Many things people use every day contain technology first developed for military use. Over human history, warfare has proven to be a primary driver for innovation. It’s a shame killing other people provides the necessity to play mother to humanity’s best inventions. But multiple technologies originally developed to help destroy enemies and protect allies have shaped modern society in unmistakable ways.
The following is a list of ten everyday items born from the battlefield.
10 Duct Tape
Much like every toolbox, broken car window, and down-home first aid kit, no list of military breakthroughs is complete without duct tape. Originally imagined by a factory worker to seal and waterproof ammunition boxes, duct tape quickly became a handy solution to all sorts of problems encountered on the battlefield and far beyond.
That worker, Vesta Stout, nearly failed to get her world-shaking invention into the hands of interested parties. After not receiving enough attention for her tape from those in charge around her, Stout pulled a boss move and wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Within a few weeks of her letter, Stout was informed that Johnson & Johnson would immediately begin manufacturing duct tape for military uses.
9 Microwave Oven
Somewhere right now, a college student is preparing a cup-o-noodle for lunch in three minutes, a writer is heating up their coffee for the fourth time in two hours, and a kid is creating a destructive laser light show using old CDs. What makes all of these modern tasks possible? The microwave.
In 1940, while Nazi Germany’s aircraft terrorized Great Britain, a team of British physicists arrived in the U.S. bearing top-secret cargo that significantly increased the capabilities of contemporary radar. The British team’s research advanced the usefulness of radar throughout WWII. Then, in 1946, an American engineer named Percy Spencer filed patents that used a primary component from the British radar designs, the cavity magnetron, to rapidly heat food. Spencer allegedly got his idea when a peanut bar melted in his pocket while working around radar equipment.
By 1955, the first commercial microwaves made their way onto the market for over $1,200 (around $12,000 in 2021 dollars). Thankfully for later generations of frozen food and ramen connoisseurs, the microwave gradually became affordable. Now, even the dingiest motel room is incomplete without a little piece of WWII tech.
8 Super Glue
True to its name, super glue sticks all kinds of surprising things together with serious gusto. A short internet search shows many uses of the glue; most are impressive, and some are downright hilarious. Like so many of the world’s best inventions, this extraordinary adhesive was discovered by accident in the pursuit of more efficient weaponry.
In 1945, a group of scientists, including Dr. Harry Coover, worked with chemicals called cyanoacrylates to create clear gun sights for use in WWII. The sights never materialized from their initial experiments, but six years later, Coover began researching the chemicals again. He later released his “Super Glue” to the market in 1958. Even after the glue went public, the military continued to find new uses for the product, including sealing aircraft canopies and closing flesh wounds.
From its roots as a failed way to help soldiers shoot better, to an incredibly adherent research chemical, and finally, to the recognizable and sensationally sticky household item of today, super glue is a case of truth in advertising and a textbook example of military R&D spilling into everyday life.
7 Global Positioning System
Long, long ago, GPS did not exist as an acronym nor a technology, and the idea that a person could be directed to a destination of their choosing by a talking computer remained a concept buried deep in science fiction. Little did anyone know that one day the technology would arrive that placed fairly accurate directions in the palm of every distracted driver’s hand.
The glorious directional revolution humbly began as a way to track submarines during the Cold War. By the 1970s, the rest of the DoD joined the effort, sending up the first NAVSTAR unit in 1978, with the final satellite entering orbit in 1993. The project proved its worth definitively in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Even though the system was incomplete with only 19 of the 24 satellites operational, the limited coverage of the unproven technology allowed U.S.-led Coalition forces to outmaneuver Iraqi units over a trackless desert devoid of landmarks.
The original uses of the technology increase in relevance even today, and the military is only a slice of the expanding GPS pie chart. Everyone with a cell phone uses this technology in the modern world without even having to think about it. GPS is used across the globe, on most internet-connected devices, and for all sorts of tasks the inventors of the tech could not have imagined: see “location-based marketing,” “ridesharing,” and “on-demand restaurant delivery.”
6 The Internet
The impact of the internet on human society is impossible to quantify, but it has undoubtedly altered civilization. Loved and hated by so many in equal measure, the modern internet is an accessible web of useful applications, great information, meaningful connections, echo-chamber politics, cyberbullying, and so much pornography. The cursed blessing that is the internet started as a much simpler concept to connect computers and share scientific data.
In the 1960s, the DoD Advanced Research Projects Agency received a proposal from computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider for a globally-connected computer network for sharing data. From there, new programming languages sprang up from universities and labs across the world, the network became more uniform, and the web of connectivity extended into the private sector. A computer manufacturer registered the first domain in 1985, opening the internet to the wider world of consumers, and from that point through today, the internet has grown at incredible speeds.
