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Ford Target Computor: 1922

Ford Target Computor: 1922

October 2, 1922. Washington, D.C. "Ford Target Computor. Capt. H.E. Ely." An electro-mechanical approach to the aiming of large artillery pieces. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.


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Army coastal artillery

It's odd that Capt. Ely in the photo seems to be an Army officer rather than Navy

Coastal artillery was an Army responsibility. For example, Army Fort MacArthur (named for Douglas MacArthur's father) protected Los Angeles harbor. The big concrete emplacements are still there, for guns up to 16". In the 50s the guns were replaced with Nike nuclear missiles.

The Fort MacArthur Museum web site has more fun facts.

The 14" batteries look like baseball diamonds from above.

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Ely of Cantigny

Update: Upon further inspection of the photo and considering the caption of "Capt.", it may be that the uniformed man in the photograph is Hanson Edward Ely, Jr., son of the "Ely of Cantigny." Both son and father (Major General Hanson Edward Ely, Sr.) are buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Washington Post, Apr 30 1958

Gen. H.E. Ely Is Dead at 90

By Dorrie Davenport (Staff Reporter)

Maj. Gen. Hanson Edward Ely, USA (ret.), known as "Ely of Cantigny" for his leadership of the 28th infantry which captured Cantigny on May 28, 1918 died Monday in Atlantic Beach, Fla. He was 90.

He was one of the first officers sent abroad to study the Allies' trench fighting tactics and was later made chief of staff of the First Division

Repeated requests for troop duty gave him command of the 28th Infantry and his leadership in the Battle of Cantigny convinced European doubters of the fighting qualities of American soldiers.

Raised to brigadier general, he was head of the Second Brigade of the Second Division when the Americans captured Vierzey, near Soissons, in July 18, 1918.

In order to direct the attack personally, Gen. Ely attempted to enter Vierzey before it was cleared of the enemy. Fired on at short range by machine guns, he attacked and enabled his men to take the town despite strong resistance by vastly superior numbers.

Gen. Ely was cited for "indomitable bravery, disregard for his own safety and devotion to his men." During the battle of Vierzey, his troops took more than 7000 prisoners.

It was "Ely of Cantigny" who, in command of the Fifth Division and promoted to major general, achieved what has been hailed as one of the outstanding major exploits of the Army Expeditionary Force when it forced its way across the Meuse at Dun-sur-Meuse.

Gen. John J. Pershing wrote that "this operation was one of the most brilliant feats in the history of the American Army in France."

Years before his World War I exploits, he had been given a silver star for "gallantry in action against insurgent forces at Taliahan River, Luzon, Phillippine Islands, March 25, 1899."

When soon afterwards Gen. Frederick Funston formed his celebrated mounted scout unit, Hanson Ely was listed as its commander.

His 44 years in the Army included serving as a lieutenant in the Spanish American War. Considered one of the most forceful figures in military service, he was considered as a leading authority on modern tactic and battle leadership.

After World War I, he reverted to his permanent grade of colonel but Congress, in 1921, endorsed his appointment as brigadier general and his promotion in 1932 to major general.

The Queen Mum's Boots - - -

aren't boots at all, but galoshes. They kept our feet and shoes dry in wet weather. Oh oh, now I've given away how old I am. Yech.

Ordnance Corps

With reference to Captain Jack's question, Capt. Ely is wearing Ordnance Corps insignia, not Artillery, so I assume this was just an early procurement test of some sort.

A Royal Inspection

During World War 2 my mother was stationed on anti-aircraft batteries including one in Hyde Park, which was frequently visited by VIPs. This photo shows Queen Elizabeth (the "Queen Mum," in interesting boots!) inspecting the battery. To the right is a gunnery "predictor." It required two people to keep the target plane on cross-hairs in two sights on the top and lots of cogs, gears and electricity to do the sums of where to point the guns. It looks very like the M7 model described here.

Dad's service

My father's stint in the Army during WWII (Battle of the Bulge, crossing of the Rhine and Ruhr) had him working as a "Computer" for anti-aircraft artillery. He used some kind of calculating device for aiming the big guns, but I have no idea what kind. I can't ask him because he's in Arlington now.

Back to the Plotting Board

The October 1923 issue of the Coast Artillery Journal has a report (starting on Page 349) on various mechanical fire-control devices including the Ford Target Computer and Ford Battery Computer, which were tested as replacements for manual plotting boards. Among the findings:

a. They are complicated and frequently get out of working order.
b. They require very expert operators who should be trained for several months.
c. A trained mechanic is required for even minor repairs.
d. They operate solely by electric power.
e. Too much time is required for changing target and base line, and these operations require special skill.
f. The azimuth dials are hard to read, resulting in frequent errors. ...
i. They are noisy, making telephone conversation difficult in their vicinity.

