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Knowledge economies: Toward a new technological age


© Cambridge University Press 2015. The Second World War marks the transition to a new mode of warfare, one in which scientific and technical knowledge transformed the fighting of war. That summary statement captures the views of the insiders who built their nations’ new systems of research and development (R&D), as well as the public that stood in awe of the war's spectacular weapons. On a closer look, however, the picture is more complicated. The atomic bomb was only the most obvious of the research-driven developments that signalled the entrance into a new scientized world of military might. How is that forward-looking observation to be reconciled with the argument that the Second World War was ultimately decided by other things than pathbreaking weapons systems: raw materials and manpower, production capacity and economic mobilization, and mass deployment of largely standardized weapons? To make sense of this contrast, we need to look not simply at new science-based weapons that were brought to deployment, but at the R&D systems that guided them into being. These R&D systems were complex social structures uniting human resources, high-tech industrial capacity and organizational connectivity to bring new knowledge to bear on the conduct of war. By the outbreak of the Second World War, these systems had been built up at regional, national and global scales. Their coupling into the machinery of war planning and war-fighting created an interlocking set of mechanisms that became part of the mobilization of national strength. This chapter thus situates wartime science and technology in the context of prewar efforts to put new knowledge to work across the industrialized world. Exploring both incremental and transformative change in war-fighting technologies, it takes R&D systems as its overarching category. This choice forces it to move continuously across domains that are typically distinguished as basic science, applied science and engineering – categories we have inherited from post-Second World War analysts, who used them to frame the lessons they wanted to take from the war.

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