Control engineering in WW2: reflections on the wartime infrastructure in the UK, USA, USSR, and Germany

Bissell, C.C. (2007). Control engineering in WW2: reflections on the wartime infrastructure in the UK, USA, USSR, and Germany. In: Museum Boerhaave, 25-26 Jan 2007, Utrecht, Netherlands.


WW2 saw the emergence of what control engineers now refer to as 'classical control'. This subject area grew out of electronics and telecommunications applications from the 1920s onwards. But WW2 was an enormous stimulus to both practical and theoretical control - especially for the development of servo-systems for anti-aircraft gunnery, and for flight and torpedo control systems. Of particular importance was the emergence of systems ideas that led to a common body of theory applicable to a wide variety of technical implementations.

There was considerable commonality in the development of control engineering in the major Western warring countries: UK, USA, USSR and Germany. Yet the wartime infrastructure for research and development differed greatly from country to country. The US provided the best environment, under the umbrella of the National Defence Research Committee. The UK government, too, offered centralised support, with the Servo-Panel playing an important specialised role. Things were rather different in the USSR and Germany. One of the key centres of control engineering in the Soviet Union, the Institute of Automation and Remote Control, was evacuated when Moscow came under threat from the German invasion, and at least some key personalities were diverted to other activities. German control engineering flourished in a small number of centres, but there was no overall direction, apart from some work on standardisation by the engineering professional body Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI).

The paper will give a comparative review of wartime developments in control engineering in the above-mentioned countries, concentrating on the R&D infrastructure. Consequences for the discipline in the immediate aftermath of the war will also be briefly considered.

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