Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain

By Duncan, Thomas K. | Independent Review, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain


Duncan, Thomas K., Independent Review


Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain By Katherine C. Epstein

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Pp. xi, 305. $45 cloth.

In Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain, Katherine C. Epstein demonstrates that she is a very thorough historian with a wide and deep knowledge of military history. Her book provides a very detailed account of the history of torpedo manufacture prior to World War I. For those who have an interest in the evolution of the naval powers of the United States and Great Britain in the prewar era, Torpedo is an excellent historic piece that reviews the changing nature of naval technologies and the process of secondary change that must then follow in both complementary technologies and military tactics. For example, Epstein provides multiple examples throughout the book of how the increasing range of the torpedo influenced a fleet's operational strategy (pp. 101-2) and the type of vessels desired by the U.S. or British navy (pp. 101-2, 189-90).

Though the historical work on the torpedo is both detailed and enthralling, Epstein attempts to do more with this book than simply expound on a specific weapon system. As the subtitle of Torpedo indicates, Epstein desires to use the weapon system and its technological and manufacturing advances to show how the torpedo industry was instrumental in creating the early foundations of the modern-day military-industrial complex in both the United States and Great Britain. In order to flesh out this foundation, she explores the late-nineteenthand earlytwentieth-century intertwining of (1) the Bliss Company and the navy's Torpedo Station in the United States and (2) the Whitehead Company and the governmentowned Royal Gun Factory (later known as the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory) in Great Britain. The companies and their respective governments became entangled during this period as each strived to be at the vanguard of torpedo manufacturing. The mechanism of this intertwining, according to Epstein, was the confluence of intellectual-property rights of jointly produced torpedoes. The key lever deals with the nature of military funds. Epstein argues that the creation of command technology, whereby "firms had to 'command' inventions from the top down and from within" and "governments came to 'command' weapons technology from the private sector and to treat firms as quasi-state agents," was a necessary outcome of "an otherwise unpredictable and unreliable inventive process" stemming from a lack of funds necessary for private actors to engage in such entrepreneurial technology discovery (pp. 174-76). As the state in both the United States and Great Britain became more involved in both finance and technological experimentation and design through the Torpedo Station and the Royal Gun Factory, respectively, the lines between public and private intellectual property became blurred. Was the advancement in torpedo range and accuracy due to the private firms' innovation or to the involvement of state agencies and actors? Epstein argues that the blurring of lines at the heart of this central question is what ultimately led to the militaryindustrial complex.

Although the partnership in production did exist, Epstein ultimately does not achieve her goal of showing that the military-industrial complex emerged from the torpedo-production process. Certainly there are hints of future problems that would have to be addressed, but within the existing work they remain hints. The claim that the military-industrial complex is due solely (or even principally) to the purchase agreements between the military and private firms is something of a stretch. In describing the military-industrial complex as it emerged in the postWorld War II era, Walter Adams argues that the "complex is not a conspiracy between the 'merchants of death' and a band of lusty generals, but a natural coalition of interest groups with an economic, political, or professional stake in defense and space. …

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