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.

Emerging Tech

Ford’s bipedal delivery robot can walk straight up to your doorstep

Autonomous wheeled delivery robots are seemingly everywhere in 2019. Agility Robotics' Digit robot takes a different approach: It promises to carry out its deliveries while walking on two legs.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (May 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater, from Gravity to Logan

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in several genres for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Movies & TV

Skip the flowers and sunshine this spring and watch the best shows on Hulu

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Emerging Tech

This guy managed to squeeze an entire game console into a Game Boy cartridge

Popular YouTuber 3DSage has managed to compress an entire mobile games console inside a single original Game Boy cartridge. Check it out in all in its impressively miniaturized glory.
Emerging Tech

I mainlined a bag of liquid vitamins — for science

Healthy people are signing up for treatments that are typically saved for patients stuck in hospital beds. Known as nutrient IV therapy, the treatment entails pumping vitamins, minerals, and fluids directly into the bloodstream, bypassing…
Emerging Tech

Scientists use an X-ray laser to create the loudest possible underwater sound

Researchers from Stanford University and the Department of Energy have produced the loudest sound possible to make under water. Here's how they managed to create it — and why they did it.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Huawei updates, Starlink launch, and Pac-Man’s birthday

On this episode of DT Live, we discuss the ongoing Huawei saga, Amazon’s social games for workers, Ford's partnership with a robotics company, the Starlink satellite launch, Pac-Man’s birthday, and more.
Emerging Tech

Las Vegas officials bet big on Elon Musk’s Boring Company

Elon Musk’s Boring Company has just been awarded a $48.6 million contract by Las Vegas to build a high-speed transportation system beneath the city’s enormous convention center, and it could be ready by early 2020.
Emerging Tech

Airbus shows off the futuristic interior of its autonomous flying taxi

Airbus has given us the first look inside its single-seat flying taxi. The absence of controls in the Vahana electric aircraft is a reflection of its autonomous capabilities, so you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Emerging Tech

Future smart clothes promise to keep you the perfect temperature at all times

Regulating your body temperature can sometimes be tough. Engineers from UC San Diego have developed heating and cooling wearable tech which could be embedded into future smart clothing.
Emerging Tech

Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 aborts marker drop mission

The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft's mission to drop a reflective marker on the surface of asteroid Ryugu has been aborted. The Japanese team was considering a second touchdown on the asteroid to collect more materials, but this now seems unlikely.
Emerging Tech

Whose name should we etch on the Mars 2020 rover? NASA wants a vote

Dream of making it to Mars? NASA has opened up a new public outreach program to let people send their names to the Red Planet, as an engraving on a silicon chip launched with the Mars 2020 rover.