10 Critical Inventions and Innovations of World War Two | History Hit

10 Critical Inventions and Innovations of World War Two

Harry Sherrin

17 Sep 2021
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The Colossus II computer, one of the world's first electronic computers, at Bletchley Park in 1943.
Image Credit: Public Domain

As theatres of conflict erupted across the globe during World War Two, nations raced to devise superior vehicles, weapons, materials and medicines.

Spurred on by the life-or-death incentive of war, innovators created vital technologies such as electronic computers, jeeps, synthetic rubber and even duct tape.

The inventions of World War Two left the world irreparably changed. Superglue and microwave ovens made their way into homes around the globe. The advent of the atomic bomb and the electronic computer, meanwhile, revolutionised the face of warfare and life on Earth.

Here are 10 of the most important inventions and innovations of World War Two.

1. The jeep

Desperate for a universally effective military vehicle during World War Two, the United States military called on the nation’s car manufacturers to submit designs. The desired vehicle, they stipulated, had to be light and maneuverable, able to hold at least 3 soldiers at once and capable of traversing thick mud and steep gradients.

The winning model was a hybrid of a few submitted designs. The Ford Motor Company, the American Bantam Car Company and Willys-Overland all started production of this new universal military vehicle.

The ‘jeep’, as soldiers nicknamed the machine, made its debut in 1940.

An American Bantam Car Company jeep, pictured during US military testing, 5 May 1941.

2. Superglue

In 1942, Dr Harry Coover was toiling away trying to design new clear lenses for gun sights when he made a serendipitous discovery. He tested the chemical compound cyanoacrylate, but rejected it because of its intense adhesive properties. The material proved useful in other fields, though, primarily as a ‘super glue’.

Spray-on super glue was later produced on a mass scale and was used throughout the Vietnam War to stop wounds from bleeding.

3. The jet engine

On 27 August 1939, 5 days before the Nazis invaded Poland, a Heinkel He 178 plane took flight over Germany. It was the first successful turbojet flight in history.

The Allies followed suit on 15 May 1941, when a turbojet-propelled aircraft was flown over RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, England.

While jet planes ultimately didn’t have a decisive impact on World War Two, they would go on to play a pivotal role in both warfare and commercial transport around the globe.

Last summer Dan was lucky enough to sit down with 101 year old Mary Ellis, a courageous and pioneering aviator. She talked about her love of flying and the incredible feats she undertook as a spitfire pilot. Mary Ellis passed away at the age of 101 on 25 July, 2018.
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4. Synthetic rubber

Throughout World War Two, rubber was essential to military operations. It was used for vehicle treads and machinery, as well as soldiers’ footwear, clothing and equipment. Constructing a single US tank could demand as much as a ton of rubber. So, when Japan seized access to the rubber trees in Southeast Asia in 1942, the Allies were forced to find alternative materials.

American scientists, who had already been studying synthetic alternatives to natural rubber, raced to produce their products on a mass scale.

Dozens of new synthetic rubber factories were opened across the US. These plants had produced some 800,000 tons of synthetic rubber by 1944.

5. The atomic bomb

The construction of the atomic bomb in the United States required a network of high-tech laboratories, several tons of uranium ore, more than $2 billion of investment and some 125,000 workers and scientists.

The resulting technology, a functioning nuclear bomb, led to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and by extension, Japanese surrender in World War Two. It also thrust the world into the Atomic Age, characterised by nuclear energy production, global disputes over nuclear arms and widespread fears of a devastating nuclear fallout.

‘Gadget’, the prototype atomic bomb used in the Trinity test, photographed on 15 July 1945.

Image Credit: Federal Government of the United States / Public Domain

6. Radar

While radar technology was in use before World War Two, it was developed significantly and implemented on a vast scale during the conflict.

Radar systems were installed along Britain’s south and east coasts in the months before World War Two. And during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the technology afforded the British military an early warning of imminent German attacks.

Over in the United States, meanwhile, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried to turn radar into a weapon during the war. They had hoped the technology might allow them to send debilitating electromagnetic pulses at enemy planes, scolding or injuring the pilots.

They were unsuccessful, but radar nonetheless proved invaluable as a detecting device during World War Two.

7. The microwave oven

One of the engineers who helped pioneer radar for use in World War Two, Percy Spencer, went on to find a popular commercial use for the technology after the war.

As the much-cited story goes, Spencer was testing a radar machine when the chocolate in his pocket melted. He began placing different foods in proximity of the device and experimented with shorter wavelengths – microwaves.

Soon enough, the microwave oven was born. By the 1970s, the technology could be found in millions of homes across the United States.

8. The electronic computer

The first electronic computer was invented at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking headquarters during World War Two. Colossus, as the machine became known, was an electronic device designed to decipher Nazi messages encrypted using the Lorenz code.

Join Dan Snow on an exclusive tour of the house and grounds, as well as the little known but all-important cottages that surround Bletchley Park.
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Across the Atlantic in 1946, American experts created the first general-purpose electronic computer. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was built by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania and was used to calculate the US military’s artillery firing data.

9. Duct tape

Duct tape owes its existence to Vesta Stoudt, a munitions factory worker from Illinois. Concerned that the US military was sealing its ammo cases with unreliable and permeable paper tape, Stoudt set about inventing a sturdier, cloth-backed, waterproof tape.

Convinced by the promise of her new technology, Stoudt wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt approved the invention for mass production, and duct tape was born.

Military personnel and civilians across the globe still use it to this day.

10. Penicillin

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. After the outbreak of World War Two, the antibiotic was popularised and produced on a staggering scale.

The drug proved invaluable on the battlefield, fending off infection and hugely increasing survival rates among injured soldiers. Remarkably, the United States manufactured more than 2 million doses of the drug in preparation for the Normandy landings of 1944.

The US War Department described the need to mass-produce penicillin as a ‘race against death’.

A laboratory worker sprays penicillin mould into flasks, England, 1943.

Harry Sherrin

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