All of these things happened long ago. They are written up by people who took different paths to the knowledge, people who studied and believed different versions of events. Historians, like anyone else, may be biased. New original sources are being discovered all the time. An older history book may or may not still be a reliable account of events. Dollar amounts are given for certain things; they may be adjusted for the current value of money or just reported in contemporary amounts. It can all be confusing.
It is also important when reading history to read many books on the same subject. Different historians will address different facets of the events. They will provide different details. To get the complete picture, you need to read as many sources as possible. This aspect will be important for another post that should hit the blog within a week or so.
But today, the money.
I don’t have a real historian’s interest in history. I have a grown-up little boy’s interest in historical events that have always fascinated me. Like World War II. It is often reported that the Manhattan Project, which gave the world the atomic bomb, had a total cost of two billion dollars. That’s an impressive figure; that’s still a lot of money. But a little context would be helpful.
It has recently come to my attention that the development and construction of the B-29 bombers used in World War II had a price tag of THREE billion dollars. Is that merely shocking? Or does it only serve to make the atomic bomb sound like a bargain?
Here’s a good one. The Thompson sub-machineguns used in WWII had a price tag of about $350 apiece. Okay. It was a complicated piece to manufacture. It had lots of parts that needed to be individually machined. It had a wooden stock and hand grip. It was a terrific weapon though, it was durable, efficient and reliable. Very popular with the troops. America made an impressive one point three million of them (1,300,000 units). That comes to about a half a billion dollars, total. How should we fit that into the context of the atomic bomb or the B-29?
Then there are the little gems of information that drop by sometimes. It seems that the unit cost of the Thompson was daunting to the people running that war, and early on they began to look for a lower cost replacement. They found it in the sub-machinegun designated the M3 and called “the grease gun.” This gun only made it into use for the tail end of the war, but it remained in use by the armed forces for a long, long time. Unit cost? Between $15 and $20.
How’s that for a contrast? Almost identical in their utility, but the cost drops from $350 to $20. The M3 was made from parts that could be pressed out of sheet metal and mass produced. It only had one part that needed to be machined, the bolt.
My interest in these things is almost certainly foolish, but I’m not hurting anybody. Let an old man have some fun!