A Time to Remember: Technological Innovation in WWI

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

World War I spurred the creation of countless innovations, pushing inventors to incredible lengths by the need to stay ahead of the enemy. Many things that we use every day got their start as part of the war effort, some of which may be quite surprising. Much like my first “A Time to Remember” article, this is only an overview of some of the most interesting developments of the war, as well as a few less well-known ones as well.

Technological advances of the era are often associated with the first tanks, machine guns, submarines, and militarized airplanes. But these were only the surface factors. Many other devices came into being as supporting technology. The goal for subsequent developments was either to create something that made the new tech easier to use, or made it easier to find and blow up.

A great example of the latter was the race to combat the German’s ferocious U-Boat assaults. Though they were not the only country with submarines, Germany’s heavy submarine warfare was launched in response to heavy blockades targeting military and civilian ships alike. To combat this growing threat Allied scientists scrambled for a way to locate the machines. They based their research on the first hydrophone prototype which had been invented for the purpose of searching for icebergs following the Titanic disaster. While this original version was of little use because it could only tell the distance of an object and not its direction, it served as the starting point for the British Navy’s ASDIC echo ranging system. Though this technology had not advanced far by the end of the war, it was one of the main predecessors to our modern sonar.

Back on the surface, the RMS Ark Royal and the HMS Furious were huge breakthroughs as the first ever aircraft carriers to ply the waves. Royal was a merchant class vessel which was redesigned to carry seaplanes on a half deck. The planes were not meant to take off from the ship but only start and prime the engines before they were lowered to the water for takeoff. Furious was originally constructed as a battlecruiser with twin 18-inch guns, but she was redesigned to serve as a landing and launching point for Britain’s air feet. First one turret was removed to make room for a half-length flight deck, then later the other was also replaced with a second deck. She was launched on August 18, 1916, and the first successful landing of an airplane onboard was on August 2, 1917. Only three successful landings took place before the turbulence from the ships systems made it too dangerous and landings were forbidden. After large post-war overhaul, she was officially reclassified as an aircraft carrier in 1925.

Up in the skies, the desperate need to communicate with pilots after they left the airfield remained a grim problem. At the outset they were limited to a communication arsenal consisting almost entirely of hand and flag waving. To address this and other communication related problems across the globe, development of two-way radios began in San Diego in 1915. 1916 saw radio telegraphic messages that could be sent up to 140 miles, but it was not until 1917 that the first human voices could be heard on either end of a wireless communication. We have these dangerously isolated pilots and airfield crews to thank for the air traffic control that is integral to our airports today.

Down on the ground, the mass number of battlefield injuries led to a wartime spike in medical inventions of all kinds, from new equipment to new practices and techniques. The famous scientist Marie Curie took up the job of making her vital x-ray machines available for use in the field hospitals – no small task considering the extreme delicacy of the machines. But by the end of 1914, she had outfitted several cars and trucks with heartier versions and sent them to tour the field hospitals.  20 of the “Little Curies” would be in service by the end of the war, greatly improving the quality of care available to the soldiers and saving numerous lives.

Another major issue facing medical personnel was the sheer lack of available blood donors. While doctors knew that blood types had to be matched, they were often unable to locate a suitable donor in time to save their patients. Though there had been some prior experimentation with preserving blood for later infusion, there was no resounding call for it before to the war. After the outbreak of hostilities, Canadian Lieutenant Lawrence Bruce Robertson convinced the Royal Army Medical Corp to adopt the practice of transfusions from stored flasks. By utilizing an anticoagulant solution and keeping it cool, the donated blood could last almost a month. These battlefield advances are generally seen as the earliest example of a blood bank as well as a predecessor to modern storage methods.

Aside from just the physical items that were invented, World War I also brought about a change in medical treatments and accepted techniques. Sir Almroth Edward Wright, a British bacteriologist and immunologist best known for his work with vaccines, rewrote the book on battlefield treatments when he insisted on a method of thoroughly washing the wound and allowing it to remain open for a time. Before this, the practice had been to pour antiseptic fluid into the injury and then close it up, without removing the dirt or shrapnel not flushed out with the solution. While this was dangerous in any situation, the trenches of France were particularly gruesome: they were often dug from farmland, which is rife with manure and other bacterial agents. The incidents of gangrene skyrocketed and caused many amputations and deaths. Wright’s technique was employed to great success and many lives and limbs saved. Wright was also responsible for vaccinating British troops in the pre-war years, leading to Britain being the only country to enter the war with their troops fully immunized against typhoid fever.

Again, this is only a tiny sampling of a few things that made their debut during the tumultuous period of the early 20th Century. Flamethrowers, gas and gas masks, synthetic rubber, and pilotless drones are just a handful more of the ways that technology was careening forward at breakneck speeds. Quite a few inventions were still under development at the time of the armistice, many of which would later come back into play in WWII. Chances are good that many of our favorite technological innovations are based on innovations brought about by the Great War.

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