Now You Know Part 4 of 7

Dahlgren: A Bubbling Cauldron of Technical Curiosity, Segment 4 of 7

By Alan J. Dean

The Cauldron Simmers

The success of the Mark II led to the development of the more capable Mark III version, and Dahlgren mathematicians and scientists began to explore and expand the tasks being performed on the computers beyond ballistic table calculations. In 1950, Dr. Charles Cohen developed the first operational six-degree of freedom ballistic trajectory simulation model for unguided rockets. While not eliminating the need for live ordnance tests, this “model” provided the potential of reducing costs by reducing the number of live tests of these missiles, since a multitude of environmental conditions affecting a launch could be simulated and results recorded. The era of computer modeling and simulation had begun.

In 1943, there was still much skepticism as to the need and usefulness of computers.  Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, was quoted as saying, “I think there is a World Market for maybe five computers.” However, by the early 1950s, computers had proved their usefulness, and the Navy pursued faster models. Due in part to the early advances demonstrated in what computers had the potential of doing, Dahlgren was selected to participate in the development of the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC), which, when delivered, was renowned as the fastest computer in the world.   This team included some of the leaders of computer technology at the time: Thomas Watson of IBM, Wallace Eckert of Columbia University, and John von Neumann, credited with the computer architecture still in use today.  Dahlgren’s first research director, Dr. Charles Bramble, called this acquisition, “one of the turning points in the history of the Laboratory.”


At the NORC dedication in Watson Lab, 2 December 1954: IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Rear Admiral E. A. Solomons (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy), Jeannette Watson (wife of Thomas Watson), Columbia Professor Wallace Eckert, John von Neumann, Captain C. K. Bergin (Director, R&D, Bureau of Ordnance, Dept. of the Navy), and Rear Admiral C. G. Warfield (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy).  (U.S. Navy Photo)


Naval Ordnance Research Computer (U.S. Navy Photo)


In the 1950s, Dahlgren underwent dramatic shifts in priorities from formally being a place to test ordnance to progressively getting more involved in missile technology; yet a whole new avenue of scientific research emerged that would put Dahlgren on the crossroads of not only the elements of proof testing to vigorous experimentation of new technologies, but also of rocket telemetry and ballistics testing.

Adding More Firewood

At the time, the Pentagon’s perception of Dahlgren was as a gun proving ground, and after the Korean War, the Pentagon was looking to reduce its “proving ground” infrastructure. The leadership at Dahlgren knew they needed to change this perception. Since being designated as the prime agency for the Bureau of Ordnance for the respective scientific fields of computation, exterior/rigid body/terminal ballistics, and warhead characteristics in September of 1955 and receiving the NORC, Dahlgren had added a variety of work to its portfolio. Scientists had generated long-range trajectory computations using the six degree of freedom computer model for the first U.S. mid-range ballistic missile system—the Army’s Jupiter.

In 1956, Dahlgren was assigned the Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance (HERO) program, beginning Dahlgren’s involvement with electromagnetic environmental effects and safety for the Navy.

In 1957, after developing the first rigorous mathematical descriptions of the Earth’s gravitational field, which the Department of Defense (DOD) had adopted for all original long-range missile trajectories, Dr. Charles J. Cohen and David R. Brown, Jr. captured a trajectory computational role for Dahlgren in the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) Program. The FBM program was created to develop missiles that could be launched from submarines.

These efforts brought the Dahlgren cauldron to a simmer, transforming it from a simple proving ground into a full-fledged Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation facility. To match the expanded mission of Dahlgren, Technical Director Dr. Russell Lyddane requested the name be officially changed from the Naval Proving Grounds to The Naval Weapons Laboratory. On August 15, 1959, the change was approved and the perception of Dahlgren as “just a proving ground” began to fade.

About The Author


Alan Dean is a member of the Dahlgren Heritage Museum dedicated to preserving Dahlgren Base history. He worked at Dahlgren from 1974 to 2017. He wishes to thank Ed Jones, Dr. Rob Gates, Bob Dibble, Peter Kolakowski, and Bill Elliott for their reviews and comments on this article.


Previously published – Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, 70th Anniversary, December 2020, King George County, Virginia, 1720-2020 published by The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society MONTROSS, Westmoreland County, Virginia –

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