What war is good for

War, What is it good for? Well…

Wartime threat of extermination focuses people. Government bureaucracy dissolves, funds are limitless, inventors don their thinking helmets, and there are great lurches of development in all areas from weaponry, to cooking, agriculture and communications.

World War II saw more technological innovation than any other conflict, partly because of its size and what was at stake, but mostly because of the unprecedented collaboration between scientists and the military. A war that started with cavalry charges finished with jet fighters, computers and the atomic bomb.

Lets investigate some of World War II’s major innovations, and their effects on our peacetime world.
Radar / Microwave oven
It might seem strange that the device that saved Britain from invasion should lead to the only major development in cooking since the Stone Age, but it did.

Radar sends out electronic pulses. These bounce against hard things such as enemy ships and back to a receiving device, giving a picture of what’s out there. Without radar, Britain wouldn’t have been able to scramble a coordinated counterattack against swarms of Nazi planes in 1940, the Battle of Britain would have been lost, Hitler’s UK invasion would have proceeded, and the war’s outcome would have been altered irreparably.

Radar existed before 1939, but the war spawned a massive surge in development. In 1940 two British scientists invented the ‘Magnetron’. This was a powerful, compact radar device that could be fitted into planes and ships. It is claimed that the Magnetron did more to bring about an Allied victory than any other invention.

In 1946, an American engineer, Percy Spencer, was experimenting with a Magnetron when a chocolate bar in his pocket melted. Intrigued, he zapped Magnetron rays at popcorn, which cooked, then at an egg, which exploded into the face of a colleague. The electromagnetic waves were causing water molecules to jiggle about, generating heat. Spencer had discovered a completely new way of cooking. The microwave oven was born.
English mathematician Charles Babbage designed a programmable computer in the eighteenth century, but lacked the tools to build it. Development of similar ideas in World War II lead to the machines that pervade almost all human activity today. The Germans used advanced machines to study rocket ballistics, the Americans to predict naval gunfire, but the first true computers were in Britain.

Radio was easily intercepted, so military messages were encoded. To hamper deciphering, codes grew enormously complicated, taking the brightest people weeks to crack. Something was needed that could think faster than humans.

Britain’s finest mathematical and electronic minds gathered to find an answer. Using their findings, a brilliant engineer called Tommy Flowers built Colossus, the first true computer, at Dollis Hill Post Office Research Station. This machine was not, as commonly believed, used to crack the Enigma Machine’s code. It worked on another German code, the Lorenz Cipher. This code took a team of humans six weeks to crack by hand. Colossus did it in eight hours, working as fast as Pentium II Processor.

The British now claim Colossus as the father of all computers because it was the first ‘production’, computer with a defined task: ten of them were built, all to crack the Lorenz Cipher. German and American ‘computers’ of the time were just one-off experimental devices.

NASA’s Space Shuttle is a direct descendent of the V1 and V2 rockets that the Germans launched at London with devastating effect at the end of the war, killing around 10,000 people.

Until World War II, military rockets were essentially giant fireworks, useful for little more than scaring horses. Their potential had been realised –Hermann Oberth wrote “The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space” in 1924 – but there was much to be done. Following their conventional air force’s defeat at the Battle of Britain, the Germans threw huge resources into developing rockets and jets (see below).
Rapid-burning liquid fuel was developed, and the payload and navigation greatly improved. According to President Eisenhower, if the V Bombs had been developed six months earlier, they would probably have prevented the Allied D-Day landings.
The Germans also developed the first rocket plane, the Me163 Komet, in 1944. It was astoundingly fast, but useless as a fighter. It was so quick that it couldn’t put enough bullets into a bomber to down it on one fly-by, and it had a very short flight time, so Allied planes just followed it and destroyed it on the ground

German rocket scientists carried on their work in the USA and USSR. Only 24 years after the war, their great leaps forward in rocket design allowed Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the moon.
Jets developed simultaneously in England and Germany, but Germany thrust ahead due to better funding. The Heinkel HE178, designed by Dr Hans Von Ohain, flew in 1939. In 1944 the Germans unleashed the ME262, the only effective jet fighter of World War II. It shot down 150 Allied planes to the loss of 100 ME262s. The future of air warfare had soared into the skies.

In Britain, jet designer Frank Whittle’s progress was stalled by an uninterested government. It wasn’t until the ME262 started zooming about in 1944 that the government took over his company Power Jets Ltd. However, it is Whittle’s jet that is the true ancestor of the modern jet plane, as the USSR and the USA developed the British technology after the war.
Numerous injured and diseased people have always lead to medical development in warfare, but more in the production and application of existing methods than in innovation. The astounding bacteria-killing ability of Penicillin, for example, was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. At the beginning of World War II, however, it was rare and expensive. In 1940 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin determined its chemical structure, enabling mass production. Many thousands were saved a slow death from putrefying wounds.
Meanwhile in the South Pacific, malaria was rife. The Japanese had taken Java, the main source of the natural anti-malarial drug quinine. By November 1942 in New Guinea, malaria was preventing 85 per cent of Australian troops from being able to hold a gun.
In Cairns, Australia, 800 human guinea pigs were infected with malaria and put though the horrors of Pacific Combat – forced marches, sleep deprivation and malnutrition – to test synthetic drugs. Mepacrine, developed in Germany after World War I, proved most effective. From December 1943 to November 1944, malaria rate in Australian Troops was cut from 74 per cent to 2.6 per cent.

These medical advances continued to save the lives of thousands after hostilities had ceased. Penicillin still does today.
Atomic Bomb
Arguably responsible for the modern world’s relative stability, the first nuclear weapons were created and used by the United States during World War II.

Ernest Rutherford had discovered that splitting atoms released energy, but never more than the energy used to split them. In 1937, the German Otto Von Hahn discovered fission in uranium. Splitting certain uranium atoms, as well as releasing energy, caused more atoms to split, producing the potential for an immensely powerful bomb.

Refugee scientists warned what the Germans were working towards, and the race was on. In April 1943 scientists began work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They tested a plutonium bomb on 16th July 1945. On August 6th, the first ever explosion of an uranium-based bomb was over Hiroshima in Japan. The four tonne bomb, codenamed Little Boy, had the same explosive power of 12,700 tonnes of TNT. It killed 70,000 people immediately. Many more died from the after-effects of the radiation. The plutonium bomb detonated over Nagasaki 3 days later was nearly twice as powerful. The Japanese surrendered.

After World War II, nuclear bombs kept the Cold War balanced, but have largely been forgotten in today’s terrorist-based geopolitics. Or so we hope.



One problem with war is that it mainly takes place outside. As a result, troops on Pacific islands were plagued with insects. Luckily, the US department of Agriculture invented fly-spray in 1941. The heavy and expensive aerosols, known as Bug Bombs, saved many from insect-borne disease. After the war the device was refined to become the deodorant and furniture polish cans of today.


Ultrasound Scanning.

In World War I, submarines were detected simply by listening. This was ineffective if the submarines stayed quiet. British, French and American scientists set up the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee (ASDIC) in the 1920s. They created an underwater version of Radar, sending out a pulse of sound into the deep and measuring its return (the ‘pings’ in submarine films). This method, known as SONAR (SOund NAvigation and Ranging), was greatly enhanced in World War II.

In the 1950s, Dr Ian Donald of Glasgow University refined SONAR further to create ultrasound scanning, a safer alternative to X-Rays, used to scan babies and hearts, as well as to destroy diseased brain tissue, break up kidney stones and treat the arthritis that all those World War II navy men were beginning to suffer from after endless damp hours cramped up on boats watching for submarines.