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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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zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
6/30/2014 | 12:41:57 PM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
Wow, fascinating piece, Curt (and, I think it might be first one of yours that I've read on InformationWeek. Good timing!). The big notion that was drilled into my head in high school was about how War serves to drive the economy - which of course, ties into the fact that it's motivated by economic concerns to begin with. What it also ties into is the inevitable development of technology that comes with it. In eras gone by, maybe that economic drive was simply in the form of putting people into work (in factories, etc.), but it seems in the modern age it has changed to be the development of technologies that go on to explode into the consumer market after the war.

War breaks all the rules - governments will do anything they can to get ahead, red tape be damned... and that gets things done a little faster. You're right, though - some of these I had no idea about. Of course, it goes without saying that medical technology would be pushed to the forefront on the battlefield, but I'd never seen a picture of such a truck before now, and I wouldn't have guessed that that's what it looked like. At first, I felt a little cheated at your use of the 'wristwatch' (is it technology just because they put a strap on it?), but looking at it now, there's no denying that that simple act had in impact on our technology that we're feeling to this day. It continues to have an impact on our constant obsession with putting wrist-things in our science fiction. How crazy is that?
rmanske53101
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rmanske53101,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 12:39:35 PM
Re:
Sorry, you are not correct.  The Machine Gun and Artillery were the main instruments of death in WWI.  Gas was feared only at the beginning of it's use when it was new.  Once effective masks were developed and tactics how to survice the attacks were developed, gas was more an annoyance than a killer.
rmanske53101
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rmanske53101,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 12:36:23 PM
Re: Tactics Didn't Keep Up
Rob, I must disagree with you comment about trech warfare being old technology.  It was BECAUSE of technology that the trenches were dug in WWI, specifically new technology of the Machine Gun.  Marching (or even running) acorss open, baren land was suicide due to the rapid fire and reliabiliy of the machine gun, making it impossible to go hundreads of yards to attach your enemy.  Nerve gas was developed to counter the trenches as it hung close to ground and stayed in the treaches for days. The Tank was developed to breach the trenches, as well as the Thompson Machine Gun (the Tommy Gun) and pump action shot gun was for close quarters clreaing of the trenches.  Technology made the troops hide for their lives in trenches, then everyone tried to figure out how to breach the trenches to win the battle.  WWI was all about new technologies and how the militaies attempted to adapted to them, and in many cases, didn't do it well.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
6/30/2014 | 12:22:05 PM
Re: "War: What is it good for?"
@Joe: Yes indeed, war brings innovation in a short time, while peace brings innovation after a lot of time spent. What made WW2 stand out was the use of Radio and Electricity. Probably the most powerful inventions and a step for modern warfare.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
6/30/2014 | 12:20:34 PM
Re: imagination = reality
@Zaious: Future warfare would either be remotely controlled, or would be a direct nuclear warfare. People share loads of data over the internet, and trapping a countries sensitive data can cause the country's internal government to fall apart through disinformation planting and corruption.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
6/30/2014 | 12:19:56 PM
Re:7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
You can only understand how advanced a country is in technology if you start a war against that country. Many countries were still advancing slowly. If there wasn't a world war, most countries wouldn't have become what they have today (some became superpowers, and some deteriorated).
ka7ehk
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ka7ehk,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/30/2014 | 12:17:56 PM
Technology did not begin with WW1
People forget that one of the advantages that the North had in the American Civil War was the telegraph. That is "new technology", most certainly. But, we are also guilty of gross hubris if we define "technology" only in terms of things electrical. The rocket, the teel blade, armor, the cannon, the trireme, the chariot, the cross-bow, were all examples of new technology directed toward combat. It did not start with WW1 - far from it.

Jim Wagner

Oregon Research Electroncis
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
6/30/2014 | 9:20:01 AM
Tactics Didn't Keep Up
As Curt suggests, the military tactics during WWI didn't keep pace with the technology advances -- trench warfare in an era of nerve gas, advanced artillery, and aerial offensives. In that sense, WWI was like the US Civil War a half century earlier, when lines of men marched forward to face automatic weapons.
zaious
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zaious,
User Rank: Moderator
6/30/2014 | 12:51:43 AM
Re: imagination = reality
@HH: 
What about a different mode of war? In that war both parties will be given some system and the one to get access (by cracking) will be the winner. No one dies, no one cries. 

The future warfare will be so tech savvy that it scares me. It will require a mere push of buttons to unleash unprecedented devastation on any place.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
6/29/2014 | 10:54:39 PM
"War: What is it good for?"
As terrible as war is, it's amazing the innovations war can inspire.

Not WWI, but I recently read about how crazy glue was developed/adapted to quickly seal soldiers' wounds on the battlefield in Vietnam.

Warning: You probably don't want to try this at home.  A special formulation is used for medical purposes, and differs from the typical "household" crazy glue/super glue -- which can burn the skin.
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