Life Just Wouldn’t Be the Same Without These Military Inventions That Became Everyday Products
It’s no secret that the U.S. Department of Defense gets a huge annual research and development budget to spend on better defending the nation and improving existing military technologies. In 2020, the Pentagon will ask Congress for a $104 billion budget for military research. Much of this budget will go for research in electronics-related technologies, paving the way for inventions in communications, surveillance and sensor technology, aviation and maritime systems, computers, optics and other electronic-related technology used in warfare, as well as chemical and biological research.
A budget this size far exceeds the research budgets of any universities or research institutions; in fact, part of this military budget will be spent on funding research in academic settings. So what are the benefits to the average taxpayer from all this research spending?
What many people don’t know is that military research has developed many inventions that were turned into everyday consumer items, often radically changing our lives. Here are 19 things we use everyday that were developed or discovered by the military.
The Slinky toy was invented in 1945 by Richard James, a U.S. Navy mechanical engineer, who was looking for a way to keep breakable equipment steady on board military vessels while they were at sea. James was testing the use of sensitive torsion springs and accidentally knocked one of his springs off a shelf.
The spring didn’t fall to the ground, but instead appeared to walk down. James spent the next two years testing and improving his new toy and patented it in 1947. The first Slinky used 75 feet of high carbon steel wire, tightly coiled so that the toy only stood two and a half inches high. James’ wife, Betty, named the new toy Slinky. The couple set up a company to manufacture the new toy and their first 400 Slinkys sold out in 90 minutes when they went on sale at Gimbels.
Duct tape got its start as a quick-opening, waterproof seal for ammunition cases during World War II. In the 1940s, a mother of two sons serving overseas in the U.S. Navy, Vesta Stoudt, was working at an ordnance plant in Illinois. She realized that the taped, waxed seals on cartridge cases were often tricky and time-consuming to open; time that men under fire, needing more ammunition, didn’t have. Stoudt developed a cloth-based waterproof tape that could be quickly and easily removed.
The company she worked for wasn’t interested in her invention so Stoudt wrote to President Roosevelt about her “duck tape” saving lives under fire. Roosevelt sent her letter to the War Production Board, which acted on her idea, and asked Johnson & Johnson, a manufacturer of surgical adhesive tape, to produce the new “duck tape” for military use. Because the new tape was strong. sticky and waterproof, soldiers soon found other uses for it: repairing equipment and clothes. During the post-war housing boom, the name changed to duct tape when it was sold as a way to seal central air and heating system ducts, and the color changed to match the silver-grey pipes.
During World War II, as the Japanese invaded rubber-producing countries, the supply of rubber to the United States was cut off. The U.S. military asked American companies to develop a synthetic rubber. James Wright was an engineer working for General Electric. He discovered that if he mixed boric acid and silicone oil he was able to make a gooey substance that would bounce if tossed on the floor. General Electric sent samples to engineers around the world, but no one could find any practical or military uses for the substance.
Ruth Fallgatter, a toy store owner, was interested in the bouncing putty and hired marketing consultant Peter Hodgson to see if she could create a toy from the material. The pair packaged the putty in a clear case and sold it for $2. The bouncing putty quickly became a big hit, but Fallgatter decided not to keep selling it. Hodgson carried on alone marketing the product, now called Silly Putty. Hodgson packaged the Silly Putty in distinctive plastic eggs. Finally, in 1950, The New Yorker magazine wrote a story about Hodgson’s Silly Putty and he received 250,000 orders in three days.
The following year, Hodgson sold millions of Silly Putty eggs. By the 1970s, sales were over $5 million annually and the product is still available. Silly Putty is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History and was taken into space by Apollo 8 astronauts.
In 1942, a chemist at Eastman Kodak, Dr. Harry Coover, was trying to develop a material that could be used for clear rifle sights for the Army. He created a compound known as cyanoacrylate, which was a strong adhesive but too sticky for making sights. Later, during the Korean War, Dr. Coover was once again trying to use cyanoacrylate to provide heat resistance. Once again, the substance failed its intended purpose but this time Dr. Coover discovered that it made a powerful and fast way to stick things together.
