The 8 Most Important Inventions and Innovations of World War One | History Hit

The 8 Most Important Inventions and Innovations of World War One

Peta Stamper

04 Aug 2021
A Mark IV Tank using its unditching gear in crossing a pit, September 1917.
Image Credit: CC / Imperial War Museum

World War One was a conflict unlike any experienced before it, as inventions and innovations changed the way warfare was conducted before the 20th century. Many of the new players that arose from World War One have since become familiar to us both in military and peacetime contexts, repurposed after armistice in 1918.

Among this wealth of creations, these 8 give particular insight into how war affected different groups of people – women, soldiers, Germans at home and away – both during and after World War One.

1. Machine guns

Revolutionising warfare, the traditional horse-drawn and cavalry combat was no match for guns that could shoot multiple bullets at the pull of a trigger. First invented by Hiram Maxim in the United States in 1884, the Maxim gun (shortly known after as the Vickers gun) was adopted by the German Army in 1887.

At the start of World War One machine guns like the Vickers were hand cranked, yet by the war’s end they had evolved into fully automatic weapons capable of firing 450-600 rounds a minute. Specialised units and techniques such as ‘barrage fire’ were devised during the war to fight using machine guns.

2. Tanks

With the availability of internal combustion engines, armoured plates and the issues of manoeuvrability posed by trench warfare, the British quickly sought a solution to providing troops with mobile protection and firepower. In 1915, the Allied forces began developing armoured ‘landships’, modelled on and disguised as water tanks. These machines could cross difficult terrain using their caterpillar tracks – in particular, trenches.

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By the Battle of the Somme in 1916, land tanks were being used during combat. At the Battle of Flers-Courcelette the tanks demonstrated undeniable potential, despite also having been shown to be death traps for those operating them from inside.

It was the Mark IV, weighing 27-28 tons and crewed by 8 men, that changed the game. Boasting a 6 pound gun plus a Lewis machine gun, over 1,000 Mark IV tanks were made during the war, proving successful during the Battle of Cambrai. Having become integral to war strategy, in July 1918 the Tanks Corps was founded and had around 30,000 members by the war’s end.

3. Sanitary products

Cellucotton existed before war broke out in 1914, created by a small company in the US called Kimberly-Clark (K-C). The material, invented by the firm’s researcher Ernest Mahler while in Germany, was found to be five times more absorbent than normal cotton and was less expensive than cotton when mass produced – ideal for use as surgical dressings when the US entered World War One in 1917.

Dressing traumatic injuries that needed the sturdy cellucotton, Red Cross nurses on the battlefields started using the absorbent dressings for their sanitary needs. With the end of war in 1918 came the end of the army and Red Cross’ demand for Cellucotton. K-C bought back the surplus from the army and from these leftovers were inspired by the nurses to devise a new sanitary napkin product.

Only 2 years later, the product was released onto the market as ‘Kotex’ (meaning ‘cotton texture’), innovated by the nurses and hand made by women workers in a shed in Wisconsin.

A Kotex newspaper advert 30 November, 1920

Image Credit: CC / cellucotton products company

4. Kleenex

With poisonous gas used as a silent, psychological weapon during World War One, Kimberly-Clark has also begun experimenting with flattened cellucotton to make gas mask filters.

Without success in the military department, from 1924 K-C decided to sell the flattened cloths as make-up and cold cream removers calling them ‘Kleenex’, inspired by the K and -ex of ‘Kotex’ – the sanitary pads. When women complained their husbands were using Kleenex to blow their noses, the product was rebranded as a more hygienic alternative to handkerchiefs.

5. Pilates

Against a growing tide of xenophobia and worries about ‘spies’ on the home front, World War One saw tens of thousands of Germans living in Britain interned in camps as suspected ‘enemy aliens’. One such ‘alien’ was the German bodybuilder and boxer, Joseph Hubertus Pilates, who was interned on the Isle of Man in 1914.

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A frail child, Pilates had taken up bodybuilding and performed in circuses all over Britain. Determined to keep us his strength, during his 3 years in the internment camp Pilates developed a slow and precise form of strengthening exercises he named ‘Contrology’.

Internees who had been left bed-ridden and in need of rehabilitation were given resistance training by Pilates, who continued his successful fitness techniques after the war when he opened his own studio in New York in 1925.

6. ‘Peace sausages’

During World War One the British Navy’s blockade – plus a war fought on two fronts – of Germany successfully cut off German supplies and trade, but also meant that food and everyday items became scarce for German civilians. By 1918, many Germans were on the brink of starvation. 

Seeing the widespread hunger, Mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (later to become Germany’s first chancellor post-World War Two) began to research alternative food sources – especially meat, which was difficult if not impossible for most people to get hold of. Experimenting with a mixture of rice-flour, Romanian corn flour and barley, Adenauer devised a wheatless bread. Yet hopes of a viable food source were soon dashed when Romania entered the war and the cornflour supply stopped.

Konrad Adenauer, 1952

Image Credit: CC / Das Bundesarchiv

Once again searching for a meat substitute, Adenauer decided on making sausages from soy, calling the new foodstuff Friedenswurst meaning ‘peace sausage’. Unfortunately, he was denied the patent on the Friedenswurst because German regulations meant you could only call a sausage such if it contained meat. The British were evidently not so fussy, however, as in June 1918 King George V awarded the soy sausage a patent.

7. Wristwatches

Wristwatches were not new when war was declared in 1914. In fact, they had been worn by women for a century before the conflict began, famously by the fashionable Queen of Naples Caroline Bonaparte in 1812. Men who could afford a timepiece instead kept it on a chain in their pocket. 

However, warfare demanded both hands and easy time-keeping. Pilots needed two hands for flying, soldiers for hands-on fighting and their commanders a way of launching precisely timed advances, such as the ‘creeping barrage’ strategy.

Timing ultimately meant the difference between life and death, and soon wristwatches were in high demand. By 1916 it was believed by the Coventry watchmaker H. Williamson that 1 in 4 soldiers wore a ‘wristlet’ while “the other three mean to get one as soon as they can”. 

Even the luxury French watchmaker Louis Cartier was inspired by the machines of war to create the Cartier Tank Watch after seeing the new Renault tanks, the watch mirroring the tanks’ shape.

8. Daylight saving

A US poster showing Uncle Sam turning a clock to daylight saving time as a clock-headed figure throws his hat in the air, 1918.

Image Credit: CC / United Cigar Stores Company

Time was essential to the war effort, both for the military and civilians at home. The idea of ‘daylight saving’ was first suggested by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, who noted that summer sunshine was wasted in the mornings while everyone slept.

Yet faced with coal shortages, Germany implemented the scheme from April 1916 at 11pm, jumping forwards to midnight and therefore gaining an extra hour of daylight in the evenings. Weeks later, Britain followed suit. Although the scheme was abandoned after the war, daylight saving returned for good during the energy crises of the 1970s.

Peta Stamper