GPS, drones, microwaves and other everyday technologies born on the battlefield

War is never as easy topic to discuss, as it divides many apart – physically, emotionally, intelligently, and ethically. As Americans mark May 26 as a day to remember all those who have fallen – who gave their lives in order to preserve ours – we take a look at some of the technologies that were invented or advanced during wartime, which have now been adopted into civilian use.

It’s difficult to describe any good that comes out of warfare, but research and development – both military and commercial – have led to many post-war contributions in tech. Modern things like nuclear power, computers, zippers, medicine, armor, money, and even the teabag could be traced to conflicts as far back as the Civil War (or older). Here are some of those that we still use today.

Navigation

Global Positioning System (GPS) is so common that every smartphone uses it to find its location. But this network of satellites was originally set up by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1970s (as a successor to radio-based navigation systems) for military purposes, such as giving submarines accurate positions for missiles launched. President Ronald Reagan ordered GPS to be made available to civilians once it was completed, while President Bill Clinton later declared that the highest quality GPS signal should be available as well.

Telegraphy

Consider electrical telegraphy the 19th-century equivalent to modern-day email. While the telegraph (specifically the one developed by Samuel Morse) was already established prior to the Civil War, the network of wires that spanned across the country was greatly improved during wartime. The telegraph allowed information to travel faster than horseback, providing troops with essential orders from faraway command centers. Technology like the telegraph made the Civil War one of the first “high-tech” conflicts in history.

Penicillin

Although research into what is now known as penicillin stems back to the late-1800s (its full discovery occurring in the 1920s), the antibiotic wasn’t put into use until World War II, where it helped treat soldiers infected wounds. The medicine, one of the safest, is still commonly used today to fight bacteria.

Radar, Microwave Oven

Originally an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging, this system uses radio waves to find speed, altitude, range, and direction of moving objects like planes, ground vehicles, missiles, etc. While developed before World War II, research and development for military purposes. The concept is simple: A dish or antenna send radio waves that bounces off the object, returning them to where the transmission originated (which is then used to calculate the object’s positioning). Today, it’s used for a variety of purposes, both military and civilian, including air traffic control and weather forecasting. (Inadvertently, it was discovered that microwaves transmitted from radar equipment during WWII could also cook food, which led to the post-war creation of the microwave oven.)

Air Travel

Air travel may be much maligned these days, but it could have been worse if it wasn’t for the invention of the jet engine. Although research started in the 1920s, it didn’t get put into use until the Second World War by both the Allies and the Axis powers (the German Messerschmitt ME 262 is considered the world’s first jet-powered fighter). Because air warfare played a huge role in World War II, it also accelerated the development and advancement of things such as pressurized cabins (planes were beginning to fly higher) and air traffic control – things that play a key role in modern-day air travel.

Nylon, Synthetics

Nylon is a durable synthetic material that was developed by DuPont as an alternative to natural fabrics that became scarce due to World War II (silk, for example, was reserved for use by the military as part of civilian wartime efforts). Today, it’s still one of the most heavily used polymers for clothing and other goods. Besides nylon, World War II also saw advancements in synthetic rubber and synthetic fuel.

Canned Food

Canning, as a means of food preservation, can be traced back to Napoleon times, and was used by both the military and civilians. But canned foods became essential items in the Civil War and World War I, as they were efficient in feeding soldiers. Canning became important for civilians in World War II due to food rationing. Canned goods still line the aisles of today’s supermarkets, although many health experts warn they don’t offer nutritional benefits due to the salt content.

Jeep

When the military called for a new light motor vehicle, it received submissions from several manufacturers. Ultimately, the contract was awarded to the Willys-Overland Motors company, which created the Willys MB, the predecessor to the modern-day Jeep Wrangler (although politics, legalities, and trademark disputes made the history much more convoluted than that). Regardless, many of Jeep’s signature designs can be traced back to the military Jeep of the 1940s.

Wristwatch

Wristwatches were important in the military, as many officers used them to strategically plan their maneuvers. Today, wristwatches aren’t only functional devices, but fashionable accessories.

Drones

One tech associated with 21st-century warfare is the unmanned drone, although the concept dates back to the U.S. Navy in the early 20th century. It’s too early to tell what types of technology today’s wars would contribute toward civilian use in the future (some experts suggest there won’t be much), but with drones becoming increasingly popular for surveillance and photography in commercial and civilian use, it’s one for the history books.

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