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7 Surprising Technologies From World War I

WWI marked the first time technology was widely used in war. Look back 100 years at early drones, wearables, and other technologies that had lasting influence.
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Tech from the trenches in WWI
One hundred years ago -- June 28, 1914 -- a series of events began leading up to the First World War. A human tragedy of enormous scale, the world after WWI was much different than the world before. Among other distinctions, WWI arguably brought us the first technological war -- a war in which the race to develop new weapons was as feverish as that to develop new tactics. In a war that saw battle lines move little in the space of two to four years, and in which small movements in those lines came at a cost of tens of thousands of lives per meter, military leaders were desperate for any technology that could deliver even the smallest advantage over their enemies.

As is the case with most times of great change, some of the developments involved evolution of existing technology, some were based on re-application of technologies already in use for other purposes, and some were brand-spanking new developments in science and technology. We've examined all three types in this slideshow, and we think that the combination will reveal some surprises for most readers.

It's easy to believe, for example, that WWI saw the first significant use of mobile electrical devices. But if you thought that aerial drones are a product of the GoPro generation, then you're in for a surprise. It's possible you'll also be caught off guard by some of the things that were first carried in the First World War: It's one thing to coordinate the actions of huge groups with a central tech repository. It's quite another to put the means of that coordination on the arm of every team leader in the organization.

Even at a century's remove, the utter horror of this war can't be forgotten. Some of our peeks into the technologies of World War I carry a light tone, but our levity is reserved for the technologies (and the forms they took) rather than the sacrifices of those who served, or for the families, nations -- and nations that were never to be again -- that they left behind.

The political maps of the world were redrawn by what seemed to be a simple assassination a hundred years ago. Whether we stop to think of it often or not, our lives and the technology that surrounds us were similarly changed. While 100 years is a long time in tech terms, some of the technologies that made their debut (or became widespread) during the First World War continue to shape our world today. Let's take a look back at them.

(Source: Public Domain)

Curtis Franklin Jr. has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He contributes to a number of technology-industry publications including Information Week , ChannelWeb , Network ... View Full Bio

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
7/4/2014 | 5:06:57 AM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
@Technocrati: Well, at least if it's on your keychain, you're not likely to lose it.

Unless, of course, you lose your keys.  But then, you've got other problems too, in that case.

I also have some fun ones in interesting shapes, such as rubber poker chips.

My least favorite ones are the ones that are embedded in this plastic business card-like thing.  I mean, hey, handy for your wallet, I guess, but I see people just rip the drive itself right off of those things.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2014 | 1:59:58 PM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
@Joe   Rubber braclets ?  That are usb drives ?   Nice. I  am wondering if I would rather that than the drive on my keychain ?
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2014 | 1:57:35 PM
Turn the Lights On. What Year Is It ?
Thank you Curtis for a really interesting looking at how the military has influenced tech.  We tend to think things have been around forever - like electricity for instance.

1882 wasn't that long ago.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
7/2/2014 | 2:16:22 AM
Re: imagination = reality
Intraspecies fighting as clans/tribes/factions/etc. war amongst each other is, alas, a fact of evolution.  We're little different than ants or meerkats or several other animals in that respect.  So I doubt 100 years will do much to change that.

And think of all the moons and stars and planets we'll have to fight over with space travel!
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
7/2/2014 | 2:11:20 AM
Re: "War: What is it good for?"
@Laurianne: I learned about the super glue thing from Breaking Bad.  There's an episode in the first season where a character uses it to heal a wound (although he's using the household stuff -- which, again, may not be the best idea).
Jamescon
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Jamescon,
User Rank: Moderator
7/1/2014 | 11:03:37 AM
Carnage and technology
Curt. Great slideshow. I've seen some general media coverage of the 100th anniversary of The Great War, but it's pretty limited (on comparisonn to the D-Day coverage), maybe because all the vets and most of their immediate families are gone now. What is impossible to grasp today is the carnage, where the deaths of 10,000 men in a day simply met that the pompous military leaders would vow to attack again the next day. It was all for the sake of an extra few hundred yards of mud and the egos of nations that wanted to play with new military toys, such as dreadnaughts, airplanes, tanks, machine guns and even new generations of rifles. 

Add to that the misery brought home in the form of influenza (entire families dying in a house that nobody would enter and being unable to do anything even if they did enter), and the fact that WWI really only laid the groundwork for WWII. It's true that the US Civil War may have introduced more technology, but as you note WWI made more general use of those technologies. Then WWII was fought based largely on the next generation of technology and people.

This slideshow was a wonderful idea, and I hope it sheds a bit of light on just how horrible war is, even if it awakens just a few people.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 9:29:09 AM
Re: imagination = reality
I don't think human will finallly become machine zombines but we need to pay attention to the trend. Nowadays people rely more and more on technology. Internet and mobile techniques made our life easier and more efficiently. But people become more and more inclined to be sticky - many people look at smart phone quite frequently. The trend is not good - we  should facilitate the technologyb but cannot purely rely on them.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 12:31:36 AM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
@zerox203: "Wrist stuff" is cool (just look at the fans of FitBit).  One of my favorite pieces of tech conference swag are these orange rubber bracelets, put out by Avere Systems, that are really USB drives.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 12:29:24 AM
Re: Technology did not begin with WW1
@Jim Wagner: Right you are!  Of course, this article, you'll notice, came on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, which started WWI -- so the point is more about recognizing that anniversary.  Nonetheless, your points are very well taken!  Basic technologies that we take for granted today -- or even consider quaint and far outdated -- were extremely advantageous in early warfare.


The much-debated "heat ray/death ray" of Archimedes immediately comes to mind.  Whether or not it's true, the guy did some pretty neat stuff when it came to warfare.

(@Curt/Dave: Maybe earlier warfare technologies would be a good topic for a followup?  Or a Geekend piece?)

Anyway, all this talk of triremes and chariots and technological development desperately makes me want to play Sid Meier's Civilization now.
tekedge
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tekedge,
User Rank: Moderator
6/30/2014 | 11:42:40 PM
Re: imagination = reality
@glenbren My sentiments exactly. Imagining the futuristic science fiction movies coming true. But will humans become machine zombines.
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