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World War II Innovations that Changed Civilian Life

When you hear the phrase ‘Word War Two’, no doubt you only imagine scenes of destruction and the millions that lost their lives. Yes, the war impacted society forever and its horrors are enough to inspire nations to try and prevent it happening again.

But, luckily, those years didn’t ONLY have negative outcomes. Unique circumstances forced humanity to look for original solutions to problems. As a result, in environments like the battlefield and hospitals, humans made new discoveries. Also, countries poured their time and money into projects they didn’t need before.

What does this matter? Well, for one thing, you’re staring at a screen which wouldn’t have existed if not for brave and brilliant people creating computers to get the upper hand over the Nazi onslaught.

So, let me share a few interesting World War II inventions with you. They started out as wartime solutions, later on started affecting civilian life and today you probably can’t imagine your life without one or two of these.

Where it All Started—Computers

Now, a few decades ago, people didn’t think of a box with a screen when they heard the word ‘computers’. Before the machines we know today, ‘computers’ were people that were able to do complex calculations. They did important work, even for space travel, as late as the 1950s.

But of course, the human race always wants things done faster and better. So, even before the war people were hoping to do these complex calculations through mechanical methods. But it was the war that fast tracked much of the innovation in this industry. So, the major brands like Apple should be thanking the scientists of WWII for giving us the foundation of the digital electronic devices found in most homes today.

During wartime, a priority for many forces was encrypting messages and decoding the enemy’s communications after intercepting it. At the time, a Lorenz cipher machine and the Enigma cipher machine from the 1920s existed. These were used by the Germans for coding.

The Allied forces’ goal? Decoding a message in time for it to be helpful in the war effort. But this required a more advanced approach than was possible at the time…than what was humanly possible.

This need prompted countries on all sides of the fight to invest time and money in developing more advanced machines.

Throughout the war years, new devices were being worked on, like:

  • The CNC, or ‘Complex Number Calculator’ which was designed in 1939
  • In 1941, Konrad Zuse built the Z3, which could be used for aerodynamic calculations
  • The Atanasoff-Berry Computer—or ABC for short—was completed in 1942 and many believe this influenced other designers like John Mauchly (more about him later)
  • At Britain’s Bletchley Park, Tommy Flowers designed the Colossus, which can be seen as the first electronic, programmable digital computer. It was used to understand German encoded messages. By the end of the war, as much as 90% of Germany’s non-Morse code messages could be interpreted correctly. With this machine we’re talking about breaking the code within hours instead of the weeks it used to take. Many believe this was key to winning and shortening the war.
  • The US also needed calculations done quickly, for example battlefield equations. This led to the ENIAC which is short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. The person involved here? John Mauchly! However, this one was only finished in 1945.

Fun fact: you needed 1500ft² to house the ENIAC. And at the time it would have cost you $400 000. That’s slightly bigger than the device you’re using now, right?

So, computers like the ENIAC were built with wartime purposes in mind but their abilities had commercial value as well. So, as early as 1946, the ENIAC was being sold to the public. Then as the years passed the technology improved and was modified, resulting in smaller units that were more powerful and luckily for us cost a lot less!

And today, computers are everywhere!

Leaving a Mark—Ballpoint Pens

To be fair, the history of the ballpoint pen starts as far back as the late 19th century. At the time, people mostly wrote with fountain pens, but these had various limitations. From not working on certain surfaces to smudging and wasting time filling them, many people were getting fed up.

So, already in 1888 John J Loud filed a patent for a ballpoint pen. This was his attempt at finding a better way to write on surfaces like leather or coarse writing paper.

Unfortunately, John’s invention didn’t work for paper. So, with very limited applications, his design fell to the wayside and his patent eventually lapsed.

Fast forward into the 20th century and you see many patents filed by people trying to come up with a better way to write. One of these was Laszlo Biro who worked in Hungary’s newspaper industry. His stroke of genius was realizing how much faster newspaper ink dried compared to a fountain pen’s. With his dentist brother Gyorgy’s help—Gyorgy knew more about chemistry than Laszlo—the pair created a new type of ink and pens with ball-socket mechanisms. This enabled ink to flow fast but controlled and without it drying in the chamber.

