Innovations That Come From Wars
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Is war the mother of invention? Or, is invention the mother of war? Christopher Freeman, a British economist with an interest in technological innovation, has argued that the timing of new technologies is a consequence of long economic cycles called Kondratiev waves (named after the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev who was executed during Stalin’s purges). These economic ‘waves’ are of about 45 to 60 years’ duration. Whether we accept the concept of long waves or not, it is undeniable that there have been marked spurts of innovation in the last 250 years which can be called ‘industrial revolutions’. Each of these bursts of innovation began in a recession and was followed by a boom. More interestingly from our point of view, they were also followed by wars. The Industrial Revolution was followed by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the so-called Second Industrial Revolution by the Crimean War and then the Franco-Prussian War, and the third Kondratiev wave by the First World War. The Second World War began a bit too soon for the fourth wave (although it clearly took advantage of the initial innovations of that wave) and should probably be considered the second half of the third-wave war, much as the Franco-Prussian War followed on from the Crimean War and the Austro-Prussian War. This suggests that the real fourth wave war was the Cold War, which accelerated existing technologies in much the same way as conventional wars. If this correlation is valid, why do wars break out during the initial boom of the Kondratiev cycle? Recessions are a common link between innovation and war. Governments often use rearmament as a way of getting out of recessions. Recessions also come to an end when innovations promote production and improve productivity. There is also a psychological element – countries with a strong record of innovation become more confident about taking on other countries who are lagging (or appear to be lagging) in the technological race. This confidence is rarely tied to a particular advance, but to a more general belief in technological superiority. Even if the hard evidence for Kondratiev waves is weak, and it is easy to manipulate dates to fit a preconceived notion, it can still be argued that innovations and military build-ups tend to occur during recessions, and the subsequent wars push the expansion of these innovations more quickly than peacetime conditions. A ‘real’ war is not always needed; a surrogate, such as the Cold War, the Space Race or perhaps even a ‘war on terrorism’ can work just as well. Is this a necessary state of affairs or can we find less destructive ways of promoting new technology? No-one who has seen the classic film The Dambusters can have any doubt that the Second World War was the driving force behind many new inventions. Some of these inventions, such as ships made from sawdust and ice, were just potty, but others have changed the world. For example, we are told that the race to the Moon began when a V-2 landed in Chiswick in September 1944. The jet engine, another wartime invention, has enabled us to take affordable holidays in far-away places. The Dambusters' bouncing bomb was a wartime invention, but how far is this true for more important developments? The first tanks were used during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, but were based on pre-war armoured tractors, which had hitherto aroused little interest. The basic concept of radar is almost as old as radio itself, and the first working demonstration using aircraft took place at Daventry in 1935. Two years later, the first jet engine was tested (on the ground) at nearby Rugby. Although the first experimental V2 (initially called the A4) was not launched until 1942, the key technologies involved had been developed by the German Army – working with amateur enthusiasts – in the 1930s. Even the atomic bomb was not completely a wartime development – atomic fission was discovered in December 1938 and the early American work preceded the United States’ entry into the war. Can the development of key inventions encourage a country to go to war? In 2002, the United States and Britain were concerned that Saddam Hussein would use newly-developed weapons of mass destruction on neighbouring countries, a concern which led to the Second Gulf War of March–April 2003. The Haber-Bosch process is frequently mentioned as a breakthrough which enabled Germany to go to war in 1914. This chemical process produced ammonia from coal, air and water, which was converted into nitric acid, a crucial material for the manufacture of high explosives such as TNT. Through the Four Year Plan of 1936, Nazi Germany set out to arm itself for war by developing new technologies and boosting production. However, in different ways, these examples show how rarely technology affects the timetables of political leaders and their military advisors. Far from seizing the opportunity offered by the Haber-Bosch process, Germany’s military command had not given any thought to the supply of nitrogen at all. It was only after the war began that attention was given to the development of a war economy. Initially, the Haber-Bosch process could produce only a small proportion of Germany’s needs for nitrogen-based explosives, and other sources were more important until 1917. Two decades later, the Four Year Plan aimed to make Germany