Tests indicate that the Ford Target Computer, operated by and under the supervision of the Ford Company's engineer, frequently failed and, when in working order, gave results little if any better, either in accuracy or time of operation, than might be expected from a properly designed manual plotting board at ranges which permit a scale of 300 yards to the inch, if the board be carefully adjusted and skillfully operated.

It's interesting to note that fire control (i.e. "solving the range triangle" for the aiming of large artillery guns, which involves lots of trigonometry and a spot or two of calculus) was among the very earliest applications for digital computers in the 1940s.

Where are the flippers?

And how many points does it take to get a free game? I can't even light up the "special" bumper yet!

Manual FDC

I was likewise in Fire Direction Control, trained at Fort Sill. Never saw a contraption like this while I was there, but we were taught how to find deflection and elevation for the artillery pieces using slide rules, while plotting targets on a grid board and finding range with a range/deflection protractor (RDP). This was in the early 1990's. Of course, once I left the training school I never used such manual devices again; nevertheless, every Marine Corps artillery FDC still packs the manual tools--RDP, chart board with plotting pins, slide rules and books--just in case the primary and backup computers fail.

The Ford

did the same job -- providing aiming data for artillery -- but it was not digital like the FADAC. It was an electromechanical analog device.

There were precisely machined gears and shafts driving dials/pointers either mechanically or by controlling variable rheostats to drive indicating voltmeter dials. Operators input data on the location of the target and the weapons, as well as factors like wind and temperature by setting voltages or turning shafts to certain angles.

The operators then read off the firing data and transmitted it to the appropriate Fire Direction Center personnel who passed it on to the firing batteries.

Model 1?

As noted below, Hannibal C. Ford developed target computers for the U.S. Navy.

It's odd that Capt. Ely in the photo seems to be an Army officer rather than Navy, because the first applications for target computers were for navies. The British developed the first one, the Dreyer Table and the Dumaresq, prior to World War I and used it during the war. Mr. Ford was somehow exposed to the British technology -- I forget the details of this but it's covered in a series of articles in Warship International magazine. But he also had his own original ideas, and the Ford computer was considerably smaller than the Dreyer Table and looked quite different.

Inherently, in the battleship era, guns on ships required calculated aiming because both the firing and the target ship could be moving in different directions at different speeds, and the guns could often outrange the horizon from the point of view of deck level. A "gun director" on a tall tower could measure range and bearing with a powerful binocular range finder, and those measurements were transmitted to the computer mechanically or electrically. The computer then calculated the bearing and elevation at which the guns should fire to score a hit.

In 1985, I attended the sea trials of the restored battleship Iowa. I saw the Ford range computer. It was a different model than the one in the photo, considerably larger, but it still had the clear cover (probably glass to begin with and Lexan when I saw it) seen in the photo. Underneath you could see a maze of gears and linkages, color coded, for maintenance I guess. It had its own room with electrical panels on the bulkheads. In the Wikipedia article it explains that the device weighed over a ton, but of course on a batteship that doesn't matter. There was no graph plotter as shown in the photo.

Still unresolved is why the Army was interested in this device at a period when its artillery was normally attacking stationary targets from a stationary position. In 1922, could there have been research on antiaircraft fire direction? Possibly. Or maybe Mr. Ford was just covering all his possible customers.

Related question: is the civilian in the background Mr. Ford himself?

Fire Control

A few months ago I toured the USS North Carolina battleship in Wilmington and saw the targeting command center. There are several large rooms completely full of enormous computers used to track enemy ships, planes, and also to properly guide missiles and guns. I'd say there were at least 30-40 of these massive vacuum-tube computers paired to walls of controls on either side. The level of complexity was amazing.

Field Artillery

When I was in the Army's Artillery School (mid 1970's) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma we had something called a FADAC (field artillery digital automatic computer) to aid in positioning artillery rounds on a target. Was this an early version of FADAC?

Tech Support

An analog trunk-line call to India was a spot of bother in 1922.

Hannibal Ford

The Ford Instrument Company, Long Island City, NY, was formed by Hannibal Ford in 1915. It built analog fire control computers in the pre-electronic days. The company was later merged into the Sperry Corp.

Hello? Tech Support?

"I've been holding for fifteen minutes ... Oh, wait, they're coming on now. Hello? Hello? Can you speak up please? You sound like you're in India or something. Yes, OK ... I was going along fine and then everything just froze and I got a message about an 'illegal operation.' Right. And now nothing works. Uh huh. You say I should ... restart the computor and that should take care of it? That's it? Wait, hello? Hello?"

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