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Ten WWII innovations that changed the world we live in (for the better)

Sam Dickson

War pushes humanity to its outer limits. Even though horrific atrocities of war often overshadow the advancements made, there are indeed those that change the world forever – and for the better. So while we dream of a world where millions of people aren’t swept off the face of the Earth so that the rest of us can enjoy the scientific and technical byproducts of wars, here’s a list of ten revolutionary innovations that WWII gave birth to.

10. The Jerrycan

The pre-jerrycan and the jerrycan. Source

The pre-jerrycan and the jerrycan. Source

Ever wondered why the jerrycan has such a weird name? Well, Jerries invented it. Jerries? Germans. At least that’s how they were referred to in the USA during the war.

Originally called the Wehrmachtskanister (or Defense Force’s Canister), jerrycan was developed secretly in pre-war Germany. Its purpose was to serve as a mobile fuel container for the military. The Ambi-Budd Presswerk Company was the first to manufacture it, and it saw action during the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

Since this innovation proved quite useful, the following year, Müller engineering’s chief engineer, Vinzenz Grünvogel, upgraded its design. By 1939, Germans had thousands of such cans stockpiled in anticipation of a war. That year, an American engineer working in Germany persuaded his German colleague to build a vehicle together and make a trip to India. The German engineer took some Wehrmachtskanisters from a pile to use them as emergency water storage.

The American was fascinated by the can’s design, and managed to smuggle one to the US. Back home, the design was reverse-engineered and the jerrycan soon entered the Allied Forces’ supplies. In Europe alone, the US Army used more than 19,000,000 during the war. Even President Roosevelt commented: ‘Without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace which exceeded the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.’

The jerrycan is ingenious for several important reasons. Its three handles mean that the can easily be carried by one person or two people. Secondly, dented surface on the side strengthens the can and allows its contents to expand. An air pocket under the handles, a cam lever release mechanism and a short spout with an air-pipe to the air pocket allow even and precise pouring. Much better than previous cans that were, above all, easy to puncture.

9. Pressurized cabins

Cabin Pressure and Bleed Air Control Panels on a Boeing 737-800. Source

Cabin Pressure and Bleed Air Control Panels on a Boeing 737-800. Source

Pressurized cabins are an indispensable element of commercial flying. The process of pumping conditioned air into the cabin of an aircraft is essential for avoiding a whole list of physical and mental problems: hypoxia (low level of oxygen in blood), altitude sickness, decompression sickness, and barotrauma, just to name a few. If it weren’t for this, few would actually pay money to travel the skies.

The higher you fly, the higher the pressure. At the beginning of 20th century, the planes were reaching ever higher altitudes and this issue grew in importance. During the 1920s, as pilots suffered physical trauma there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to pressurize their cabins. The only thing the industry was able to effectively come up with were oxygen masks – but those came at the expense of freedom of movement, tended to malfunction, and couldn’t solve problems such as heart enlargement that some pilots were experiencing.

War efforts multiplied the attempts at building a pressurized plane. Thus in 1944, Boeing managed to build the B-29 Superfortress – the first plane with pressurized nose and cockpit. Following the end of the war, this achievement expanded to commercial airplanes.

8. Synthetic rubber and oil

Sheet of synthetic rubber coming off the rolling mill, ready for drying. Source

Sheet of synthetic rubber coming off the rolling mill, ready for drying. Source

From the onset of WWII, the Axis powers were steadily gaining control over most of the world’s supply of natural rubber – an irreplaceable material in modern-age warfare (think of, say, the tires needed for military trucks). The Allies were desperate to revolutionize the quite expensive synthetic rubber production. In 1940, Ameripol was born, the first cheap solution that made it possible for the Allies to meet their need for rubber.

Towards the end of the war, Germany suffered heavily from oil shortages. Urgent need for an alternative fuel resulted in a new blend of acid with polyethylene oil. It kept the Luftwaffe planes airborne until the end of the war. More or less simultaneously, the Americans discovered that synthetic oils made the planes easier to start in winter and introduced their own synthetic oil to US Air Force. This development was crucial for another WWII innovation, the jet engine.

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7. Jet engines

The Messerschmitt Me 262A fighter plane, powered by jet engines. Source

The Messerschmitt Me 262A fighter plane, powered by jet engines. Source

Even though airplane jet engines had been successfully tested in Britain as early as 1937, it wasn’t until 1944 that they actually found their purpose in combat. Until then, comparably weaker propeller-powered fighter planes used to be the norm.

