Technology touches almost every part of our daily lives, and advancements in technology continue to allow humans to live our lives faster, longer, and more efficiently. The concept of technology is so deeply ingrained into the hustle and bustle of modern living that we often forget to stop and ponder the particular events in history that necessitated technological development.
Many of the gadgets and technologies that we overlook, but are nonetheless essential to our daily lives, were developed to fill a military void or were otherwise accidentally-discovered, lifesaving innovations. Necessity is the mother of innovation, and there was a whole lot of necessity during World War II. From Spam to jet planes, these are ten World War II innovations that spurred the world into the modern era.
Speaking of necessity, saving the lives of soldiers wounded in battle was obviously one of the greatest necessities of WWII. The beneficial properties of Penicillin and the world-changing effects of antibiotics are well known. Lesser known is how the wonder drug was discovered entirely by accident. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish scientist, stumbled upon the discovery when he noticed that a petri-dish had been accidentally neglected next to an open window sill. The petri-dish containing a strain of staphylococcus had grown a colony of mold, which after being thoroughly tested by Fleming, turned out to be penicillium notatum. Further testing conducted by the United States proved the need to distribute the drug to the military in mass. In 1943, a moldy cantaloupe at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois was discovered to have the optimal strain for mass production. By summer of 1945, the United States had produced more than 600 billion units per year of Penicillin as we know it today.
In 1932, Forrest Mars, the son of the famed creator of the Mars Bar, moved to England in order to manufacture Mars Bars for British Troops. He noticed the soldiers eating small chocolate candies that had been coated in “hard sugar” to prevent the inner chocolate from melting. Mars was so thrilled at the innovative way to keep the chocolate candies from melting that he sought out another famous chocolate protege and heir Bruce Murrie, son of Hersey executive William Murrie. Together, the two chocolate innovators began producing M&M’s in the United States.
By the time the United States had entered the war, the tiny candies were manufactured exclusively for the U.S. Military as easy-to-transport, "melt-in-your-mouth-not-in-your-hand" rations that were carried all across Europe and the Pacific Theater. Soldiers returning home had a hankering for the tiny chocolates. After wartime rationing of chocolate ended, Mars Inc. began manufacturing M&M’s for the public. They have been a fixture of the American candy industry ever since!
Imagine you're an American pilot during WWII. The goal is to bomb the enemy, but the problem is, every time you fly low enough to bomb the dastardly krauts, you risk being blown out of the sky. The solution: fly higher to avoid enemy fire. Seems like an easy solution, doesn’t it? For the US Air Force, it wasn’t. At high enough altitudes, air becomes too thin to breathe, and the cold temperature can leave one hypothermic in moments. Hypoxia (not enough O2 in blood), decompression sickness, and barotrauma are all symptomatic of high altitude and can be rather problematic when trying to pilot an aircraft. In 1944, in an effort to alleviate this issue, American engineers developed the first mass produced pressurized cabins in the B-29 flying fortress, allowing American planes to fly higher than their adversaries. After the war, the pressurized cabin became a standard for commercial aircraft.
While the Allies were developing the pressurized cabin, the Germans were busy developing the modern-day jet engine. The first jet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel HE 178, took flight in 1939, and the first jet fighter plane, the ME 262, saw battle briefly at the end of WWII. Allied pilots, still in propeller-driven aircraft, were completely outclassed by the near supersonic jet.
However, by the time the ME 262 was fully operational, the Third Reich was on its way out the door and the Allies had figured out it was easier to destroy them while they were parked in hangers, rather than in the air. The captured ME 262’s were studied by the Allied powers, and both the Allies and the former Axis powers integrated jet-powered flight into commercial use.
To participate in war, a country needs vehicles, weapons, and the raw materials to make them go. This includes oil for lubricants, antifreeze, gun oil, machine grease. And rubber for tires, tank treads, and a litany of other uses. By 1940, rubber had become extremely scarce, and the Axis powers controlled most of the world's supply of natural rubber.
As a result, The United States government undertook a massive top-secret operation to develop synthetic rubber. American scientist Waldo Semon, while working for the B.F. Goodrich company, developed Ameripole, a cheap, synthetic rubber which allowed the United States to subsidize its rubber reserves during the war. By the end of the war, the United States was producing more than double the world’s natural supply of rubber. Since then, synthetic rubber and oil have been used in everything from solid rocket fuel to the plastics in your cell phone.
The V2 rocket was developed by Nazi scientist as a “vengeance weapon” to rain death and destruction upon the enemy. However, once the war had completed and the need for vengeance-rain ceased, the Allies pulled as many German scientists out of Europe as they could. In what was known as “Operation Paperclip”, said scientists were brought to the U.S. where their knowledge of rocketry, aerodynamics, and space flight was put to the test at the newly-created NASA. Today, the technology that had once been used to bring the aforementioned death and destruction now propels our astronauts into orbit and beyond. It should be noted that we still have rockets for death and destruction. Can't win them all.
Did you know that the microwave oven currently sitting on your kitchen counter was developed from military radar technology? WWII brought about the need for the various warring powers to be able to detect and range enemy aircraft and troop movement. RADAR was developed to do just that. The Cavity Magnetron, a RADAR device developed by the Raytheon company and mounted in aircraft to detect enemy presence. Perry Spencer, a Raytheon employee, conceptualized and designed the first Microwave oven after realizing the “microwaves” emitted by the Cavity Magnetron had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. Microwaves have been exciting food particles and exploding peeps ever since.
Spam gained popularity in 1937 shortly after the Hormel Food’s Company developed it for consumption by American Troops. The military needed a way to transport fresh meat to the frontline troops without spoiling. Enter Spam, or what soldiers have dubbed “ham that never passed its physical.” The ready-to-eat canned meats long shelf life and portability made it essential not only to the United States military, but to British and Soviet militaries as well. During and after the war, Spam was introduced to American-occupied islands in the Pacific. Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Okinawa have all integrated the delectable ham into their diets, a testament to its influence that is still felt throughout the region.
The Computer As We Know It Today
Computers. What would the world be like without them? Probably rather German. The first computer, “Colossus”, was developed in 1943 to aid British code breakers in deciphering a code the Germans used to secure their communications called The Lorenz Cipher. Colossus was critical to Allied code breaking efforts and directly contributed to allied success at the invasion of Normandy. Colossus had no internal memory for storing programs and was operated through a series of wire-altering plugs and switches. Ten Colossi were developed during the War, however, in an effort to maintain secrecy, the British destroyed all ten. Luckily, they kept the blueprints, ensuring that future generations would be able to binge-watch cat videos on youtube to their heart's content.
Yes, even the Slinky was invented during WWII. Its inventor, Naval Engineer Richard James developed the idea for the toy Slinky when a Torsion Spring, used primarily to test the horsepower of battleships, rolled off his desk and “slinked” across the floor in its trademark fashion. What was once used to determine naval strength became an instant hit for children. Now, if only they didn’t get tangled so easily...
What purpose do machines and innovations built for the sake of war have when the war has ended? If history is any indication, these inventions will likely be found right under your nose and in your home, seamlessly blended into your daily life.