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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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