In 1958, Eastman-Kodak first sold cyanoacrylate under the name Super Glue. Super Glue was used by military surgeons during the Vietnam War to close wounds quickly so soldiers didn’t bleed, and wilderness first aid kits often contain Super Glue to close skin lacerations in the outdoors, far from medical help.
Global Positioning System
Global Positioning System, or GPS, is a system of navigation that uses a network of satellites to tell exactly where objects are. The U.S. military had previously used radio-based navigation systems, but needed a more precise way to determine location. GPS was developed in the 1960s and went into use after the military launched a series of GPS satellites into orbit by 1964. The GPS system could better identify military targets, improved mapping abilities, accurately tracked planes and missiles, and more.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan authorized civil aviation use of GPS when a Korean airliner was shot down by Soviet military after flying off-course and President Bill Clinton later made GPS readily available to the public. These days, GPS is widely used: smartphones and cars have GPS navigation system built in, land surveying and maps are more accurate, search and rescue teams use GPS to save lives, scientists use GPS to track wildlife and so on.
EpiPen had its start as a military device that could safely and easily inject medication into a soldier who had been exposed to chemical toxins or nerve gas. Sheldon Kaplan, a medical equipment researcher working at Survival Technology, invented the first injection device, called the ComboPen, in the 1970s. The ComboPen contained the antidote to a new Soviet nerve agent.
At the same time, Kaplan was designing a similar device for general use by the public. The EpiPen is a spring-loaded syringe that contains a single dose of adrenaline to treat someone having a severe allergic reaction, and can be used through clothing, by someone with no medical training. EpiPen was launched in 1987, and is now carried by allergy sufferers and widely stocked in schools.
During the Napoleanic wars of the early 1800s, Napoleon nearly lost a crucial battle because much of his army was away foraging for food in the countryside, as supplies had run out. Supplying enough fresh food in wartime was a huge challenge for any army. Looking for an effective way to feed his troops, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs ($150,000) to anyone who could find a way to cheaply preserve large amounts of foods.
Nicolas Appert, a French brewer, discovered that food placed in glass bottles, closed with a cork, sealed with wax and then boiled, didn’t spoil. Appert was awarded the prize in 1810, and went on to write the first cookbook about his technique.
Following the end of the Napoleonic wars, this system of preserving food gradually spread to other parts of Europe. In England, a man named Bryan Donkin changed the glass bottles to tin cans, and set up a canning factory. In the U.S., inventor Gail Borden used the new canning technology to make sweetened, condensed milk, which didn’t need to be kept cold and could be easily transported.
During World War II, a man named Percy Spencer was researching radar for Raytheon, a military contractor. Radar uses a series of radio waves that bounce off objects and can be used to determine an object’s location. One day, Spencer was working with live radar, when he saw that the equipment had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.
Spencer realized that microwaves being emitted were creating enough heat to cook food. He and his colleagues experimented with heating different types of food in the lab, including popcorn kernels and eggs. Spencer then enclosed the equipment in a metal box, so the waves couldn’t escape, and created the first microwave oven.
In 1945, Raytheon filed a patent for Spencer’s invention, calling it the Radarange. The oven was 6 feet tall, weighed 750 pounds and cost about $5,000. By 1967, microwave ovens had come down in both price and size, selling for about $500 and being small enough to sit on a countertop.
As military planes became more powerful and able to fly at higher altitudes in the 1930s, U.S. Air Force pilots began to experience headaches and altitude sickness from sun glare. The Ray-Ban company developed a new type of eyewear, made with dark green lenses, that were larger than standard eyeglasses, and could reduce sun glare without limiting vision.