Since the British government wasn’t really interested in developing this technology, the project stalled. Then in 1944, the Germans picked it up and built the Messerschmitt Me 262. Its speed and power outmatched anything that ever flew over our cuckoo’s nest. Besides Me 262, the Germans manufactured the Arado Ar 234 jet-powered bomber – the last enemy aircraft to fly over England in WWII.

By the end of the war, the Nazis created another jet-powered fighter – the Heinkel He 162 single-engined plane. But despite this incredible fighting capacity, coupled with the best fighter pilots that ever flew the skies, the Heinkel never posed a threat serious enough. And it wasn’t so much the remarkable resoluteness of the Allied fighters that rendered the jet-fighter essentially useless; the Germans seriously lacked in fuel to power their astonishing war machines.

In the aftermath of WWII, jet engines spread to the civilian arena as fast as they pierced through the atmosphere.

6. Radio and landing navigation

Aerial of a light mobile Gee station operating in a field near Roermond, Holland. These forward stations provided Gee coverage deeper into Germany, as well as strong signals for aircraft returning to bases in Holland. Source

Aerial of a light mobile Gee station operating in a field near Roermond, Holland. These forward stations provided Gee coverage deeper into Germany, as well as strong signals for aircraft returning to bases in Holland. Source

At the beginning of WWII, there were next to zero means to navigate the airplanes from the ground control. That meant that once airborne, pilots were basically on their own. Targets were widely missed and unsafe night landings resulted in damage to valuable wartime assets. The Brits moved to change that.

In an effort to improve accuracy and safety, they developed several navigation systems. In December 1941, Oboe bombing targeting system saw the light of day. It was based on radio transponder technology and enormously improved the accuracy of bombing operations, but the system was only able to guide one plane at a time.

In 1942, Robert Dippy invented Gee, the first hyperbolic radio navigation system ever to be used operationally. Dippy devised it as a short-range blind-landing system, but it soon became obvious that Gee could be further developed into a long-range navigational system. Later that year, Dippy moved to the USA to help design a similar but more advanced system called LORAN, with a range of 1,200 miles.

A year later, Gee-H superseded Oboe as a more practical solution. Even though it couldn’t quite match Oboe’s accuracy, Gee-H used much smaller gear on board the aircraft and could guide up to 80 planes at a time. Planes equipped with Gee-H were often used to mislead the enemy radars. The most notable example was Operation Glimmer, a diversionary ‘attack’ during Operation Overlord that distracted and pinned-down German defenses at Calais while the real invasion fleet was 200 miles away at Normandy. Gee-H-equipped bombers flew low, in tight circles, dropping strips of foil over radar transponder-equipped small ships, in order to deceive the German radars that they were the main invasion fleet.

Further development in the UK saw the birth of two more systems that are direct precursors of the modern-age navigation systems for pilots – Rebecca/Eureka transponder radar, and BABS. Initially constructed to assist the dropping of supplies to resistance fighters in occupied France, Rebecca/Eureka soon paired with BABS to create the first blind-landing aid system ever. The modern Instrument Landing System (ILS) is based on the same concept and is indispensable to helping planes land in bad weather every day.

5. Radar

Antenna of one of the first experimental radars being developed during the late 1930s in the US. Source

Antenna of one of the first experimental radars being developed during the late 1930s in the US. Source

As in the case of navigation, the pre-WWII world didn’t really know about radars either. Before the war, researchers in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States independently and in great secrecy developed technologies that led to the modern version of radar. The growing role of airborne missions gave way to such a development. The need for a timely notification of an enemy attack could save lives of many and give the army enough time to prepare a response.

The first radars looked nothing like what we would imagine today. They were basically long wires strung between high towers, with receivers fixed on wooden poles. These ‘linear’ radars were placed along the British coastline and in several places throughout occupied Europe. As time passed, radars developed further. Germans invented radar-controlled master searchlights, which would lock onto Allied bombers in the night and bring them to light for the counter-air defense to act.

On the other hand, the Allies developed the cavity magnetron, which made it possible to minimize radars to such an extent that they could be mounted on planes. These radars helped the bombers locate much smaller objects, such as submarines with only a periscope above water, or map the ground beneath and blind-bomb the place with unprecedented accuracy. After the war, the cavity magnetron found its unintended use as the main component of… microwaves.

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4. Penicillin

A laboratory worker in 1943 measures purified penicillin into ampoules or bottles. Source

A laboratory worker in 1943 measures purified penicillin into ampoules or bottles. Source

Even though Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it wasn’t until 1939 that a team of researchers showed its true potential as an antibiotic. Penicillin antibiotics were among the first medications to be effective against many bacterial infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. But until 1943, mass production was still beyond imaginable.

