War, what it’s been good for

10 military innovations that transformed our everyday lives


By Will Martin

War, what is it good for? Quite a bit, it seems.

Military innovations have a habit of finding their way to civilian life. Designed for the barracks or the battlefield, they prove just as practical on main street, U.S.A. Some are advances in technology; others are changes in culture that transform society. But each reminds us that for all its mayhem and might, the military has contributed to our everyday lives.

College for Common Folk

Until the mid-1940s, only those with deep pockets set their sights on college. For high school students from working class backgrounds, the dream of college was simply out of reach. In 1940, only 6 percent of U.S. men and 4 percent of U.S. women held a four-year degree. But today, nearly 70 percent of U.S. high school graduates head to college. What led to such a drastic change?

The G.I. Bill blew open the doors to college for the middle class. More than 16 million Americans served in World War II, and when they returned to America they faced a job market crippled by the Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to ease veterans’ transition to civilian life, so in 1944 he signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill. It offered housing assistance and business startup loans, but the G.I. Bill’s real gem was a full-ride to college for combat vets.

Overnight, the G.I. Bill leveled the playing field for college applicants. Military service, not wealth, became the key to college admission. By 1947, half of U.S. college students were veterans, most with working-class roots. In time, the G.I. Bill led to an increase in minority and female applicants. By opening college to all in uniform, the G.I. Bill changed the face of student bodies across America’s campuses.

The Internet

Ask who created the Internet, and we’re likely to hear a wisecrack about Al Gore (who, for the record, never made such a claim).

In reality, Defense Department research laid the foundation for the Internet. The Pentagon wanted to connect its computer users across the globe on one common network. A system like that, it figured, might survive an invasion or a nuclear strike.

In 1968, military researchers created the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. This ARPANET grew into a web of networks, a world-wide web, in fact. By 2015, almost half the planet had Internet access. And while most of us can’t use the Web to call in an airstrike, it’s great for personal banking and streaming Game of Thrones.

The Interstate System

Yes, we owe the information superhighway to the Armed Forces. But we can also thank the military for our concrete highways.

In the 1950s, America was knee-deep in Cold War hysteria. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sized up the country and thought it unprepared for a Soviet attack, so the former five-star general pushed the Federal-Aid Highway Act through Congress. The project created a system of well-connected roadways that military vehicles could close off and use in defense of the nation. As a bonus, Americans inherited an interstate system that made for faster travel and fewer traffic jams (unless you lived near Los Angeles, of course).

For most of the nation, the launch of the project was cause for celebration. Sadly, Eisenhower had to skip the pomp of a White House signing ceremony. When it came time to sign the Highway Act, the president found himself hospitalized with a stomach illness. On June 29, 1956, America’s commander in chief signed the legislation, minus the media circus. The 12-year, $25 billion project expanded the interstate system from 1,000 to 41,000 miles. Today, it continues to serve U.S. drivers and drive the American economy, as well.


Cold War competition inspired better roads – and the technology to navigate them.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it shook up America. The Russians had launched the first satellite into space, a blow to America’s collective ego. But it inspired military discoveries that would benefit us all.

Sputnik emitted radio signals that allowed MIT scientists to track its position from the ground. This led Pentagon leaders to wonder if the technology could also track movements on the battlefield. By 1993, Raytheon and military researchers created a 24-satellite Global Positioning System. By locking onto several satellites, the GPS could determine the longitude and latitude of a target. By adding satellites, later versions captured a 3-D picture of a object’s location. The GPS remains in the Pentagon’s toolbox, critical to national security and waging war. That same technology now allows us to find the closest Starbucks using our Apple Watches. Freedom and lattes; well done, GPS.

Race Relations

Though ethnic tension has played a role in plenty of armed conflicts (the Civil War pops first to mind), the U.S. military has long been at the forefront of racial progress in America. As the saying goes, “Soldiers don’t come in black or white, only different shades of green.”

President Harry S. Truman signed this core value into law in 1948. By issuing Executive Order 9981, he directed that all members of the military receive the same treatment regardless of race or national origin. While military racial equality remains a work in progress, the executive order was ahead of the curve. It preceded and encouraged the desegregation of U.S. public schools (1954) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). By the 1980s, African-Americans held more leadership positions in the U.S. military than any segment of society.