The new aviator glasses were so popular with pilots that Ray-Ban began to sell them to the public in 1937, marketing them to hunters, fisherman,hikers and anyone who spent time in the outdoors, and the company replaced the original plastic frame with metal. In 1938, Ray-Ban launched glasses for shooters and hunters with a yellow lens, good for misty conditions.
Throughout World War II, Ray-Ban continued to develop glasses for pilots, using special coatings on the lenses to improve protection and reduce glare. In the 1950s, Ray-Ban began to expand its styles, creating the iconic Wayfarer glasses, which quickly became popular with Hollywood stars.
As aerial warfare became increasingly important during World War II, militaries on both sides of the conflict were searching for ways to make their planes more powerful. The English Royal Air Force turned to Frank Whittle, an aviation engineer and test pilot. Whittle had successfully developed and patented a gas turbine engine, the forerunner of today’s turbojet engine.
The Germans had Hans von Ohain, a physicist and airplane designer, who patented a jet propulsion engine similar to Whittle’s in 1934. Von Ohain worked with a second airplane designer, Ernst Heinkel, and they successfully flew small planes with the new jet engine in 1939 and 1941.
After the war, as jet engines allowed airplanes to fly higher and faster. Companion technologies, such as pressurized cabins, were also developed and led to modern day air travel.
During World War II, radar systems were used to track and guide aircraft. Some radar operators noticed echoes that showed up on their radar screens, which turned out to be weather phenomena. Robert Watson-Watt had been studying the use of radar to detect thunderstorms before the war, based on the types of electromagnetic waves that weather fronts emit.
After the war, the U.S. Navy gave the national Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) 25 radar units that were formerly used by Navy aircraft. Known as Weather Surveillance Radars (WSR) they were altered for civilian use and sent out across the U.S. Within two years, airports were using radar technology to help planes land safely during a thunderstorm. When two major hurricanes made landfall in 1954, more WSRs were installed on coasts prone to hurricanes, to predict future ones. By the 1960s, advancing electronics technology was making radar more and more accurate, and new developments in weather detection continue to this day.
Synthetic Rubber Tires
Again, during World War II, because the supply of rubber to the United States was cut off, the U.S. military sent requests to American companies asking them to develop a synthetic rubber. The manufacture of war equipment needed a lot of rubber: Sherman tanks used half a ton, a heavy bomber required up to 1,825 pounds, a gas mask needed 1.11 pounds and military trucks needed rubber for tires.
A group of tire and rubber companies joined forces with research labs and petro-chemical companies, and were able to create an all-purpose synthetic rubber called Government Rubber-Styrene (GR-S) and produce it on a large enough scale to meet the needs of the U.S. and its allies. Today, 70 percent of all rubber used in manufacture is still synthetic and still similar to the original GR-S compound.
The U.S. Army put out a call to U.S. car manufacturers during World War II to design a light but rugged vehicle that could travel off-road and carry heavy loads. The winning design came from the American Bantam Car Company: a small, four-wheel drive car that could reach speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. The car was known as a General Purpose, or GP, which eventually came to be known as a Jeep.
Bantam couldn’t supply the large number of Jeeps that the Army needed, so Willys-Overland in Ohio was asked to produce them as well. Even these two companies together couldn’t manufacture enough, so the Army contracted a third carmaker, the Ford Motor Company.
Today, Fiat Chrysler still makes the Jeep Wrangler, which has many of the same features, and the same look, as the iconic green war-time Jeep. The Jeep is still popular, selling 200,000 units in 2016.
Ambulances were first used on a battlefield around 1487. However, they went in after fighting was over, to pick up any wounded soldiers that had survived. These ambulances were usually farm carts used to bring wounded soldiers to makeshift hospitals or medical tents.
During the Civil War, the Office of Surgeon General was set up by the War Department to improve medical treatment of soldiers. One of the early Surgeon Generals, William Hammond, designed an ambulance wagon for the wounded and made sure that there was one ambulance for every 150 soldiers. Hammond’s system proved so efficient that a battlefield could be cleared of wounded by the end of a day.