Now, this all happened in 1938, but in 1941, because of the war, the inventors fled to Argentina. Now, try to keep up. They filed a patent there and the design was licensed by Frederick Miles. Frederick was an engineer in Britain who owned Miles Aircraft. He started producing the pens through his company and eventually they ended up in the hands of the Royal Air Force. They ordered 30 000 units!

Why?

The specific design still worked well at high altitudes, unlike fountain pens that often started leaking in those conditions. So, pilots were much better off with ‘Biros’—that’s what they were called—to make notes up high during the heat of battle.

FYI, they’re still called biros in England.

Now, the pen you’re making notes with now isn’t exactly like the one pilots used to help win the war. But Biro’s design is the foundation for what followed.

Companies like Eversharp, Eberhard Faber, Reynolds International Pen Company and many more made their own types of ballpoint pens. In 1945 you could buy one for $12.50, which in 2020 terms is around $180. But, some companies folded because the market became saturated and it took a lot of improvements to reach the almost problem-free designs we’re used to today.

Now, what do you usually write with? A Bic? Even they didn’t become profitable until their ‘Writes the first time, every time’ marketing campaign.

Luckily, with so many companies trying to find the perfect pen design, competition was rife and vendors had to drop their prices to stay competitive. So, now you can pick up a pen for a very small amount. Not $180!

How many pens are in use today? To give you an idea, in the US 2 billions pens are sold annually.

Just remember it wasn’t always that easy to make notes. And it was World War II that gave the humble pen a platform to show off its value.

Upgrading Air Transport—Jet Engines

Going on a trip soon? Are you flying to your destination? Chances are, you’ll be flying in an airplane powered by jet engines.

Back to WWII. At the time war was declared, propellor engines were the standard aircraft used by the military. To be clear, a propellor engine powers a drive shaft which connects to a propellor. In the case of a jet engine you get thrust because of gas discharge.

Now, people were aware that there were better ways to fly. Actually, patents for jet engines were filed as early as 1908. But the inventors didn’t succeed in creating a usable aircraft.

	Frank Whittle adjusts a slide rule while seated at his desk at the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

Frank Whittle
 adjusts a slide rule while seated at his desk at the
Ministry of Aircraft Production.

In the years leading up to the war the race was on to have better planes. Frank Whittle did exceptional work for the RAF but it was Germany who had a successful prototype as early as 1939. Only in 1941 could the Allied forces their jet plane’s first flight.

In truth, because it was still very early in their development, jet engines didn’t have a huge influence on the war’s outcome. But the advances the brilliant engineers made resulted in a complete change in transportation.

After the war, but only by the 1950s, jet engines became available for commercial use, rather than only combat aircraft. And within a short period of time, around the 1960s, if you were flying in a large civilian aircraft, it was powered by a jet engine. Of course the relatively new approach to flying needed improvement, so they only became more fuel efficient in the 70s.

Still, thanks to a lot of work going into jet engines for wartime use, it took less than 2 decades for them to be popular across the globe and to become standard in the industry. And it’s what makes your globe trotting affordable.

Military Detection to the Modern Microwave—Radar Technology

Another concept that may need clarification is radar. Most of us know the word but what does it mean?

Well, radar is short for Radio Detection and Ranging. Basically, radio waves will reflect back when it hits objects like metal, which means you can detect the position of a ship by sending out these waves.

Ship detection was what it was originally used for when people like Christian Hulsmeyer demonstrated the technology in 1904. This wasn’t its only application, since it could also help to map out thunderstorms. But, with war approaching, multiple countries invested time and money into radar technology that could help them get the upper hand. They needed devices that could provide range and angular location. By 1939, eight different nations had systems to provide this information and it became key for offensive and defensive tactics. By 1945, radar was used on land, sea and even in the air.

