GPS Soldier. Credit: Shutterstock

GPS technology is used by British Armed Forces, but is owned by the United States government. Credit: Shutterstock.

Technology

Everyday Tech You Never Knew Was Invented For The Military

From the iPhone to Superglue… the technology we use daily that was born out of military necessity

GPS Soldier. Credit: Shutterstock

GPS technology is used by British Armed Forces, but is owned by the United States government. Credit: Shutterstock.

War is a terrible matter, something that goes without saying.

Yet, out of the spoils of it frequently throughout history there have been positive consequences.

This couldn’t be truer of technology.

Some of the headline technological advances we can directly relate to conflict include the invention of the modern-day computer, mastered at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing to crack the German Enigma codes during the war.

Another massive moment in technology was in 1969. The Saturn Five that propelled Neil Armstrong to the moon bore its origins in the V1 and V2 Rockets that caused devastation to Londoners from 1942 until the close of the Second World War.

And of course, it was thanks to the war that Radar progressed from being an experimental instrument in medicine to something that now keeps us safe when we fly and lets us know whether or not to pack an umbrella when we leave the house.

But what other inventions do we take for granted today that exist thanks to the military?

Here, we look at some of the items and practices that were invented for the purpose of fighting wars that are now part of our everyday lives.

GPS

GPS Device in hand. Credit: JumpStory.

GPS was initially used solely by the US military. Credit: JumpStory.

GPS – or Global Positioning System – is the satellite-based navigation system that millions of us use every day whether it be by opening an app on our smartphones and finding a route to an address we don’t know, or for checking our position when out hiking on a hillside somewhere.

The GPS system in its entirety is owned by the US Government.

The organisation responsible for operating it is the newly named United States Space Force, the space warfare branch of the US Military.

The system works whenever a GPS device on Earth (or near Earth) has line of sight with at least four satellites in orbit above the planet.

The signal omitted from the satellites is very weak, which is why often coverage is poor, especially if the user is in the cover of mountains or in a building with thick concrete walls.

The US Military started the project in 1973.

GPS was originally intended for the sole use of American forces. However, in the 1980s US President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order allowing the technology to be shared with civilians.

In the 1990s, the US Military began using a programme called Selective Availability which effectively reduced the power output of the GPS satellites in space, making the whole thing quite terrible for civilian users around the world. Because of that, the tech never really enjoyed mass-rollout.

But in 2000, Bill Clinton signed a law banning Selective Availability, and since then the GPS technology we take for granted today has played a part in all our lives.

There have been examples of the US government selectively denying access to the GPS system for purposes of security.

In 1999, the Indian military found it had no access to GPS signals as it went into conflict with Pakistan.

The US can turn GPS technology on or off at its discretion, and because of that alternative space-based navigational tech has been developed by other countries around the world.

The Chinese BeiDou system is due to be fully operational later this year, and in Europe the lesser known Galileo Positioning System, owned by the EU, has already been operational for four years.

In military terms, the technology is used how you would expect it to be, by helping soldiers find checkpoints on the ground. 

But it's also used for more specific matters including target tracking (using GPS to track ground and air targets as they move), missile guidance and for use in search and rescue operations.

The United States’ GPS satellites also form part of the US Nuclear Detonation Detection System, which means the GPS system can detect nuclear explosions on Earth. Impressive stuff.

Duct Tape

Duct tape on table. Credit: JumpStory.

Duct Tape (of Gaffer Tape) traces its history to the Second World War. Credit: JumpStory.

Duct Tape is a vital item that plays a daily part in any number of industries, not least the Armed Forces.

Whether it be taping-up the ends of webbing straps to stop them from flapping around or bodging a damaged bumper on the front of a Land Rover until it can be repaired properly in a workshop, the heavy duty-duct tape used commonly not just in the military but in all walks of life, traces its origins to World War Two.

When ammo was needed in the heat of battle, high ranking commanders worried that vital time would be lost while soldiers struggled to open the ammo-boxes housing rounds for magazines.

To alleviate this, Johnson & Johnson were commissioned by the US military to produce a rubber based, cloth-backed pressure-sensitive tape which could be used to strap down ammo boxes securely, yet be easily removable by a soldier when the time came for the ammo to be fired.

Johnson & Johnson are nowadays better known for producing baby oil and powder.

Away from the battlefield (and the tool boxes of every handy-person ever), Duct Tape also found a home on every manned spaceflight conducted by NASA in its entire history.

The product played a pivotal role in the safe delivery home of the three Astronauts aboard the doomed Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon in 1970.

The Astronauts had to abort the mission and instead focus their problem-solving minds to use their space ship as a lifeboat to get them back to Earth alive.