In 1869, a former Union Army surgeon, Edward Dalton, set up an ambulance service at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Dalton knew that the faster a patient was brought to the hospital, the better their chances of surviving. Bellevue’s new ambulances were stocked with medical equipment, such as splints, morphine and stomach pumps, and staffed by doctors. Teams of horses were kept on-call and an ambulance could be sent out within 30 seconds.
By 1900, horse ambulances were replaced with motorized ones, which had electric lights, a cot and seats for attendants. They also had a gong to alert other traffic and pedestrians. By World War I, all ambulances were stocked with traction splints, to keep patients with fractures stabilized.
After a bad train crash in Great Britain (the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash), a government enquiry found that many victims might have been saved if better equipment had been available at the scene. Ambulances began to be fitted with medical equipment, such as defibrillators and oxygen tanks, which previously were only available in a hospital. Modern ambulances now resemble an emergency room in miniature and are staffed by trained medical emergency response personnel.
Blood Banks and Transfusions
A Canadian army doctor, Lawrence Bruce Robertson, had studied methods of blood transfusion at Bellevue Hospital in New York prior to World War I.
When war broke out, he enlisted and served as an army surgeon, using direct blood transfusions at aid stations in order to treat shock and blood loss, two major reasons wounded soldiers died before reaching a hospital. The army medical corps was also beginning to store blood, adding sodium citrate (the discovery of a second Canadian doctor, Edward Archibald) to prevent it clotting, and keeping blood refrigerated to make it last.
By 1917, U.S. Army Captain Oswald Hope Robertson was storing universal donor blood (Type O) so it could be given to wounded soldiers at forward medical units close to the front lines. After the war, Robertson returned to Canada and pioneered the use of blood banking and whole-blood transfusion for a range of medical conditions, including burns, in Canadian hospitals. By 1922, a blood donor service had been set up in London, and in 1930, the Soviets established the first system of blood banks that could provide blood for regional hospitals.
During World War I, cotton was in short supply for use in medical bandages. Kimberly-Clark, an American paper company, developed a bandage that was five times more absorbent than cotton bandages, and cheaper, too. The disposable bandages were made from a wood pulp-derived material that the company called CelluCotton.
Many Army nurses began to use these bandages as sanitary napkins. After the war ended, company executives were searching for peacetime products that could be made from CelluCotton and decided to start manufacturing sanitary napkins. After a Kimberly-Clark employee stated that CelluCotton had a “Cotton-like texture,” this was shortened to ‘Cot-tex’ that then became the brand name, Kotex.
Before Kotex were first sold, in 1921, women had relied on clumsy, cloth pads, often homemade, that needed to be washed frequently. The new, disposable Kotex quickly became popular with women.
The military was looking for a way to protect soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II from catching malaria, yellow fever, West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne diseases. Two research scientists working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan, developed a way to generate a fine mist of insecticide from an aerosol can and patented their invention in 1941.
Another researcher working in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Samuel Gertler, discovered DEET, a synthetic insect repellent that stopped mosquitos from biting. He was granted a patent for his discovery in 1946. DEET was made available to the public in 1957, and is still widely used in bug and mosquito repellent creams, lotions and sprays.
Wristwatches had actually been around since 1812, but were treated as more of a novelty and mostly worn by women; men usually carried pocket watches. In 1880, watchmakers Girard-Perregaux made 2,000 wristwatches for officers in the German Navy, so they could keep their hands free on duty. By the time of World War I, most men still carried pocket watches. Soldiers were unable to carry their gear and still be able to check the time, so they were issued with ‘trench watches’ that they wore on their wrists.
Officers, in particular, needed to know the exact time in order to coordinate attacks and maneuvers. However, they were expected to buy their own watches, which were required to have a luminous dial and an unbreakable crystal. The popularity of wearing a watch on the wrist carried over into the post-war period and wristwatches became the standard equipment of people everywhere who needed to be able to refer to the time quickly and easily.