Now the Gear Will Start: The Gadgetry of World War II

Illustration for article titled Now the Gear Will Start: The Gadgetry of World War II

Granted, there isn't much in the way of recognizable gadgetry in my new book, Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II. Most of the action takes place in the Indo-Burmese jungle, circa World War II—long before the advent of the integrated circuit. But that doesn't mean American GIs were entirely without nifty gear, much of which helped spur the development of our beloved modern toys. Read on for a rundown of three vital gadgets that took shape during the epic Allies vs. Axis throwdown, when geeks saved the world and my yarn's (anti-)hero went on the lam.


Motorola SCR-536 Given the company's recent woes, it's easy to forget that Motorola was once a lion of wireless tech. During WWII, the company's engineers were superstars of the field, and their masterpiece was the SCR-536 (pictured above). Colloquially known as the Handie-Talkie, the product is generally acknowledged to have been the world's first handheld, two-way AM radio. Incorporating five vacuum tubes into its design, the SCR-536 weighed in at a shade less than seven pounds—a whopping 26 pounds lighter than its closest rival. And, oh yeah, its max battery life (in receive mode only) was eight hours. How does that compare to your last RAZR?

Curta Calculator The good folks over at Make recently gave this gadget a great shout-out, which made my heart smile. But to really appreciate the wizardry of this hand-cranked, handheld gizmo, you need to hear the backstory. The inventor, an Austrian named Curt Herzstark, developed the calculator while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp (though he didn't perfect the design until after the war). This video, produced by, is highly recommended if you'd like to see the Curta in action.

Pigeon Vest Eat your heart out, Kenpo. The U.S. Army's pigeon vest was designed to tote and conceal a product far more fragile than an iPod—namely, the feathered heroes who were so critical to the war effort. Yes, when those Motorola SCR-536's didn't work, our brave soldiers had to rely on the animals commonly derided as "rats with wings." The vest was produced by Maidenform—yeah, the bra people—and included this critical warning on the canvas pouch: IMPORTANT: DO NOT RETAIN PIGEON IN VEST IN EXCESS OF SIX HOURS.

There are several more WWII gizmos mentioned in Now the Hell Will Start, so pick up a copy today—especially if you're curious as to how OSS agents managed to jerryrig used apple boxes into working radios. Or, for that matter, the appropriate technique for armor-plating a Caterpillar bulldozer using only scrap iron.


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I hope there's plenty more radio tech. My dad was a radio operator behind Japanese lines in the Philippines in WWII. He had a neat morse sending key. He called it a "reed key" and it was just a little reed that stuck out of a box with a dial. Push the reed to one side and you sent a dash. Push the reed to the other side and you got repeating dots. Twirl the knob to adjust the speed of the repeating dots. There were adjustments for how far you had to push the reed to make contact.

He said that without the need to send every dot and without need to physically move his fingers only slightly more than imperceptibly, he could send Morse at some insane speeds.

It was really cool to hear him talk about running out into the middle of the village, stripped to his shorts and so tanned that he looked like a native, and waving to passing Japanese Zeros, all the while exhorting the whole village to do the same. He know they were looking for his radio antenna. They'd fly by, make a couple of passes over the friendly village while dipping their wings, then fly off elsewhere to look for the radio that was broadcasting from the area.

Then my dad would go back in his hut, fire up the radio, and, if he was lucky, send a couple of Lightnings to kill the Zero.

(To be fair, he said that scenario worked out exactly like that just one time when a couple of Lightnings happened to be in the area. But he consistently did the "friendly wave" schtick and credits that with, among many other things, getting him through the war alive.)