self-sufficient in various sectors, including synthetic rubber and synthetic fuel. These new technologies had been developed in the 1920s, but were still at the pilot plant stage. Although the Four Year Plan would not be completed until 1940, Hitler aimed to start a war as early as 1937 and the new industries were still under development when war broke out. Neither opportunism nor rational planning of new technologies sits easily with military planning, which has its own dynamic and its own timetable. A country is rarely (if ever) in a position to declare war on a rival as soon as it has made a technical breakthrough. The classic example is America’s failure to make war on the Soviet Union while it had a monopoly of nuclear weapons. Similarly, the Germans did not use nerve gas during the Second World War. Fortunately, it appears that international law can limit opportunism. The usefulness of technology in a war usually comes about as a result of a frantic scramble to enlist all available technologies after the war has begun. The Second Gulf War could be considered to be an exception. It was the continuing development of technologically advanced weapons by the two allies, while Iraq was constrained from rearming by international sanctions, that enabled the Second Gulf War to take place. Allied military planners were confident that the pinpoint use of munitions on a massive scale (‘shock and awe’) would cause the rapid collapse of the Iraqi armed forces with the minimum loss of allied personnel. While inventions can have a major impact on war, they are rarely, if ever, the direct causes of war. Here are some of the things that were invented:
The cavity magnetron was developed for radar use in 1940, but now forms the power source of the domestic microwave oven.
The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse in 1844, and telegraph wires soon sprang up all along the East Coast. During the war, 15,000 miles of telegraph cable was laid purely for military purposes. Mobile telegraph wagons reported and received communications from just behind the frontline. President Lincoln would regularly visit the Telegraph Office to get the latest news. The telegraph also enabled news sources to report on the war in a timely fashion, leading to an entirely new headache for the government: how to handle the media.
Both sides used hot air balloons for aerial reconnaissance of battlefields during the Civil War. A Balloon Corps was established by President Lincoln early on. The maiden voyage of the first official Union balloon occurred in late August, 1861. Balloon operators used another wartime innovation, the telegraph, to let commanders on the ground know of Confederates movements. This allowed Union guns to be repositioned and fired accurately at troops more than three miles away-a first in military history.
The Civil War was the first war to use railroads, encouraged by President Lincoln — himself a former railroad lawyer — who understood how vital they were for moving men and supplies. The North had a distinct advantage, with superior infrastructure (20,000 miles of track), better equipment and their own locomotive factory. Whereas the South had just 9,000 miles of track and had converted its locomotive works into an armaments factory. The trains allowed generals to move their soldiers, supplies and armaments to where they were most needed. Rail centers and railroad infrastructure soon became targets for attack. While the South's rail system was weak, they were the first to use trains to their advantage, transporting supplies and soldiers to vital areas. The North was stymied by railroad owners more concerned with how much they could charge, than how quickly they could aid the cause. In fact, Secretary of War Simon Cameron was forced to resign when it was discovered he was trying to profit from War Department contracts for railroad shipping.
Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, was responsible for creating the first organized transport of the wounded. Ambulance units usually consisted of a ragtag group of soldiers who were otherwise unfit for fighting. Letterman innovated and regimented the process. The ambulances of a division moved together under the direction of a line sergeant, with two stretcher-bearers and one driver per ambulance. They would go into the field, pick up the wounded, deliver them to dressing stations and then to field hospitals. To this day the military bases its ambulance system on Letterman's ideas.
Prior to the Civil War, most combatants used smooth-bore muskets which had a maximum range of about 300 feet. However, shortly before the start of the war, the invention of rifling (grooves in the musket barrel) meant bullets could spin and travel up to 900 feet. This was an important defensive development and increased the range and accuracy of muskets. The Mini bullet made defense even safer. When used in the rifled musket it spun faster, traveled further and was five times more accurate than any single-man weapon. Able to kill at half a mile, it was the largest contributor to battle wounds (more than 90%).
The ancestor of the modern machine gun, it was the most successful of several rapid-fire guns that were born before the war. Richard Gatling invented the gun in the hopes that a weapon so catastrophic in its damage would convince men to stop waging war. Unfortunately, its efficiency in killing only made war more deadly. It was not used extensively during the Civil War.
