Monday, March 24, 2014

Military-Inspired Inventions That Are Now Commonplace

Many of the daily items we utilize today were not intended for civilian use. In light of continual tensions in hotspots around the world…that will probably eventually lead to World War III (hey – minus Smokey & the Bandit III, The Matrix Revolutions & The Dark Knight Rises – who doesn’t love a trilogy??!)…here are ten modern items for which we can thank the military:

Canned Food

In 1795, the French government, concerned about the limiting availability of large quantities of food during military campaigns, offered a cash award to inventors for an efficiently cheap method of food preservation. Over the next 15 years, Nicolas Appert, a Parisian confectioner, experimented with various techniques using glass bottles; in 1810, he was awarded the prize for a process similar to pasteurization known as “appertisation,” in which the bottles were tightly sealed with a vise and placed in boiling water to cook the contents. As Appert's model became more widespread, Peter Durand, a British merchant and inventor, patented an improved process utilizing tin canisters later that same year. In 1812, Durand sold the patent to British industrialists John Hall and Bryan Donkin, who began producing canned food for the British army; six years later, Durand re-patented his invention in the United States. By 1822, canned food became a recognizable domestic staple in Britain, France and the U.S., and a fundamental necessity in conflicts from the (original) Crimean War to the Second World War.

Microwave Oven

Working for the Raytheon Corporation after World War II, Dr. Percy Spencer accidentally discovered the practical application of microwave radiation as a by-product from his research on radar technology. Noting that a candy bar in his pocket melted when exposed to the radiation, he was spurred to conduct further experiments on a way to rapidly cook food. Called the “Radarange,” Tappan, under a patent-license with Raytheon, began manufacturing units designed for home use starting in 1955. However, it would take another twelve years to develop a commercially viable countertop oven, introduced by the Amana Corporation, a Raytheon subsidiary, in 1967.


Created by DuPont's Wallace Carothers, nylon was an anticipatory invention during the 1930s intended as a synthetic replacement for scarce Asian silk due to the impending Second World War. It was introduced commercially in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more notably two years later as women’s stockings. During the war, it was used extensively in the production of parachutes, as well as other military equipment like tires and protective gear. From rope to dress shirts, nylon's application in modern society is now an inescapable reality.

Cargo Pants

A modern fashion trend, cargo pants (and the variation of shorts) were originally created for military use in the late 1930s. Designed for use by British military personnel, particularly paratroopers, the large-pocketed pants made it easier to carry military equipment like portable communication devices and extra ammunition. Unlike nylon stockings, which were an immediate hit on the fashion scene in the 1940s, it would take another sixty years for cargo pants to go from functional to fashionable.


In 1953, Norm Larsen, founder of the Rocket Chemical Company, invented this handy lubricant as a water displacement ("WD") and corrosion inhibitor for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Allegedly, it was his 40th attempt to perfect the formula, which is a trade secret; to avoid full disclosure of its ingredients, it has never been patented. Based in San Diego, California, Larsen’s invention became commercially available in the city’s hardware stores five years later.

Duct Tape

In 1942, the U.S. military needed a quick and easy way to seal ammunition cases to prevent water from getting in. Fifteen years earlier, the Revolite Corporation, a division of Johnson & Johnson, had developed medical tape made from a rubber-based adhesive and “duck” cloth. Headed by John Denoye and Bill Gross, a new tape was adapted from the design for the military per their requirements, including the ability that it be ripped by hand rather than by the standard use of scissors. Originally, the adhesive was gray; the tape itself, made of a waterproof flexible plastic, was colored olive drab. Known by soldiers as “duck tape,” it was quickly put to use repairing everything from weapons to vehicles. In 1950, Cleveland-based Melvin A. Anderson Company acquired the rights to the tape; re-colored gray to match silver ductwork, it rapidly became a common application for sealing air ducts.

Wireless Communication

Perhaps considered a marvel of modern technology, wireless communication, like the microwave oven, has a unique development history. During World War II, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, otherwise known as actress Hedy Lamarr – an intellect beyond her beauty and tinkerer in her spare time away from the Hollywood spotlight – and her neighbor, composer George Antheil, co-invented and patented a frequency-hopping radio guidance system for use in torpedoes. The system was designed to make it difficult for enemies to jam or detect them. Although rejected by the United States Navy at the time, the system was the precursor to and basis for a number of today’s communication systems including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (you know…that long-ago era that President Obama mocked Mitt Romney about wanting their foreign policy back?), the U.S. Navy needed a means to determine the exact location of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Likewise, the U.S. Air Force needed an improved navigation system for its arsenal of strategic bombers and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Deeming such a system vital to national security as part of the nuclear deterrence strategy, Congress immediately funded its development. Combining the research efforts of the Navy, Air Force and U.S. Army – which had been working on its own system for surveying purposes – the Navstar-GPS system (initially called the Defense Navigation Satellite System) was deployed for military use in the 1970s. In 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan issued a directive granting civilian use of GPS after the Soviet Union shot down a commercial airline, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, alleged to have violated Russian airspace; six years later, the first-ever civilian satellite was launched into space.


Throughout the 1960s, several methods were researched in the United Kingdom and the United States for “digital networking communication” (packet switching) for use by the military. On October 29, 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (A.R.P.A..; later D.A.R.P.A.) initiated ARPANET, designed as a network connection between various projects among its research centers and laboratories. Though initially crashing, the four-node network – consisting of both the University of California at Los Angeles and at Santa Barbara, the Stanford Research Institute and the University of Utah – was permanently linked by December 5. From there, the network expanded exponentially throughout the 1970s and 1980s as more university and government nodes were connected to it. With the further advance of protocols and technologies, the turning point came with passage of the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (HPCA). Crafted and sponsored by then-U.S. Senator Al Gore, Jr., HPCA helped fund the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s research and development of Mosaic – the browser considered to have launched the World Wide Web. (So yeah, Al Gore kind of did help invent the Internet.)


In medieval times, a knight for hire who had no master and whose weapon of choice, the lance, was available for a fee. After publication of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe, in 1820, the term used to describe these mercenary “free lances” came into mainstream usage to describe any self-employed person not beholden to a particular employer.

©2014 Steve Sagarra

No comments:

Post a Comment