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Lunchtime Lecture (London): Death Rays and Defiants: Reinterpreting the Royal Air Force’s Technological Innovation in the 1930s

25 July 2024

On Thursday 25th July at 12pm, Professor David Zimmerman will explore the RAF’s technological innovation in the 1930s. This talk will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site and virtually via Crowdcast.

 

Talk Outline

Historians have extensively studied the development of weapons in the interwar period but have failed to fully appreciate how the rapidity of technological and scientific development tended to make it almost impossible for even the most qualified experts to comprehend the shape of future conflict. Most studies of the period have focused on successful innovations such as radar and fighters like the Hawker Hurricane or Supermarine Spitfire, yet for every success story there was at least an equal number of spectacular failures. This paper will argue that these failures have as much to tell us about the conduct of military operations and technological research during the Second World War as the pre-war achievements. Two spectacular technological failures will be examined: Death rays and the Bolton Paul Defiant. Research into invisible, destructive electro-magnetic rays was vigorously pursued even after the discovery of radar in Britain in 1935. Based on solid theoretical science, but on a poor understanding of the limitations of radio equipment, every effort was made to develop death rays. After 1945, British radar scientists created a carefully crafted false history, to cover up the continuing interest into death rays after the Daventry radar test. The Defiant was built to fulfil an Air Ministry requirement for a single-engine, turreted fighter. Despite ample evidence that the project was doomed, the Defiant was ordered into production and saw limited, mainly disastrous, operational service. In 1940, a candid and detailed report provides a remarkable insightful account of the complexity of weapon system development during a period of rapid technological change. There is a clear parallel with contemporary events in Ukraine, where the application of technology to the battlefield has caught many “experts” by surprise. Few anticipated the key roles of new and old weapons such as drones, artillery, main battle tanks, and mines.

Location
This hybrid lecture will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site in the Sunderland Suite. Attendance in-person is free but registration is required via Digitickets.
Livestream
To attend virtually, register via Crowdcast.

About Professor David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is Professor of Military History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He was educated at the University of Toronto and the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of Coastal Fort: A History of Fort Sullivan, Maine, Britain’s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe; Top Secret Exchange: The Tizard Mission and the Scientific War, The Great Naval Battle of Ottawa, and Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy in the Pacific during the Early Cold War.

 

Since 2000, Professor Zimmerman has been researching the history of the academic refugee crisis of the 1930s. Ensnared Between Hitler and Stalin: Refugee Scientists in the USSR, his first book exploring the fate of scholars forced to flee Germany after Hitler came to power, was published by the University of Toronto Press in February 2023. He is currently working on broader study of academic forced migration, Scholars in Flight, as well as a new assessment of interwar military technological development.


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