by Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.
Published in July/August 2022 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the author.
Anyone with some knowledge of the history of science fiction has probably heard of “Deadline,” even if they have never read it. This novelette by Cleve Cartmill appeared in the March 1944 issue of Astounding.
There is not much one can say about the quality of Cartmill’s story. Like some science fiction stories that appeared during World War II, it was a transposition of the conflict to space or another planet. The most obvious science fiction aspect of the story was that the inhabitants of this planet had prehensile tails.
The connection with World War II was made painfully obvious to the reader by the names given to the two sides in the war: Seilla (Allies) and Sixa (Axis). The premise of the story is that a secret agent of Seilla tries to prevent Sixa from making use of a powerful weapon that they have developed. The one thing that kept Cartmill’s story from being totally forgotten is that the weapon in question was an atomic bomb employing Uranium-235 (235U).
The effort by the United States to develop the atomic bomb was the Manhattan Project. Two distinct approaches were used to ensure that a bomb could actually be built. One type of bomb under development used 235U and the other Plutonium-239. In the end, both approaches succeeded. The level of security for the Project was extremely high.
You can imagine the reaction of people connected with the Project when “Deadline” appeared. Both John W. Campbell and Cleve Cartmill were investigated by the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. It was naturally feared that the information used in the story had been the result of a security leak. Campbell was able to show that the information used in the story was generally known.
In the period following the discovery of nuclear fission, there had been scientific papers and even newspaper articles that discussed the amount of energy that could be released by fission and even how 235U could be separated from Uranium-238 by a method similar to mass spectroscopy. Articles appeared in Astounding on the subject of atomic energy. All were written by Campbell, using the name of his alter ego Arthur McCann. The articles were “Isotope 235” in the August 1939 issue, “Atomic Ringmaster” in the March 1940 issue, and “Shhhhh – Don’t Mention It!” in the August 1940 issue.
According to Albert Berger in The Magic That Works, the primary concern of the government was not the exposure of details of an atomic bomb to the public. The work on the Manhattan Project was highly compartmentalized. It was feared that the story might cause people on the Project to start speculating about the objective of their labors.
The bomb that was described in Cartmill’s story would not have worked, although he did get some details right. The story correctly identified the use of 235U and the need for a neutron source to guarantee that the chain reaction started. The neutron source in the story used a tiny amount of radium to fire alpha particles into beryllium. This was a known technique to cause the beryllium to emit neutrons.
The first problem was that the amount of 235U given in the story, 16 pounds, was too small to support the chain reaction required to cause an explosion. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, “Little Boy,” contained approximately 140 pounds of 235U.
The second problem was that the means of assembling the 235U was too slow. In “Little Boy,” one piece of 235U was fired down a gun barrel into another piece of 235U to form the required critical mass. In the bomb in “Deadline,” the 235U was in the form of powdered uranium oxide rather than metal and was contained in a number of chambers with walls made of cadmium. An explosive charge would shatter the cadmium walls and the uranium powder would simply drain into a central cavity. Rather than an explosion, the most likely result is that the mass of 235U would have become hot enough to melt through the bomb case and disperse the material.
There was another wartime Astounding story that could have caused a similar reaction from the government. The only thing that prevented this from happening was lucky timing on the part of Campbell and the author. The technology in this case was radar.
Before I discuss the technology and the story, I must say a bit about the author.
We first encounter George O. Smith (1911 – 1981) in 1941. At the time, he was working for the Philco Corporation in Detroit. He was part of a team attempting to develop a new tuner for an automobile radio. In 1941, he submitted a science fiction story to Astounding. Instead of a simple rejection slip, Smith received a long letter from Campbell. He felt that Smith was capable of writing a suitable story and suggested that he make use of his education and technical experience in doing so.
Smith’s next submission was about communications. It was “QRM – Interplanetary.” QRM is an amateur radio code that means “I am being interfered with.” The story was accepted by Campbell and appeared in the October 1942 issue of Astounding.
“QRM – Interplanetary” was the first in the Venus Equilateral series. In Smith’s Solar System, both Venus and Mars are capable of being colonized by humans. It is not always possible for Venus, Earth and Mars to communicate directly with one another. As the positions of the planets change, it is necessary to consider the Sun. The planet with which you wish to communicate may be behind the Sun. Even if the planet was still visible, radio noise from the Sun could be a problem. Smith’s solution was a manned communications station in the orbit of Venus, 60 degrees ahead of the planet. This would provide an alternative path along which to relay messages. The station, Venus and the Sun formed an equilateral triangle. Such an arrangement is a stable solution to the three-body problem of orbital mechanics.