That year, the US War Production Board came up with a plan for the mass distribution of penicillin to the Allied troops fighting in Europe. As a direct result of the war and the War Production Board, by June 1945, production rose to over 646 billion units per year. During World War II, penicillin made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds among Allied forces, saving an estimated 12%–15% of lives. On 15 March 1945, penicillin was made available to the American civilians.

3. V-2 rocket

V-2 on a public display in 1945 in Antwerp, Belgium. Source

V-2 on public display in 1945 in Antwerp, Belgium. Source

The V-2 ballistic missile was among Nazis’ most advanced weapons. It was built as a successor to the V-1 flying bomb, the first cruise missile ever to use a pulse-jet for power. Hitler’s scientists developed the V-2 in an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of V-1, which became easily traceable by the British radar system.

It was the first missile that could hit London only three minutes after being launched in Holland. Few would expect that at the same time the development of the V-2 was setting the stage for later space exploration. The key was finding a solution for fueling the engine with a liquid material – up until then, solid fuels were the norm – and devising an internal navigating system to support such a long-range flight.

German scientists developing this missile leaned heavily on works and experiments of their pre-war German and American colleagues. But the Nazi war effort pushed the science miles ahead – and the Allies later appropriated those advances by confiscating the remaining missiles and equipment, and employing the engineers that created them. The LEV-3 navigation system created for the V-2 was later used in the Mercury-Redstone rockets that put the first American into space. This system also became the basis of what we today know as satellite communication.

The only reason why the V-2 didn’t prove to be as deadly a weapon was for the fact that double agents kept reporting back that the missiles were overshooting London, which threw the German aim off. Operation Epilogue: recalibration, meant that most V-2s ended up in the sparsely populated area southeast of London.

2. Nuclear power

Painting by Gary Sheehan depicting the scene in 1942 when scientists observed the world's first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining. Source

Painting by Gary Sheehan depicting the scene in 1942 when scientists observed the world’s first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining. Source

The 1930s were the years of great breakthroughs in physics. In 1932, Ernest Rutherford discovered that a proton accelerator could be used in order to split lithium atoms and in the process release immense amount of energy. But neither he, nor the likes of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr believed that this discovery could find practical use anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the gates of the nuclear kingdom were wide open. As soon as 1939, scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union were pushing their governments to invest in nuclear fission research. The war was at their doorsteps. The goal was not cheap energy – but a weapon from hell, the one that could end the war and decide the winner.

The Americans were first at the finish line. The infamous Manhattan Project resulted in the first Atom bomb in history. On 6 August 1945 that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later another on Nagasaki. Between 150,000 and 244,000 people were killed as a direct result, while later generations suffered the consequences. The victors have already been decided prior to August 1945, but the imagery of mushroom clouds over Japan and horrific testimonies of surviving civilians didn’t prevent the nuclear arms race that ensued.

It remains widely disputed whether nuclear energy is a safe solution for a world we still live in. There is a dark cloud of political calculations hanging over its countless environmental benefits. The solution rests upon the generations to come.

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1. The first computer

A Colossus Mark 2 computer being operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker in 1943. Source

A Colossus Mark 2 computer being operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker in 1943. Source

Encryption formed a huge part of war efforts. Breaking secret codes and decoding encrypted messages could save lives and change the balance of forces on the battlefield. But Germans were darn good at complicating the lives of Allied codebreakers, specifically the Bletchley Park crew of brainiacs charged with breaking the Enigma and Lorenz machines.

Their job was becoming increasingly frustrating, but in a way also inhumane. A great deal of work was needed, and timing was crucial – the code patterns were rapidly changing and consisted of millions of possible combinations. A British mathematician, W. T. (Bill) Tutte used statistics to break the two-layered encryption of the Lorenz machine and the next step was to somehow automate the process.

That’s where his colleagues Max Newman and Tommy Flowers stepped in. Using vacuum tubes, they devised a machine that could deduct the setting of the Lorenz machine – at least close enough – and thus help the codebreakers make sense of the intercepted teleprinter messages.

So in December 1943 Colossus Mark 1 was born. It was the first electronic, programmable computer. His more advanced successor, Colossus MK 2 arrived only six months later, just in time for the D-Day landings in Normandy. From a scientific standpoint, the biggest breakthrough was the realization that Colossus could be programmed so as to address new tasks.

Even though all ten Colossuses were kept in top-secret and destroyed after the war, the very realization that such a machine was possible paved the way for whatever it is that you just used to read this article. Thank you, Colossus!