in Business Design

Stealth research & development

I’m reading Skunk Works, a book about the famous Lockheed Advanced Development Project that has an amazing record of innovation. It reveals the source of the F-117’s stealth technology not as an American invention, but as an idea that was passed from scientist to scientist for a century. The idea centers on calculations describing how a given geometric configuration will reflect electromagnetic radiation (e.g. make a plane invisible to radar). Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell first derived the set of formulas, a German electromagnetics expert Arnold Johnnes Sommerfeld refined them, and the Russian radio scientist Pyotr Ufimtsev further developed them. They lay hidden by obscurity, in an untranslated Moscow scientific journal for ten years. Eventually the US Air Force translated it and Lockheed radar specialist Denys Overholser read Ufimtsev’s dense 40-page paper out of pure geek interest, finding the key to stealth technology near the end. It’s ironic that an American used this information, as it was 1975, during the cold war.

There’s a lesson here we all know already, about connecting research and development, about helping academia and industry cooperate in ways that profit both parties. It happens now, but there’s still plenty of universities and companies that could benefit from a relationship.

  1. I wish we could find such an obviously clear formula to show business people how streamlining the interfaces can open up cognitive space for product innovation.

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