The military invents a lot of things, and not all of them are new types of guns. They’re all about making things as efficient as possible, and every once in a while they come up with a product so good, it ends up bleeding into civilian life and becomes entwined with our daily lives. As a result, there’s a good chance that you’ve used many brilliant inventions that you had no idea started out in some top secret military facility or another. Inventions such as…
Remember the awful days of yesteryear when everyone had to rely on mere maps to find their way from point A to point B? Back then, the process often involved accidental detours via points C, D and somehow W before you finally grew desperate enough to ask for directions. GPS changed all of that, and as long as your equipment holds up, an array of satellites can now guide you from Kansas to Guatemala without a hitch. Truly, we live in The Future.
The US Military recognized the need for easy global navigation that didn’t involve asking directions from old men leaning on fences every other mile in 1964. The Cold War was at full swing, and Naval Research Laboratory scientist Roger Easton started tinkering with a system to figure out just what kinds of satellites the Soviet Union was flying up there. He initially tinkered with ground-based tracking stations, but a breakthrough came when he realized putting highly accurate clocks to multiple tracking satellites would allow them to sync their tracking with each other with much better accuracy.
Over the next decade, he fashioned a system called “Navigation System Using Satellites and Passive Ranging Techniques,” which already incorporated all the main features of the Global Positioning System. The Department of Defense approved funding for Easton’s invention — now called the Navstar Global Positioning System — in 1973, and it was built bit by bit over the next twenty years. Eventually, the government realized that the public would benefit from the system as well, and after a trickledown period where watered-down “selective availability” versions of GPS were available to the public, the Clinton administration opened the floodgates. Today, the system is freely available, though it’s still maintained by the military — the annual operating costs of $900 million or so, paid for by the US Department of Defense and the US Transportation Department.
Superglue is a WWII invention that got its start with Eastman Kodak scientists as part of their attempts to design gun sights to the military. Don’t worry, they weren’t trying to panickedly glue gun parts together. Instead, they found that some of the things they’d come up with during the project had some pretty interesting properties, and revisited said substances to create the adhesive.
The man who finally put together the recipe for superglue was named Harry Coover, but he didn’t see his invention make its breakthrough until the Vietnam War, when undersupplied, desperate field medics got hold of the substance and used a sprayable version to stop bleeding in chest wounds and other serious injuries. While this was effective, the early versions of superglue were decidedly not FDA-approved, and could lead to skin irritation and assorted serious issues when in contact with open wounds. Later versions of the compound were created to specifically deal with the human body, though as we’re sure you’d agree, they’re pretty handy fixing other broken stuff as well.
8. Canned food
Canned food is a surprisingly old military invention that dates back to 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte offered a hefty prize for whoever could figure out how to preserve food efficiently, because it turns out invading foreign countries was not the greatest way to have said country readily feed the invaders. The prize went unclaimed for fifteen years, until a confectioner called Nicolas Francois Appert claimed it with his newfangled method of heating, boiling and sealing food in glass jars. This innovative approach was soon improved by an Englishman named Peter Durand, who came up with a thick iron food storage can lined with tin. Ironically, it would take almost 50 more years before Ezra J. Warner would invent the can opener.
The final touches to the canned food technology we all know and … well, know once again came from the military — this time, the Natick Soldier Systems Center, a US Army facility that investigates ways to make rations last long and taste good. Incidentally, the same facility is also behind the processed cheese that’s used to make Cheetos.
7. Blood transfusions
To be perfectly honest, blood transfusions weren’t technically invented by the military, which has historically been more interested in removing blood from people than figuring out how to put it back. However, WWI military medicine was definitely the contributing factor in figuring out how to do it in relatively safe, moderately non-horrifying ways. Before 1913, the most advanced version of blood transfusion was to surgically dig up the donor’s and recipient’s veins and suture them together. It didn’t help that no one had really figured out how to deal with blood clotting, and the ABO blood grouping was still a fairly new invention that many in the medical community treated as newfangled nonsense.
Between 1913-1915, people started to figure out anticoagulants, blood bottles and donors, and WWI gave doctors ample opportunities to try out these new methods and hone them to perfection … after Canada and the US joined the war. The thing is, most of these advancements had come from North American researchers, so before they joined the fray with new blood transfusion tech, the British and French doctors from other countries largely ignored the procedure, and when they actually tried it with their old methods … well, let’s just say they were soon ready to adapt the new ones.
Like canned food, ambulances are a direct product of Napoleon’s penchant for waging war. French surgeon Baron Dominique Jean Larrey fought in the majority of campaigns during the Napoleonic Wars, and became convinced that the rapid treatment of wounded soldiers was best for everyone involved. He sat on his drawing board and developed what became known as the “flying ambulance”: A nimble, horse-drawn cart that was specially designed to move quickly and efficiently across the battlefield, picking up the wounded and rushing them to field hospitals outside the battle area.
Baron Larrey’s dedication to the wounded was especially admirable because many military higher-ups of the era thought that injured men were an unnecessary waste of supplies. As you can probably expect, he made a lot of powerful enemies thanks to his pesky humanitarian attitude. Fortunately, Napoleon himself had nothing but respect for Larrey, and the Emperor’s armies absolutely adored the Baron who fought so hard to treat them. In fact, Larrey’s strong principles and insistence that the medics would treat wounded enemies as well once saved his own life: When Larrey was wounded and captured in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo, the enemy soldiers were about to shoot him when the medic who was blindfolding him realized who he was. Larrey was immediately sent to the General of the Prussian forces, where he found out he had actually saved the General’s son’s life after an earlier battle. Instead of a swift execution, Baron Larrey received a dinner and was released back to his own people with some money and an escort.
