The Mysterious Case of the ‘Engine-Stopping Rays’

Peter MerrittDevil's Advocate0 Comments

In Most Secret War, Dr. R. V. Jones discusses the human tendency to “conjure up fear under conditions of stress,” a tendency the modern Westerner—stalked by fears of terrorism, crime, and economic catastrophe, international mergers—will no doubt appreciate. The example Jones cites, though seemingly trivial in hindsight, is both entertaining and revealing. Bear with me on this one as it is true…

During the war, rumours began to filter back to Britain about a German “engine-stopping ray.” The site of the supposed misadventure was invariably near a television tower. Jones relates,

As usually reported, the phenomenon consisted of a tourist driving his car on one of the roads in the vicinity, and the engine suddenly ceasing to operate. A German Air Force sentry would then appear from the side of the road and tell him that it was no use his trying to get the car going again for the time being. The sentry would, however, return and tell him when he would be able to do so. The sentry appeared in due course, and the engine started.

Jones and his team were unconvinced, and justifiably so. Later, Jones uncovered a simple but plausible explanation when talking to a refugee from Germany: the ignitions of nearby cars apparently disrupted the testing of the television transmissions. Sentries were posted to stop cars when the testing was underway. Jones, of course, saw an opportunity:

… we thought that it might be a good idea to start the same tale going in England to see whether it would puzzle the Germans. The story spread rapidly, and we heard it from time to time, with ever increasing detail. The last I heard of it was a family of Quakers, who of course never lie, driving across Salisbury Plain when the engine of their car stopped. In due course a soldier appeared and told them that it would now start again, and so they were able to continue on their way.

Needless to say, neither side was immune to stress, a fact Jones recognized. He confessed,

I found some satisfaction in learning that the Germans, too, could form their own wild theories when under stress. The pilots of one bomber formation, Kampfgruppe 100, had been asked to investigate a theory that whenever one of our Observer Corps posts heard a German bomber overhead at night it switched on a red light, so that our patrolling fighters could thus get a rough clue to the whereabouts of the bomber.  Actually, we had no such procedure, but after three weeks the pilots of this crack formation reported that from their own observations the theory was undoubtedly correct. Probably we had so many red lights showing accidentally that at least one was always within visual range of an aircraft flying anywhere over England …

Obviously fear and stress undermine our ability to think; that’s a given. The thoughtful consultant understands this and pushes forward to questions like these:

  • What do my clients or users fear?
  • Why do they fear it?
  • Are my client’s opponents exploiting this fear?
  • If so, how?
  • How can I negate the effects of this fear?
  • What do my client’s opponents fear?
  • And so on …

Jones, for example, didn’t stop when he guessed that the engine-stopping ray was merely a rumour; he asked himself how he could turn the rumour against his opponent–once again, classic Jones.

So, consultants should always bear in mind the ‘fear factor’ which their beloved IT can engender in those ‘norms’ less enamoured of the geekier things in life, and how rumour can fill the vacuum of training with new systems and kit. The users are just as critical to the success and full potential of a system as any brilliant lines of code, and badly designed interfaces have doomed plenty of otherwise useful applications. Also, just like a leaking water pipe, users don’t have to be skilled hackers to find their way through and around systems – especially badly designed ones. But they can make the difference between a successful lifespan and grudging acceptance.

I’ve been in this long game enough to see systems grow in power, familiarity and influence, to see what was only available once a week in my Star Trek ‘fix’ (talking to intelligent systems, not shouting at dim mainframe terminals!) become commonplace. But we are still all children of Mr Darwin – and with the rise of the robots, coupled with the dawn of real AI, that fear which gripped and served my ape ancestors is still there. Like making fire or splitting the atom, we are producing tools which offer tremendous opportunity, and we had better grasp it – because there is no going back.

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About the Author
Peter Merritt

Peter Merritt

Peter is one of our senior consultants and has many years of programming and software consultancy to call upon. As such he leads development groups to provide our clients with a variety of modern, functional and cost effective solutions to meet a variety of business needs. Outside of work, Peter is interested in history, psychology, end-user interaction, new computer developments and military/political simulations and games (not using computers). He also enjoys staring at wildlife and old aircraft whenever the occasion permits.