This all goes to prove true another military saying: “We don’t care what color you are, so long as you’re tall enough to see the enemy and brave enough to shoot.”

Canned Food

Military food is legendary for its taste – or lack, thereof. Field rations, though, transformed how we safely preserve foods.

In the late 1700s, Napoleon Bonaparte sought a way to keep his troops fed during long war campaigns. Spread across Europe, his soldiers needed a portable food source that wouldn’t spoil. So the French government held a public contest asking for ideas. It took 15 years, but in 1810 Parisian chef Nicolas Appert claimed the 12,000-franc prize. His invention would earn him the title “Father of Canning.”

Appert figured out that heating food and storing it in airtight jars kept it free from bacteria that could poison a soldier’s rations. Soon, canned foods were a staple on the battlefield. During World War II, the U.S. Army alone consumed more than 150 million pounds of SPAM, the most legendary canned food of all. Even Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev credited Hormel’s “Spiced Ham” with keeping Soviet troops alive during the war’s brutal winters.

Those tin can rations found their way to our grocery aisles, and the canned foods we consume today are not far removed from Appert’s creation. SPAM, however, is probably best reserved for long, Russian winters.


If we like the convenience of canned food, we just plain love the microwave.

The discovery of the microwave, though, was pure accident. In the mid-1940s, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was testing magnetrons, the power tubes used in World War II radars. Amid his research, Spencer noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pocket. Intrigued, he exposed popcorn to the magnetrons and got similar results. A few tests and patents later and the “Radarange” made its commercial debut. By the 1950s, the microwave had become a common appliance in U.S. restaurants and homes.

Microwave technology has moved beyond the kitchen. Today, it helps determine weather patterns, sea levels, and how fast we’re driving (courtesy of our local police).

Emergency Medicine

Political pundit Mike Huckabee said the “purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” Perhaps, Mike. But battlefield medical methods have reshaped civilian emergency medicine, saving millions of lives.

To learn how the military has transformed emergency medicine, we turn again to Napoleon. The French emperor’s surgeon was the first to use “flying ambulances” to treat and transport soldiers injured on the frontlines. Though not literally airborne, the ambulances emphasized pre-hospital medical treatment, which became the standard for modern armies. The practice reached America just in time for the blood-drenched Civil War.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that the civilian medical community fully embraced military practices. Two physicians launched a trauma-care program for the Chicago Fire Department based on lessons learned from World War II and the Korean War. Such programs would evolve into the Emergency Medical System, or EMS.

The military remains a leader in trauma medicine. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to cutting-edge tourniquets, sponge-filled syringes that stop blood loss, and compression kits that prevent internal bleeding. These life-saving inventions are now standard on many community ambulances.

Duct tape

“Duct tape” or “duck tape”? The debate rages on. Whatever we call it, its origins are found in World War II.

The U.S. Army needed a heavy-duty tape to waterproof its ammo boxes. The tape they had was weak and clumsy, not an ideal combination in the heat of battle.

Vesta Stoudt, a mother of two deployed sailors and a Johnson and Johnson employee, had an idea. She proposed a highly sticky tape with a strong cloth backing. Through Stoudt’s persistence, her concept caught on with Johnson and Johnson researchers who developed and marketed her tape to the military’s bosses. Soon, “ammo tape” was in every soldier’s pack. Her creation even earned Stout a letter of recognition from President Roosevelt.

Soldiers found the tape had endless uses on the battlefield and just as many uses when they returned home. Amid the post-war economic boom, many combat vets took construction jobs. They used the green Army tape to seal pipes and ducts, leading to one of its current names: duct tape. Today, it commands a cult following including books and websites dedicated to its versatility.


Before the 1900s, well-to-do women in Europe sometimes wore miniature clocks on their wrists as a fashion statement. But it wasn’t until World War I that the wristwatch came into common use.

As communication technology advanced, so did the need to tell time accurately. The only practical way a soldier in the field could tell the time (and quickly) was to carry it on his body. Rather than conceal a timepiece in a cumbersome pocket or pack, soldiers began wearing watches on their wrist. Soon, battle maneuvers became operations of down-to-the-minute precision.

Eventually, the military watches improved further to include compasses and radium for illumination at night. The future of wearable technology seems limitless – including a high-tech Levi’s denim jacket! – but its roots stretch to the trenches of World War I.


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