The internet must be considered for the “most impactful military tech” list for how much it has altered humanity. The deceptively simple concept of sharing data across multiple connected systems is now embedded into life so deeply that to lose internet access is less of an inconvenience and more of a crisis for modern Homo sapiens.
5 Canned Food
Today, many foods can be found in some shape or form in a can. Corn, tuna, pig’s feet, tamales, and so much more pack the canned food section of the grocery store. Middle-class pantries fill with canned foods year after year until it’s all thrown out one spring cleaning. This modern preservation method, which helps feed so many, developed from that pesky, crucial requirement that soldiers have to eat too.
The well-known idiom, “an army marches on its stomach,” explains the absolute necessity for food to accompany soldiers on a campaign. Food, however, spoils, causing a major problem for anyone planning to eat it after a certain amount of time. The French army showed great interest in extending the shelf life of their soldiers’ rations after seeing more men die from eating rotten food than succumbing to combat injuries. In 1806, Nicolas Appert sought a sizeable monetary prize from the French government in exchange for developing a way to preserve food long-term. With his invention, he became “the father of canning,” and military rations were forever changed. Quickly following their development for the military, canned foods entered the private market and proved to be an effective, sanitary way to store food for extended periods of time.
Modern canning and preservation are direct contributors to human population growth. Vienna sausages, Spam, and corned beef hash may not be considered gourmet, but the same process that seals those sweaty meat products lets armies march across nations and, more importantly, feeds those that otherwise might starve.
4 Bagged Salad
Another slightly less salty military technology that translated seamlessly into everyday life is bagged salad. Though short on taste, nothing says freshness like a crispy piece of iceberg lettuce on a flash-fried chalupa.
A German man named Karl Busch invented the first vacuum sealer machine during WWII, intent on preserving food for military families and soldiers heading to war. In the 1950s, cutting-edge vacuum technology repurposed from the military helped end the need for vast quantities of ice to ship vegetables. The method more effectively cooled and preserved leafy greens, especially by removing air and slowing spoilage. This allowed fresh lettuce and other greens to be transported long distances to places far from the farm. In 1963, Busch’s redesign for an industrial-sized machine eventually led to the technology making its way to private homes, with the first modern home sealer invented in 1984.
Without vacuum technology from WWII, salads from fast-food restaurants would cost way too much for people to buy, a bit like now, but the consumer’s option to go home and make their own chicken Caesar salad would be impossible.
3 Synthetic Rubber
Synthetic rubber is nearly everywhere in modern life. Cars, electronics, furniture, skateboards, footwear, dog toys, and so much more owe their current existence to the invention of synthetic rubber. The world of rubber surrounding people today may be much different if not for military-funded research. The necessity for rubber during WWII led directly to the invention of the modern wonder material.
When the Japanese took over their Pacific empire, much of the world’s supply of natural rubber was cut off. This left the United States scrambling for a way to produce rubber synthetically. With consumption rates already around 600,000 tons per year leading up to the war and little supply to match, President Roosevelt appointed a committee in 1942 to solve the rubber supply crisis. By April of that year, the first bale of synthetic rubber rolled off the manufacturing line at Firestone.
The rapid invention of synthetic rubber to fill wartime demand directly led to all of the various uses of rubber in the world today. Synthetic rubber is another example of technology developed to meet a military need that became a staple and growth multiplier in the civilian market.
2 Virtual Reality
Countless games and multimedia experiences allow consumers to lose themselves in today’s virtual world, but all of these interactive programs trace their lineage back to military training systems first employed in the 1980s.
It begins with the construction of advanced flight training simulators and extends through modern simulated combat environments, vehicle trainers, team-building exercises, and mental health therapy. Modern military VR exists to support the training of personnel and is not intended to replace actual training; much in the way that a player’s skill on a VR surgery simulator does not mean they should try to remove an appendix.
The military likely does not train soldiers to walk across a beam 20 stories high, escape a virtual prison cell, or shoot aliens with giant lasers, but the training technology introduced in the 1980s helped bring about the growing virtual world.
Skynet has been slacking. The company iRobot kicked off the machine revolution nearly 20 years ago. Their robots are already among us: in our cities, on our streets, and in our homes. The short, mobile discs roaming floors while devouring Cheeto crumbs, dog hair, and cat litter are not only simple autonomous vacuums; Roombas contain the programming DNA of a bona fide warfighter.
According to iRobot co-founder Colin Angle, the technology that enables Roombas to thoroughly vacuum floors uses the same programming employed by military robotic minesweepers. The same breakthroughs that allow Roomba to navigate its way around furniture without getting stuck (usually) also help soldiers clear dangerous minefields using robotic minesweepers.
While civilian Roombas patrol kitchen floors for enemy crumbs and the occasional penny, their military cousins help human allies defeat hazardous explosives. It’s only a matter of time before the vacuums join with the voice assistants to film another Terminator sequel.