However, over time, military engineering often makes its way into our homes in the form of new appliances and technology that couldn’t exist otherwise.
The basis for what would go on to become the computer was created during World War II. In 1941, the British Bombe was invented by Alan Turing as a means of decrypting Nazi Enigma Code. Prior to this, all of his work in computing was purely theoretical. He was brought onto the Colossus Project, which again was designed to break enemy codes.
The Colossus Project created the first electronic digital computer, which according to many experts shortened the war considerably thanks to the Allies’ ability to crack German communications.
During World War II, it was discovered that microwaves transmitted from radar equipment could heat food. Percy Spencer was an engineer working on radar technology, when he discovered that a chocolate bar he had in his pocket had melted during his work.
After some experimentation, he realized that by directing the focus in a contained space, microwaves could be concentrated at a specific point and create enough heat to cook food.
Another invention created during World War II, duct tape was invented by Vesta Stoudt, a concerned mother with two sons serving in the Navy. She worked at the local ordinance plant packing boxes of rifle cartridges. These boxes were taped and waxed to make them waterproof, but the tape was made of paper, with a small tab left loose so it could (in theory) be pulled to release the wax coating and open the box. However, the paper tape wasn’t very strong, meaning these tabs would more often than not simply tear straight off, leaving soldiers frantically trying to open the boxes themselves while in combat.
Vesta had the idea of replacing the paper tape and wax with a stronger waterproof cloth tape. She believed in her idea so much that she wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt explaining her design:
“I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same. It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape. I have two sons out there somewhere, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved. Had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second. I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.”
The War Production Board asked Johnson & Johnson to manufacture the tape, given their experience with creating surgical adhesive tapes. Allegedly it was originally called duck tape, because it was waterproof.
Vesta would go on to receive the Chicago Tribune’s War Worker Award for her idea. Outside the military, it was renamed duct tape for its ability to patch and repair ducts.
The technology we rely on for navigation with our smartphones and cars was originally military technology. The Global Positioning System (GPS) allows accurate location anywhere in the world. It provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing. Originally called NAVSTAR, it is still to this day owned by the US Government.
Designed in the 1970s as an alternative to radio navigation systems, the system of 24 satellites could keep track of soldiers, spy on enemy movement, and track the trajectory of missiles thanks to trilateration.
Now the technology utilises more than 30 satellites, and when the technology was successfully completed in 1995, GPS was made available to the public.
The technology has made flights safer, and search and rescue operations have become far more successful thanks to the ability to search large amounts of space quickly.
The technology behind digital cameras began in spy satellites, used in the 1970s to capture high-quality images of enemy installations.
The original spy satellites had to air-drop massive amounts of film back to earth to then be developed and analysed. Digital technology held the potential to take usable pictures that couldn’t be intercepted by the enemy.
The first true digital camera was invented by Steven Sasson in 1975, cobbled together out of spare parts that were just lying around in a photography lab. It weighed nearly 4 kilograms, had a 0.1 megapixel resolution, and took 23 seconds to take a black and white photo. Sasson was working for Kodak at the time, who owned around 90% of the photography market. Their main product was film, and they chose to abandon the digital project rather than develop it.
Military technology can have the potential to make civilian life easier and safer. Who knows what new technology will be commonplace in the future thanks to military innovation?
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