Do you ever wonder what it was like before you could toss your leftovers in the microwave, hop on a jumbo jet, or pull up … well … anything on the Internet? Probably not, and you can thank the U.S. military for not needing to.
The Defense Department has come up with some pretty cool gadgets and gizmos over the years, especially during wartime. Many of them have been passed along for civilian use, completely changing all of our lives.
Here are six that have truly enhanced the way we operate on a daily basis.
If you didn’t already know it, the tool that more than 3 billion people can’t live without was invented by the U.S. military.
The DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency started building a network of computers during the Cold War to keep defense leaders connected in case the Soviets ever decided to try to destroy our communications infrastructure via its satellite, Sputnik 1. University and other government research centers were eventually looped into the network, dubbed ARPAnet, which first successfully linked several computers in 1969. Over two decades, researchers further developed ARPAnet into the Internet – an infrastructure of communications protocols (like HTTP and FTP, for example) that linked several computer networks.
All restrictions on the commercial use of the Internet were lifted in 1991. While it’s no longer owned by any single entity, the Internet continues to grow exponentially and change our world every day.
Let’s face it – we can’t do anything without GPS anymore, and we can thank the DoD and its Cold War concerns for that, too.
U.S. researchers determined by watching Sputnik that satellite radio transmissions could be used to locate their receivers on Earth, so when we launched our own satellite communications systems in the 1960s, the DoD started developing navigation systems using them. Navy and Air Force satellite programs were combined into the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System. Nowadays, it’s operated by the Air Force and uses 27 satellites that send constant signals to receivers on Earth, which triangulate them and compute where targets are.
GPS has changed the way the military strategizes, strikes and positions its troops. It was released for civilian use in 1983 and has gotten more accurate ever since, helping us do things like drive to a new school or view our flight path from 30,000 feet in the sky.
Did you know radar stands for “radio detection and ranging?” Probably not.
Radar was initially conceived between world wars as a way to locate approaching aircraft by the use of their engines. The U.S. Army Signal Corps first successfully tested radar equipment by detecting a plane seven miles away. Radar was eventually developed for more long-range use, specifically as an aircraft warning system. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite operational in time to detect the attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust us into World War II.
Over the decades, though, radar has evolved in planes, ships and submarines with the help of military and civilian engineers, whose research inadvertently led to …
Yes – America’s most convenient appliance was an accident invented during radar testing.
During World War II, Percy Spencer, an engineer for defense contractor Raytheon, was testing magnetrons (vacuum tubes that produce a type of electromagnetic radiation) when he walked in front of an active radar set that melted a candy bar in his pocket. His curiosity led to several more experiments – including popping popcorn and cooking an egg – which made him realize that microwave energy cooked food much faster than a conventional oven.
In 1947, Raytheon put out the first microwave, called the RadaRange. It was about 6 feet tall, 750 pounds and sold to businesses for thousands of dollars. Development continued, however, and about a decade later, the first countertop model was introduced. Not shockingly, Americans ate it up. Now, more than 90 percent of us own one.
You know what else radar does? More accurately predict the weather.
Weather observations have been recorded for centuries, but it wasn’t until the U.S. military got involved that forecasting really became big business. In 1870, U.S. leaders chose the Army Signal Corps to take meteorological observations at U.S. military stations to help warn of storms. Thanks to the telegraph, it was possible to quickly send those observations to Washington, where they could be analyzed and turned into maps, bulletins and forecasts by what became known as the Weather Bureau.
That was eventually renamed the National Weather Service, which now falls under the Department of Commerce, but just remember that the forecasts you find on TV and your phone apps got their start thanks to military expertise!
Modern Air Travel
The Wright Brothers may have flown the first-known aircraft in 1903, but you can thank the brilliant minds of World War II for our modern-day jets. The internal combustion engine was the sole means to propel aircraft until that time, when air warfare reigned supreme and the jet (or gas turbine) engine was developed.
While Americans weren’t its inventors – that distinction goes to Britain and Germany – the three countries all experimented with it during the war and were able to pool their research afterward. An American builder eventually created the J-57 jet engine, which would later be used in the first commercial airliners.
Pressurized cabins, which were required for high-altitude bombers like the B-29 Superfortress, were also developed in America during World War II and eventually extended to civilian airliners. Whew! That’s a lot of stuff that we can’t seem to live without, right? Knowing all that came from the Defense Department, just imagine what we’ll create in the future!