The interference encountered in the story was caused by the arrival of a newly appointed director for the station. He had no knowledge of communications or even what was required to survive in space. His orders endangered the lives of everyone on the station. When he was removed at the end of the story, Don Channing was placed back in command of the station for the stories that followed. In these stories, Smith gradually passed from known technologies to fictional ones such as beamed power, faster-than-light communications, matter duplication and matter transmission.
By the time that his first story appeared in print, Smith was in Cincinnati, working for The Crosley Corporation on the proximity fuze. The proximity fuze was developed for use with anti-aircraft shells as a replacement for the time fuze. The setting of a time fuze was based on the estimated range to the target. If the estimate was in error, the shell would explode too far from the target to have any effect. It took a very large number of such shells to bring down an attacking aircraft.
The proximity fuze emitted radio waves that would be reflected from the target. When the strength of the reflection became strong enough, the fuze would detonate the shell. The proximity fuze was also called the VT-fuze, where VT stood for Variable Time. This type of fuze drastically reduced the number of shells that had to be fired to destroy an attacking plane.
We are concerned here with the second Venus Equilateral story “Calling the Empress.”
In The Worlds of George O, Smith said:
Hoping, then, not to be hauled off before a firing squad, I took some liberties with what little was known about radar, and wrote “Calling the Empress.” I got the check in Cincinnati in February 1943.
Why was Smith so concerned?
The Manhattan Project was the most important secret of the war. The second most important secret was radar. The question of secrecy was different with radar. People were not aware of the massive research and development effort known as the Manhattan Project. Radar, on the other hand, was a technology in actual use. Many people knew that it existed.
In mid-February 1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff took a very heavy-handed approach and banned publicity about projects that had “present or potential use for military – naval purposes.”
By April, a more reasonable approach was taken by the government, at least with regard to radar. A statement was prepared by the Office of War Information (OWI) in conjunction with the Army and the Navy. It was titled:
JOINT ARMY – NAVY RELEASE
HOLD FOR RELEASE
SUNDAY MORNING NEWSPAPERS
APRIL 25, 1943
DEVELOPMENT OF RADAR DESCRIBED
The release began by explaining that Radar stood for radio-detecting-and-ranging. It then presented the basic principles of its operation in detecting both ship and planes. The use of radar by the British in 1940 and 1941 was described, but made no mention of its use by the United States. A brief discussion of the earliest discoveries and subsequent development did not give any useful technical information. The release concluded by stating:
In order to prevent information which might facilitate development of radar from reaching the enemy through publicity originating in the United States, it has been decided that no further items on the subject will be released until the Army and Navy are convinced that the enemy already has the information from some other source.
As a subsequent article in the New York Times showed, you could say quite a bit under the new rules. As in the press release, this article mentioned that radar had been used in the Battle of Britain. It added the fact that the Japanese planes that had attacked Pearl Harbor had been detected by radar, but that the information was misinterpreted. With regard to measuring the distance, reference was made to radio altimeters that had been developed before the war. You were safe if you talked about principles that were generally known, but you could not speak about a particular radar system, how it operated, how it was used, or its limitations.
The June 1943 Astounding appeared on the newsstands on May 14, 1943 and contained “Calling the Empress.” The title refers to the Empress of Kolain, a ship travelling from Mars to Venus. Immediately after its departure from Mars, it was determined that it must be diverted to Earth to prevent it from being quarantined when it reached Venus.
This sounds like a simple problem, doesn’t it? Just send them a radio message. Unfortunately, Smith had established in his first story that communication was done using tightly focused radio beams. To communicate with a ship, you had to know exactly where to aim the beam. The real complication was that radio contact was not considered possible during flight, so the radio was turned off. How do you contact someone when you do not know where they are and they cannot hear you?
The seemingly impossible problem was passed to Don Channing and his fellow engineers on Venus Equilateral.
The Empress could not be located by its emissions. The only signal it emitted was from its meteor-spotting equipment. This signal was too weak to be detected by Venus Equilateral. Smith said that “the sweep of her meteor-spotting equipment would pass a spot in micro-seconds at a hundred miles.” He also used the word “beam.” This means that the equipment was sweeping with a beam of radio waves to detect an object such as a meteor at a distance. Does anyone doubt that what he described was radar?