At the start of the Civil War the North had a distinct naval advantage as the South didn't have a dedicated Navy. Both recognized the importance of armor-cladding their ships. The first engagement between two iron-clad ships was between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The first fight between iron clad ships of war, in Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862, in which the Monitor whipped the Merrimac and the whole school of Confederate steamers. Naval mines were developed by the Confederates in the hopes of counteracting the Union's blockades of Southern ports. Mines and later, torpedoes, were very effective sinking 40 Union ships. The success of these mines led to the creation of land mines and grenades that would be used in later wars. And also for us some interesting things like: 1) Feminine Pads and Tampons (World War I) The biggest problem with war is that it tends to put holes in people, thus encouraging blood to take a scenic stroll through places it's not supposed to visit. Especially during World War I, when the dead and wounded toll hit the double-digit millions. And especially when a cotton shortage made the bandaging of dying soldiers a pain in the neck. At the time, Kimberly-Clark was a paper mill company that realized you could do more with wood pulp besides just make it into paper. In fact, if you prepared the right combination of pulp, you could get a material that was five times more absorbent than cotton, yet significantly cheaper to produce. Kimberly-Clark named their newly discovered material cellucotton and the Allied Forces were on it like white on rice. Guess who else was on cellucotton like white on rice? Allied nurses on their lady-days. It turned out those super absorbent bandages worked really well as disposable sanitary napkins, something that was not readily available to women at that point. Back then, most women were forced to use literal rags, sponges or a whole mess of nothing during their periods. So once the war ended, Kimberly-Clark had a ton of blood bandages on their hands and no one's blood to soak up. Until someone remembered that unlike the war, menstruation wasn't going to end anytime soon, and that those nurses LOVED using their bandages during their periods. With a quick re-branding that actually capitalized on their product's origin, Kimbery-Clark packaged cellucotton as feminine hygiene products and was hailed as the saviors of women everywhere.
2) Twinkies (World War II) There is something about eating a Twinkie that just lets the world know you're not too keen on self-respect. Maybe it's because under "expiration date" Hostess just prints "LOL." Or maybe it's because you're eating something called a "Twinkie" and you're not five-years old. We're not judging; this is being typed one-handed, and there are Twinkie marks all over the space bar. So why do we have Hitler to thank for them? Well, back in the 1930s, a baker named James A. Dewar invented a sort of strawberry shortcake snack for Hostess; yellow sponge cake with strawberries crammed inside. Because strawberries were only in season a couple of months out of the year, they eventually switched it up and filled them with bananas instead. People didn't exactly go crazy for them. But then WWII began. The government started rationing all sorts of goods, so they could be used to fight the Nazis instead. Bananas were among these items, because apparently you can't stop a blitzkrieg without bananas. Maybe by littering the battlefield with peels so the Wehrmacht would slip hilariously on them. Whatever the reason, Dewar and Hostess were clearly screwed. No strawberries, no bananas; all they had was their stupid empty yellow cakes. Dewar finally decided screw it, leave out the fruit completely and squirt some cheap cream filling in there. What else was he going to do? People went absolutely nuts for it. Sales exploded, and the modern Twinkie was born.
3) A Bunch of Classic Toys (World War II) In 1943, naval engineer Richard James was working on a doozy of a problem. Delicate equipment aboard battleships had this way of getting knocked the hell around during high seas. So James was messing around with springs to support the phonogram machines or whatever, when what do you know? He dropped one of the springs. And instead of just sitting there like a punk, the little spring kind of stepped away in a very slinky-like manner. Knowing that there was nothing kids loved more than coiled metal, James figured he just might have invented the world's greatest toy ever. Within two years, James found the perfect metal for his toy idea and scored a $500 loan to build his first batch, which he sold in 90 minutes. A few years later, probably still haunted by his failure to actually keep the battleship equipment safe, James gave it all up and ran away to join a cult. Go figure. While the Slinky was discovered by accident, tons of government dollars worth of research were poured into Silly Putty. In 1943, the wartime rubber shortage was so bad that the government asked private companies to create a synthetic rubber substitute. General Electric had a whole team of scientists throw together every chemical they could think of in hopes that it would create something rubber-like. One squishy mixture proved to have surprising qualities: It bounced and stretched, it would not stick and it only melted at very high temperatures. Things were looking up until someone pointed out that you can't make tires out of something with the malleability of wet chewing gum, even if it can totally copy the newspaper. It was so useless at replacing rubber that GE tried to send it to scientists around the world in hopes that someone, anyone, could figure out something to do with it. Eventually, a toy manufacturer mentioned that little kids will pretty much play with any goddamned thing you give them. He figured that he might as well try to sell the stuff by packing it in small eggs and advertising it through novelty catalogs. The rest is history. Cheap, $2 in a pink plastic egg history. Finally, there's Walter "Fred" Morrison. Fred, like most other college kids in the 1930s, spent a great deal of time throwing around pie pans from the Frisbie Baking Company. But it wasn't until he joined the Air Force that he learned about aerodynamics and he realized he was doing science during those pan-flinging sessions. So, Fred took what he learned about basic aerodynamics from the Air Force and made a prototype of a better flying disc, that didn't have bits of pie crust stuck to it. And instead of tin, he went with plastic. He dubbed his creation the "Pluto Platter," which was ultimately renamed the "Frisbee" and went on to provide hardcore leaping motivation for extreme college kids everywhere.