5. Wrist watches
The first wrist watches were initially treated as a laughable joke item of their day. In 1916, the New York Times led the charge of sensible, pocket watch-using Americans scoffing at the wacky European dandies who had started wearing bracelets with clocks on them. Vaudeville artists and early movie actors utilized wrist watches as comedy props, and the whole thing was treated as a fad.
However, when the great war rolled around, wrist watches soon stopped being a laughing matter. Telephones and signal devices required users who knew what time it is, and the only practical way a soldier could wear a timepiece that they could check at a quick glance was … on the wrist. The joke item was suddenly deathly serious, and European troops were fitting their watches with unbreakable glass and radium displays for night-time use. The practical benefits of the wrist watch were now too obvious to ignore, and civilians started to use them as well.
4. The (electric) computer
While it’s true that the computer was technically invented by Charles Babbage, a 19th century mathematician who built a crude mechanical calculator called the “Difference Engine,” the era of the electric computer didn’t kick off until 1944, when Great Britain’s codebreakers unleashed the Colossus to crack Nazi messages during World War II. Instead of the famous Enigma code, the Colossus focused on the less known but even more important “Fish” transmissions that were based on electric teleprinter technology.
Fish messages were largely reliant on a cipher machine called “Tunny,” which used binary code in its encryption. Although Alan Turing figured out a method to crack Tunny’s cipher in 1942, British codebreakers found it too slow to keep up with the constant tsunami of encrypted messages. All of this changed in 1944, when a Post Office truck delivered Colossus I to their Bletchley Park headquarters. The giant machine and its eight subsequent Mark II siblings were the first true electric computers that used a clock pulse to synchronize processing steps, and proceeded to crack Tunny codes so swiftly and efficiently that they were able to help provide crucial information for the Allies’ D-Day preparations and subsequent push toward Berlin.
After the war, parts of the Colossus computers were transferred to the University of Manchester, where they served as a basis for their successor: “Baby,” the ancestor of modern all-purpose computers.
3. The microwave oven
Really? Microwave ovens? What use do the military have for those? Do soldiers carry tiny ones in their backpacks? Wouldn’t they need a pretty long extension cord?
Not quite. Still, the microwave oven definitely wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the military. In 1946, an engineer named Percy Spencer was developing a new way to mass-produce radar magnetrons. He was busy testing a military-grade magnetron, when suddenly, he noticed that a peanut cluster bar he had in his pocket had turned unexpectedly melty because of the microwaves the device emitted. Fascinated by this unexpected development, Spencer tested the magnetron on an egg, which promptly exploded on his face. After that, he moved on to popcorn kernels, and ended up inventing microwave popcorn.
While Spencer himself wasn’t particularly concerned about the potential danger microwaves posed on him during his tests, and the very first commercial microwave oven debuted just one year after the initial discovery, microwaves were still enough of an unknown commodity for the device to catch on (it didn’t help that it weighed around 750 pounds and cost $2,000). In the end, it took until 1967 and the emergence of the compact Radarange oven for the technology to make its commercial breakthrough.
2. The Internet (ARPANET was a military project)
Yes, even the wild world wide web you’re browsing this list on right now is a military invention — or rather, its predecessor ARPANET is. ARPANET is largely the product of the US defense department’s well-financed research agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (As in, ARPA — get it?).
The ARPANET network was built in 1969 to connect the mainframes of various universities, defense contractors and government institutions throughout the country, and its ultimate aim was to “bring computing to front lines.” ARPANET never quite achieved this, because while it was quite effective, its locations were completely fixed, and the computers required to operate it were massive. However, the existence of the system left ARPA scientists plenty of room to tinker, and in 1974 two researchers named Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf sowed the seeds of internet proper by creating the blueprint of the first internet protocol. Only two years later, the seemingly impossible internet started working.
Fun fact: ARPA later changed its name to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Yes, the same DARPA that has been in the focus of assorted conspiracy theories for, among other things, its involvement in the supposed weather control program HAARP.
1. Duct tape
Duct tape, if anything, seems like a military invention. It can fix pretty much anything you can name, and seems custom made for use in the field. However, military scientists had absolutely nothing to do with its original concept. The idea came in 1943 from an ammunition packer named Vesta Stoudt, whose two sons were serving in the US Navy and who was quite keen on keeping them alive. When she noticed that the ammo packages were sealed with thin paper tape and opened with a tab that frequently tore off, which left soldiers scrambling to open the packages, potentially at the cost of their lives.
Stoudt brought her concerns to her superiors and offered a solution — a strong, cloth-based waterproof tape that would efficiently seal the boxes shut — but they weren’t listening to her. So she took matters into her own hands, and wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. In her letter, she described the issue and offered her tape idea as the solution, complete with diagrams. Roosevelt was so impressed with Stoudt that he immediately passed the letter on to the War Production Board, and soon, Stoudt was showered with letters from political and military big shots who kept her in the loop about the developments and asked her to send them any other ideas she might have in the future. The tape was approved for production with “exceptional merit,” and the military immediately fell in love with it. They dubbed the new invention “the 100-mile-per-hour tape,” and use it to this day to fix everything from boots to Jeeps. It’s probably fair to say that the public quite likes the tape, as well.
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