in educational technology today, including computer software.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The Nazi Wind Cannon. Nazi UFO Mythos

The Wind Cannon and Vortex Gun

The wind cannon, or WindKanone, and the vortex gun were German anti-aircraft projects, designed to use the power of wind to damage enemy aircraft in flight. The wind cannon was designed and built by a firm outside of Stuttgart, and the vortex gun was the work of researcher and scientist Mario Zippermayr. While the two both relied upon wind and turbulence to damage aircraft on bombing raids over German cities, they were quite different in both construction and operation.

The wind cannon consisted of a 3-foot in diameter cast iron tube, some 35-feet in length. This was loaded with a shell packed with hydrogen and ammonia to create a burst of compressed air. When shot at an aircraft, the intent was that the explosive burst of wind or air would damage the plane in flight. While the weapon did successfully shoot shells of compressed air, the planes, even when flying quite low, withstood it without difficulty. In fact, the wind cannon appeared to have no effect at all on planes. The wind cannon was later tested on enemy troops; however, this was also ineffective. The 35-foot metal structure was easy to spot, making the people manning it an easy target on the field.

The vortex gun was a large-bore mortar weapon buried into the ground. It was packed with a combination of coal dust and a slow-burning explosive. The intent was for the shell to explode, creating a wind vortex or fake tornado. In theory, this tornado would bring down any plane caught in it. In tests, the vortex gun performed well in perfect conditions, but war rarely provides perfect conditions.

Zippermayr worked on a number of other projects relying on coal dust, including the HexenKesser, or witch’s cauldron. This was an attempt to create a weapon of mass destruction by exploding coal dust over a target. After the war, Zippermayr became known for his treatments for respiratory illnesses, including pertussis.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
Sewing Machine Needles. Sewalot

The Poison Dart Bomb

In January 1942, British research scientist Dr. Paul Fildes wrote to the Singer Sewing Machine company asking for needle samples. These needles were, quite unlike their usual use, intended for a weapon. Singer responded that they were quite willing to help. The British were working to develop a poison dart bomb, armed with thousands of tiny, needle-nosed darts. Each dart would weigh only .15 ounces, and be armed with a lethal poison, designed to kill quickly and efficiently. A single 500 lb. cluster bomb would contain some 30,000 darts.

The planned poison darts would each contain a small amount of poison, sealed in a hollow needle with a cotton and wax seal. When the needle, moving rapidly, struck the target, the seal or inertia plug would force the toxin into the target. Each needle would have a paper tail to keep it flying straight. Once a person was struck by the dart, if it was not removed within seconds, it would lead to collapse within just a few minutes, and death within 30 minutes. Material on the poison dart bomb has been declassified recently; while it’s been suggested these were to be armed with mustard gas, sarin seems much more likely. Mustard gas requires too large a dose for lethality, while sarin is lethal in much smaller amounts.

Field trials were attempted in Canada using sheep and goats. The poison darts were a planned replacement for weapons used in trench warfare, like mustard gas in World War I, as well as in open field combat.

While the idea was not a bad one, research into the poison dart bomb ceased for a simple reason; taking cover provided complete protection from the poison darts. In order to cause death, the darts had to reach their target. The poison dart bomb was also economically inefficient, costing far more than it was worth to produce.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
The HMS Habbakuk. Wikipedia

Project Habbakuk

Project Habbakuk was the name given to a British project to design a very new sort of aircraft carrier. Faced with limited access to steel and aluminum, a scientist named Geoffrey Pyke proposed a quite different idea. He suggested building an aircraft carrier from ice; the material could withstand torpedo fire, and was available at a much lower cost. In addition, it was naturally buoyant, and durable in cold temperatures. Ice alone was too fragile, but when a small amount of wood pulp was imbedded into the ice, it became quite bulletproof. This mixture of ice and wood pulp is called pykrete.

With the support of Winston Churchill, active work and testing began. They soon determined that refrigerant would be necessary to maintain adequately cold temperatures to keep the pykrete stable; however, they also found that a very small engine could adequately cool the pykrete. A 30-foot by 60-foot small test model was produced and set into the waters of Lake Alberta, Canada. The pykrete vessel had a few distinct drawbacks. It was, even with a large rudder, difficult to steer, and it was very slow, resembling more of a floating island than a ship. Work on the project was eventually abandoned, but the test ship took three full years to melt completely in Lake Alberta.

Although it was abandoned, Project Habbakuk was not a failure. In fact, the tests were successful. Unfortunately, the ship still required funds, wood pulp, and steel, and these were not adequately available. In addition, over the course of the war, the flying range of aircraft had increased, reducing the overall need for this sort of floating island-ship of ice.

Experiments continue with pykrete in cold climates. Engineering students have attempted to build domes, and even a model of the Sagrada Cathedral using pykrete; however, few practical uses have been found for the material, given its need for stable, cold temperatures.

8 Weird Ideas and Inventions from World War II
U.S. servicemen pose with a captured railway gun, 1945. National Archives

Gustav Gun

The Schwerer Gustav or Heavy Gustav was a large-scale piece of siege artillery developed in Germany beginning in the late 1930s. Adolf Hitler was, at the time, looking for a solution that could defeat the French Maginot line, along the French-German and French-Italian borders. The Maginot line was a 1,500 km-long defensive wall, made up of tanks, concrete fortifications, and machine gun nests. Hitler recruited a German company, the Friedrich Krupp A.G. Company of Essen, to build a weapon that could defeat the Maginot line.

Two years later, in 1941, the Friedrich Krupp A.G. company completed the Gustav Gun, named after the head of the Krupp family. The railway-mounted weapon was the largest gun ever built. Fully assembled, it weighed in at 1,344 tons, was four-stories tall, 20-feet wide, and 140-feet long. It required a 500 man crew to operate it, and had to be moved to be fully disassembled, as the railroad tracks could not bear its weight in transit. It required 54 hours to assemble and prepare for firing.

The bore diameter was just under 3-feet and required 3,000 pounds of smokeless powder charge to fire two different projectiles. The first was a 10,584 pound high explosive shell that could produce a crater 30-feet in diameter. The other was a 16,540 pound concrete-piercing shell, capable of punching through 264 feet of concrete. Both projectiles could be shot, with relatively correct aim, from more than 20 miles away.

The Gustav Gun was used in Sevastopol in the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa and destroyed various targets, including a munitions facility in the bay. It was also briefly used during the Warsaw Uprising in Poland. The Gustav Gun was captured by the Allies before the end of World War II and dismantled for scrap. The second massive rail gun, the Dora, was disabled to keep it from falling into Soviet hands near the end of the War.

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