4) Tabasco Sauce (The Civil War) If you're thinking that you're about to hear Tabasco sauce was originally brewed as a cannon lubricant or some kind of chemical weapon, relax. The Civil War gave us Tabasco in a much more roundabout way. Edmund McIlhenny was a self-made man, the kind of guy who picked himself up by the bootstraps, worked 12 hours a day and became a prominent New Orleans banker, just in time for the American Civil War to erupt and destroy everything he'd worked so hard to achieve. Once Union soldiers invaded his town, McIlhenny fled with his family to his wife's home at a place called Avery Island, which wasn't actually an island at all, unless you consider a big ol' salt dome an "island." McIlhenny started a new life helping to run the family salt mines, which was actually pretty good business. The Avery Island salt mine provided the Confederacy with 22 million pounds of salt during the war, and before he knew it, McIlhenny was back on his feet! That is, until Union forces mounted an attack on his salt mine and he had to flee once more. This time they went to Texas, where the McIlhennys wisely stayed put until the end of the war. And while the cat's away, the Union soldiers will plunder your plantation and burn your crops to the ground, as the McIlhenny family discovered upon their return. Everything had been destroyed, Yankee-style, and the only crops that seemed to thrive in the ashy, salty soil were some pepper plants... from the Mexican state of Tabasco. Thanks to the war, in 1868 those peppers were pretty much the only thing McIlhenny had going for him. So, he mixed them up with some Avery Island salt, vinegar, other peppers and wham! Tabasco sauce was born. He bottled his concoction in some old perfume bottles and started shipping to them grocers around the country. Two years later he got a patent, and the McIlhenny family has been running the Tabasco brand ever since.
5) Nylon Stockings (World War II) In case you haven't figured it out yet, war has a way of gobbling up resources. It's bad enough when you can't have a salted banana every morning for breakfast, but it's downright HELL when you can't get some silk for your pantyhose. Which is exactly what happened to American women once the Japanese decided the Americans weren't on the right side of the World War II. And remember, this is the 1940s. Women wore dresses all the damn day long, but they wanted their gams covered. Specifically, covered with silk. So when Japan cut off the West from their silk, American women freaked the hell out. Women put money into grabbing the last silk pantyhose at a time when they had to grow their own food and turn over their kitchen grease for the war effort. That's how important silk was. It was about that point that American ladies got good news and bad news. The good news was that back in 1935, DuPont hired the brightest chemists of the day to work on synthetic polymers to replace the silk they knew they weren't going to be able to get once Japanese relations soured, and what they came up with was nylon. Nylon was stronger than silk and totally awesome for covering bare legs. The bad news was that, oh yeah, the war effort really needed all of America's nylon for parachutes and tires and flak vests. So the ladies got their nylon hose for about two weeks, then they were cut off once more. But by the end of the war three different companies were producing versions of nylon, improving on the original until they could mix it with cotton fibers in order to create easy to wash, wrinkle free shirts. And more importantly, cranking out those sexy pantyhose. And we all know what happened when soldiers came home to see their wives wearing the miracle material that had saved so many lives during the war.