JF Ptak Science Books Post 2455 Part of the series on the Graphic and Interpretative Display of Information
The February 1918 issue of Popular Mechanics presents an unusual graphic display of quantitative data--what the $18,000,000,000.00 that the just-ended session of Congress for war expenditure would look like if rendered in different forms, and also what it would buy. The author of "Visualizing the $18,000,000,000 War Fund for for 1918", Leslie Klug, was trying to put that enormous sum into perspective for the popular reader--the results though may have been a little more mystifying than the sum. For example, he stated that $18bn in $5 gold pieces placed face-to-tail would stretch 3,000 miles; if that amount was rendered in pennies, it would form seven lines of coins from the Earth to the Moon. That penny pile would also be thicker and about twice as high as one of the world's tallest skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building.
It is doubtful that this would help the Average Person understand $18bn, mainly because there isn't much to compare a penny skyscraper with.
The author seems to have replaced one semi-incomprehensible number with its representation in something even more removed from daily life, re-equating the one big sum of $18bn into smaller but more numerous chunks of the same figure.
Klug moves on to a more successful visualization--thinking of what that money would buy in planes and tanks.
Of course the allocated war money was allocated to fund the entire war effort, including, well, everything, and not to be spent on one thing, like planes. But Klug does create at least two visual images that hadn't occurred to me before--super-massive numbers of planes and tanks.
"Massive amounts" of tanks in my head has always been represented by the Battle of Kursk, fought in the summer of 1943, where the tide of the war was changed and the German offensive in the East broken. It was also the largest tank battle ever fought. It was an enormous victory for the Soviet Army, and the beginning of the end for the Nazis. 4,000,000 people were involved in the battle (with some 200,000 residents of the city of Kursk killed in the process), along with 70,000 artillery pieces, 14,000 aircraft, and 23,000 tanks. Klug informs the reader that $18bn would buy 2 million tanks--he can imagine the "havoc" it would cost the Germans, but really doesn't even try to imagine what 2 million tanks would look like, unlike the penny cables to the Moon And the illustration really doesn't do any sort of job in displaying the idea of massive tank production, just a little touch of fear. The 2 million tanks bit comes a little bit into focus if there was something to compare it with--the Kursk--even though trying to imagine that battle of tanks time 100 its accessibility really just begins to dissolve.
When I try to think of 2 million tanks in terms of a single advancing army the impossible numbers become slightly more grounded, but not much. A tightly-packed square mile of tanks numbers about, say, 90,000. That means that you could have a 22-mile long mobile front of tanks that was also one mile deep. Ouch.
Planes didn't do the trick of conveying massiveness, either, though the illustration was a little more evocative of fantastic air power, though Klug doesn't say how many planes the money would buy. The author does state that such an air power could destroy "every dwelling and planting field" in Germany. (My guess is there could be 4-6 million aircraft purchased with $18bn.)
Perhaps what seems what would be the most accessible of the visualizations comes with the navy, which would receive 360,000 "sub chasers" for the $18bn, a force which (Klug says) would be capable of covering every square foot of ocean from North America to Europe and beyond--except that the numbers don't work out.
The North Atlantic is a big place, something on the order of 41 million square miles, which means that each of the sub chaser would have to cover 118 square miles to cover the ocean, which I think is impossible to do in pre-SONAR days of sub detection, when basically there was optical observation looking for a pipe sticking up out of the water. I don't know what the observational power is of a ship looking for a periscope in the ocean, but I know it can't be the size of D.C. or anywhere near that. How many ships would it take for this job would be an interesting tea-time question for someone who knows this stuff--but for me, it seems that Klug's visualization on the naval aspect of $18bn is wrong. On the other hand that doesn't matter at all if you're doing a little propaganda write-up, like this one.
In any event that isn't the way war expenses are handled, though it is a nice exercise in thinking about big numbers.