On Veterans Day we commemorate the living veterans of the American armed forces. On Memorial day we commemorate those who lost their lives. We should also spend a moment to remember those who helped make sure more soldiers fit into the first category. Though I’ve made the point before on this blog, I’d like to commemorate two men in particular who between them likely saved the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers during the Second World War, simply by doing brilliant science. Their names are Alan Turing and Robert Watson-Watt.
Turing was a mathematician and computer scientist who lead the British code-breaking efforts which broke the Nazi Enigma code and various other forms of wartime message encryption. Though it’s impossible to accurately judge counterfactual history, I have read more than one historian speculate that the Allied codebreaking successes may have shortened the war in Europe by a year or more.
Watson-Watt was one of the early pioneers of radar, and the first person to develop it into a practical means of finding range and direction of enemy aircraft. The Battle of Britain might have been a very different story if his invention had not allowed the vastly outmanned and outgunned Royal Air Force to hold its ground against the Luftwaffe. (In a cute coda, many years later he was cited for speeding in Canada by a policeman with a radar gun)
We owe these two men a lot more credit than they get. May their names never be forgotten.