Where can you find this technology today?

  • It’s the tech that helps to automatically take a photo of you when you drive too fast past a traffic camera.
  • The technology made it possible to make microwave ovens—a standard appliance in most homes these days. This is all thanks to a small gadget called the cavity magnetron. As small as your hand, during the war it provided some of the benefits of radar technology. Then, a scientist noted that a radar melted his candy bar. After experimenting with other food items like popcorn, the modern microwave oven was born.
  • In meteorology, scientists use it to make weather predictions, which most of us use to plan our days like knowing when to take an umbrella to work.

Some say radar helped win the war and save the world. Today, radar in another format helps to feed people daily, around the globe.

Medical Marvels—Penicillin, Vaccines and Transfusions

With thousands of soldiers on battlefields across Europe, you can imagine there were doctors who were pushed to their limits. But this also forced them to get creative and find new ways to treat people and hopefully save more lives. This unfortunate scenario resulted in a few healthcare practices that are still being implemented today. Perhaps it has saved your or a loved one’s life at some stage? Most of use can’t imagine modern society without it.

Penicillin

Three tubes of penicillin powder, two of International Stand Wellcome
Three tubes of penicillin powder, two of International Stand Wellcome. is licensed under CC-BY

For example, even though the value of Penicillium notatum was discovered in 1928—you know, the fact that it had antibacterial properties—it wasn’t really used on a large scale. Yet.

Come World War II and across the globe the healthcare industry shifted their focus. From both the US and Britain, scientists started collaborating to find the best way to help the troops. They knew they needed to produce it in large quantities and they started experimentations to find the best way.

Methods like deep tank fermentation provided some solutions and by 1944 much more was possible than at the start of the war. So, when the Allied forces were preparing to invade Normandy, part of the plan was having enough penicillin. They knew a high number of injured shoulders was imminent and unavoidable and they wanted help fighting infections.

What’s the number they aimed for?

2.3 million doses of penicillin!

Manufacturing in such large quantities meant the news of the drug started spreading. So, the public and the world became enamored with the miracle drug. And today, this drug which fights off bacterial infections is still vital in healthcare.

Would society every have given it a proper chance if not for the war? One can only wonder.

Transfusions

Charles Richard Drew

Another challenge for doctors was helping soldiers who lost a lot of blood. On the battlefield they needed a fast solution to do blood transfusions. You probably know that when doing whole blood transfusions, you must ensure the donated blood matches the patient’s blood type. Blood plasma is a better option than whole blood, since you can give it to anyone. It was Charles Drew—an American—who standardized the process of blood plasma transfusion and gave medical personnel another tool to save soldiers’ lives.

During a blood plasma transfusion, doctors would use freeze dried blood plasma.

By the way, the freeze-dried formulation was actually discovered during WWI and then put to use during WWII.

For the process, doctors would use two sterile jars to mix the plasma with water before it traveled to the patient’s veins. Even though this method may not be used today, it still marked an important development in medical history. And each chapter in that history helped healthcare practitioners develop techniques you find in hospitals today.

Vaccines

Now, do you know that the 1918 influenza pandemic actually affected the First World War? Like the discovery of freeze drying blood plasma, this is another WWI event that affected the Second World War. It prompted America to do more research regarding flu vaccines, and the US Army actually sponsored their development. So, by 1945, there was an approved vaccine for soldiers, which became available to the public as early as 1946.

Bonus fact: a scientist involved in this process later developed the vaccine for polio. This was Jonas Salk. Who knows whether he would have had the necessary insight if a war didn’t get him involved in the flu vaccine?

Wrap Up

It’s almost inspiring to see how people ended up making the best of a very bad situation. And one can stand in awe of the creativity some had to find solutions, without having many resources.

When you look at the technological development of the past few decades, humans seem to have no end to their innovativeness. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take horrendous events like wars to push us to new discoveries.

Are you wondering about the origins of something you use daily? Share in the comments and I may just cover it in a video in future.

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