Now, back to the problem. There was no way to locate the Empress visually. Channing and his team reasoned that since they knew the planned path of the Empress, they could locate it by its angular offset from Mars. They designed and constructed a mechanical tracking system that used a cam to provide the required offset from Mars, which they kept centered in a tracking telescope.
Smith’s description of the system built to beam a high-frequency signal at the Empress was very detailed:
. . . the parabolic reflector was mounted; and then another hour before it swung freely and perfectly in its new mounting. Then the minutes were spent in anticipation of the instant that the power stage of the transmitter was tested and the megawatts of ultra-high-frequency energy poured into the single rod that acted as a radiator. . . But the rod drew power, and the parabolic reflector beamed that power into a tight beam and hurled it out on a die-true line. . . And out from the projector there went, like a spearhead, a wavefront of circularly polarized microwaves.
Instead of saying “rod,” we should substitute “waveguide feed for the antenna” to be technically correct.
Smith provided a very good description of the transmitting portion of a radar system. He referred to both “ultra-high-frequency” and “microwaves.” Just as with the information on atomic physics that was used in “Deadline,” work in the generation and manipulation of such electromagnetic radiation had occurred before the war.
Slightly different definitions exist for the range of frequencies that should be called microwaves: 300 MHz to 300 GHz or 1 GHz to 100 GHz. The secrecy connected with radar included the means by which sufficient power could be generated at such high frequencies. Smith omitted that minor detail.
To know that their beam was hitting the Empress, they expected to see a reflection of their signal. Again, this sounds like radar.
Smith assumed that even the reflected signal would be tightly focused. This meant that Venus Equilateral would have moved along its orbit by the time that the reflected signal had arrived. They would not have been in the proper position to be able to receive the signal. Their solution was to place a small manned spacecraft, a “flitter,” at the proper distance behind the station to detect the signal.
Here there occurred a small glitch in Smith’s narrative. On page 77 of the original story, the round-trip time for the signal was given as 32 minutes. On the next page, however, the calculation for the distance of the flitter was done on the basis of 32 seconds. And there was also a math error. (In the version of the story that appeared in The Complete Venus Equilateral, the correct time was used, but again there was a math error.)
They finally succeeded in getting back an echo from the Empress. Now for the trickiest part of the problem. How do you let the people on the ship know that someone is sending them a message?
Their first step was to modify the antenna so that they could electronically scan the beam over the area of space occupied by the Empress like an electron beam in a television tube. The transmitter and receiver were then adjusted so that their frequency matched that of the meteor-spotting system of the Empress. Finally, the scanning rate of the beam was increased so that someone monitoring the meteor-spotting system would hear a tone at about 100 Hz. They were then able to send their message using Morse Code.
When the signal was received by the meteor-spotting equipment, it was correctly interpreted to be a message in Morse Code. The efforts of Venus Equilateral were almost in vain, however, because a knowledge of Morse Code was not a requirement for any of the crew of the Empress. The situation was saved when a passenger was found with such knowledge – a thirteen-year-old boy.
Now that you know how George O. Smith made use of radar in “Calling the Empress,” there are some questions to consider. I have never been able to locate a mention of any problem resulting from the publication of this story. But what if things had been just a bit different?
In the quote by Smith, he stated that he had been paid for the story in February 1943. This was when the very strong restrictions on the release of information went into effect. Smith had no way of knowing that the restrictions with regard to the discussion of radar would be relaxed in April.
What would have happened if the story had appeared when the strong restrictions still applied? We simply do not know what reaction it would have caused. It may not have been a problem at all, in spite of Smith’s concerns about what he had included in the story.
Let us engage in speculation and assume that there would have been a reaction by security personnel. It would not have required much of a change in timing for that problem to have occurred. The OWI press release appeared on April 25 and the June issue of Astounding went on sale on May 14. This was a difference of less than 3 weeks! If the press release had been delayed just a bit or the story had appeared in an earlier issue, the tighter restrictions would have been applied to the story. This could have caused a visit to Campbell by government agents in 1943, just as they did for “Deadline” in 1944.
Finally, let us take such speculation one step further. Such a visit would have made Campbell aware of the type of reaction that a release of sensitive information during wartime would cause. With Campbell knowing that, would “Deadline” ever have appeared in print?
This article is based on material contained in my book An ASTOUNDING War: Science Fiction and World War II. More information on wartime security may be found in Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II by Michael S. Sweeney. One of the best analyses of the response to the appearance of “Deadline” may be found in The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology by Albert I. Berger. The New York Times article I mentioned was “Radar – Our Miracle Ally,” which appeared on May 23, 1943.