That was in no small part thanks to Duct Tape. 

Jet Engines

Messerschmitt Me 262. Credit: JumpStory.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world's first jet engine powered aircraft. Credit: JumpStory.

It’s hard to imagine life without some of the inventions discussed in this article. Right up there with that thought is the jet engine.

Imagine having to depend on propeller-based aircraft to travel around the world? It would be like those Indiana Jones movies where we see airplanes embarking on long voyages having to stop off at five different points on the map to refuel.

Thanks to the jet engine, that’s no longer the case.

The credit for inventing the jet engine is a little murky. Scientists and engineers alike hypothesised the process of “airbreathing” jet engines to provide propulsion at different times in history.

During the inter-war years of the 20th century, an RAF cadet called Frank Whittle formally submitted his ideas for a jet engine to his superiors. He even secured a patent for his designs in 1932, but without the support or interest of the British government, his work advanced at a snail’s pace. This wasn’t the case in Germany.

There, a physicist called Hans Von Ohain made good ground with a similar design to that of Whittle’s. Once the war began, Adolf Hitler was determined to introduce the world’s first fighter jet aircraft into the Luftwaffe… and before the war was out, Nazi Germany succeeded in doing so.

That was thanks to the Austrian Anselm Franz, who had pioneered what would become the world’s first mass-produced jet engine, the Jumo 004.

The Jumo 004 was the engine technology that powered the Messerschmitt Me 262. But by the time of its introduction into Nazi service, the war had already turned in favour of the allies. Thankfully, the technology came to the Germans too late.

Post-war, Hans Von Ohain was snapped up by the Americans and became one of the greatest minds behind modern jet engine technologies. And the same is true of Anselm Franz, whose engine designs for helicopters in the United States were used on the famous Bell UH-1 Huey, arguably one of the best all-round helicopters in history.

Superglue 

In 1942, the BF Goodrich Company accidentally stumbled upon what is today called Superglue while trying to invent a clear plastic compound for use on rifle sights.

They tried to patent the accidental invention almost immediately, but there being a war on and all emergency patents were only being handed out to inventions relevant to the war effort.

This delayed the introduction of Superglue for commercial use by 15 years.

But, in 1958 Superglue did finally hit the shelves, and the substance famous for sticking to just about anything entered our everyday lives. 

Drones

Drone firing missile. Credit: JumpStory.

Drones are used frequently to conduct operations that are deemed too risky for personnel or expensive aircraft. Credit: JumpStory.

Drone is the common word used to describe Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

UAVs were invented for military use generally for when a mission was deemed too unsafe to send in personnel or expensive aircraft crewed by human beings.

Military UAVs operate either by human control from a base location on the ground or, quite terrifyingly, they can fly autonomously… basically, those clever robots can fly themselves.

Military UAVs frequently conduct drone strikes - attacks on enemy targets with weapons delivered via drones.

A region synonymous with drone strikes is Northwest Pakistan where, between 2004 and 2018, thousands of drones strikes were conducted by the United States, supported by the UK, killing over 80 high-level insurgent leaders.  

Drones have crossed over into the civilian world significantly and now assist humans in the growing of crops, the filming of sporting events and even by delivering peoples' shopping.

Daylight Saving Time

Big Ben during day. Credit: RawPixel.

Daylight Saving Time happens by moving the clocks forward by an hour for the summer months of the year. Credit: RawPixel.

Depending on who you ask, Daylight Saving Time was invented for apparently any number or reasons. Like the jet engine, it's hard to tie-down exactly who is responsible for its invention.

It’s true that farmers benefited by getting more daylight to tend to their crops and children in Northern parts of the world could walk to school more safely because of the light.

But both those arguments are matched with contradicting rationales. In the USA, many of the most vocal opponents to keeping Daylight Saving Time are in fact farmers. 

But politics aside, the cause of the wide-spread commencement of moving the clocks forward an hour is due to World War One.

Daylight Saving Time was popularised by Germany in 1916. Britain followed suit three months later. 

The Germans cited attempts to conserve energy to help the war effort as their main reason for introducing Daylight Saving Time.

However, the Germans of WWI cannot take all the credit. 

In the early 1900s, a number of Canadian cities decided on shifting time forward an hour to give their communities more daylight to go about their business, but the idea never really caught on and the few instances of it being practiced in North America pre-war are somewhat isolated cases. 

So there we have it. The next time you look at your iPhone, remember that were it not for the technology brought about by the Second World War, the invention might never have been possible. 

And when you next reach for Duct Tape to fix something down somewhere, look up to the sky and consider how it saved the lives of three American astronauts in 1970... and in a way, gave us a damned good Tom Hanks film 25 years later.