If you’ve been in the Boston area long enough, you are probably familiar with the >Duck Boats. You might have seen them rolling through Back Bay or floating down the Charles River. But, what is now a popular tourist activity was once a military innovation that, according to General Eisenhower, played a decisive role in the Allied victory in World War II — and was developed by MIT alumnus Palmer Cosslett Putnam, class of 1923.
DUKW Boat used in World War II (Wikimedia)
DUKW Boat used in World War II (Wikimedia)
DUKWs (colloquially known as “Ducks”) are six-wheeled amphibious trucks used during WWII and the Korean War to ferry supplies, ammunition, and troops from supply ships just offshore to the fighting units on the beach. In the spring of 1942, while working as an engineer for the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), Putnam developed the idea of converting a standard army truck into an amphibious vehicle that could transition between using wheels when on land and a propeller when in the water. Roderick and Olin J. Stephens, a yachting team who had won the 1937 America’s Cup, helped with designs and General Motors was contracted to produce the DUKWs.
Initially, Army brass were skeptical of the amphibious vehicle. Even after a heroic demonstration of the DUKW’s abilities in which they were used to rescue the crew of a Coast Guard ship off the shore of Provincetown, Massachusetts, top Army officials remained unconvinced. It wasn’t until Lieutenant General George S. “Old Blood-and-Guts” Patton used the DUKWs during the invasion of Sicily that more widespread implementation began. After their successful use in Sicily, DUKWs were utilized in almost every Allied invasion for the rest of the war.
Details of the work of Putnam and his colleagues in the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) remained classified for many years. However, in 1947 Putnam received recognition for his work with the OSRD and was presented with the Medal for Merit for “his wartime work on ordnance devices.” In his position as special assistant to the director of the OSRD, Vannevar Bush, Putnam invented 10 original weapons and directed the development of 22 others.
For more information about the story of the development of the DUKW and its evolution into a tourist attraction, check out this article published in Smithsonian Magazine, 2002: “Odd DUKW: On land and in the water, World War II’s amphibian workhorse showed the skeptics a thing or two now it shows tourists the sights.”
Palmer Putnam’s work for the OSRD during WWII was only one point in a varied and interesting career. He received the BS and MS degrees, both in Geology and Geological Engineering (course 12), from MIT in 1923 and 1924. After leaving MIT he completed his education at Technische Hochschule in Munich, Germany, and at Yale University. He began his career conducting geological investigations in the ‘African Congo’ for the Belgian government. During this time he also explored volcanoes in Central America1 and was the co-discoverer of a specific reagent for gold. From 1930 to 1933, he served as president of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Publishers. In the late 1930s, he designed an experimental wind turbine that was constructed on the summit of Grandpa’s Knob in Vermont and described by Putnam as “the greatest windmill ever conceived and erected by man.” The purpose of this project was to test the feasibility of utilizing wind energy in New England and was “the first attempt to generate alternating current by means of the wind with regulation satisfactory for inter-connection with a public utility distribution system.”2 Putnam also worked briefly as an engineer for GE, Co. and in the late 1940s was an Apprentice Carpenter with the Southwest Boat Corporation in Southwest Harbor, Maine.
Additional information about Putnam’s wind turbine project in Vermont is in the 1941 MIT Report of the President (page 101). There was also an article in the December 1940 issue of Technology Review, vol. 43, “The Trend of Affairs: On Grandpa’s Knob” (page 60).
You can also find information about Putnam and his work in several collections in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, including the MIT Office of the President, records of Karl Taylor Compton and James Rhyne Killian (AC-0004), the Vannevar Bush papers (MC-0078), and the Joseph S. Newell papers (MC-0053). Both Putnam’s graduate and undergraduate theses are available in the MIT Libraries: “A reconnaissance among some volcanoes” and “Determinative tables for minerals: a scheme for the determination of minerals by a recognition of distinguishing chemical elements.”
– Katherine Crowe
- Palmer Cosslett Putnam, “The Existence of a Once Homogeneous Magma-Mass Underlying Central America,” Journal of Geology 34, no. 8 (1926): 807–23.
- A Great History of the Great Class of 1923, T171.M4258 1923, page 284.