It’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States. Let’s take this time to thank all of the brave men and women around the world fighting for the freedoms we enjoy everyday. This piece and its accompanying YouTube video are dedicated to their sacrifice. Thank you!
World War II general, Douglas MacArthur had a unique take on a popular saying: “whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword obviously never encountered automatic weapons” (Mueller, “The 55 Greatest…”). Automatic weapons were a technological innovation that forever shifted the tide of war. They were a violent invention that many may argue have caused more harm than good. That debate isn’t the topic of today’s piece, but rather wartime innovation more broadly.
War is, unfortunately, often a necessary evil, but war also creates great need and as they say, need is the mother of invention.
Wartime innovations have birthed weapons that have caused greater violence. Yet for every weapon war produces, an even more useful peaceful invention springs into existence. These innovations have changed not only wars but consumer life as well. I’m sure you use most, if not all, of these inventions everyday, and yes, they sprung from the depths of war. Let’s get started.
Oh, the humble microwave. From it’s magical box, food becomes edible, or rather, that’s what they say. Pizza rolls have become a favored treat for kids after soccer practice, and what would college be like without instant ramen? Yes, that’s right your microwave owes its existence to an accidental military discovery.
The inventor was Percy Spencer. Spencer had been working on government projects during WWII, specifically a radar magnetron, a sort of electric whistle that produces vibrating electromagnetic waves (Blitz, “The Amazing…”). As Percy was attempting to increase the power levels of his magnetron he reached into his pocket for a snack. Spencer was particularly fond of peanut cluster bars, but when he reached into his pocket for one he found “a gooey sticky mess” (Blitz, “The Amazing…”).
The cluster had melted.
Understandably curious, Percy Spencer placed an egg under the magnetron and it exploded! Then he tried some corn kernels. I’ll bet you can guess where I’m going with this, they popped! Percy shared popcorn with the entire lab and “the microwave oven was born” (Blitz, “The Amazing…”).
Global Positioning System (GPS)
Turn. Left. in. 500. Feet. Recalculating. Oh, how we love that voice as we navigate strange terrain. At this point, GPS has practically become a need, but for the Cold War-era it was an important military innovation.
GPS can trace its roots to the submarines of the 1960s and 1970s and to the Space Race itself.
The United States Navy had submerged submarines stationed around the world, keeping an eye on that Cold War enemy. They needed to track the locations of these submarines and by nature of being submerged, were limited as to what technology could be used. That’s when Sputnik offered inspiration (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”).
In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik into orbit. The satellite was on the cutting edge of computer innovation. Sputnik’s small beeps allowed researchers to track its orbit using the Doppler effect. It was through this project that two researchers recognized their discovery could be used for navigation in general.
The first GPS system was developed using the Doppler effect by the US Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Their system was named NAVSTAR, launched in 1964 (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”). It was a complex system that required knowledge of specific satellite locations, but it remained in service until 1993 (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”).
Later, Roger Easton improved upon the positioning system by using time-based navigation, or timation (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”). Multiple satellites were perfectly time-synchronized and able to triangulate a position to within 30-feet. The system was launched in the 1970s and finished in 1993 (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”).
Initially the GPS system was used as a military advantage by the US, a thinking that began to change in the 1980s after a Korean Airlines flight was shot down after accidentally entering Soviet airspace (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”).
The US Government eventually added a “consumer tier” that positioned within 300 feet. It provided this tier to consumers and industry. Although helpful, the “selective availability” of GPS, limited by the US Government, severely restricted its use. In 2000, the US government turned off its selective availability and provided all consumers with the full use of GPS (Smith, “The Military-Industrial…”).
Cat memes, Netflix binges, and Facebook. Is the Internet possibly a necessary evil? Possibly.
And yes, the Internet that powers our world, delivers our late-night Amazon orders, and brings entertainment to our couches, began in a government-military lab.
In the 1960s, researchers were first beginning to understand the power of computers and began to dream of connecting soldiers on the battlefield with computers across the world. They imagined a world where a soldier could receive life-saving intelligence information from hundreds of miles away. Computing had the power, now they had to implement (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”).
Their dream began to see reality in ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (that later changed its name to DARPA). Initially, researchers were able to connect large computer nodes to each other across states and even across the country. These computers transmitted text and other information, proving the power and possibility of such a technology. But, the military had little use for large heavy computers sitting in stationary locations, “picture a jeep in the jungles of Zaire, or a B-52 miles above North Vietnam” (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”).
This was the real dream.
The wireless power of the internet was born at a bar on August 27, 1976 when eight researchers transported a string of text from a picnic table to a radio transmitter that sent the signals to a mountain top. The signal was rebroadcast to an antenna in Menlo Park to a wired network on ARPAnet (the early predecessor of the Internet). And, eventually to a computer in Boston, where another researcher read the same message typed at that bar in California (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”).
Strangely, the Internet didn’t reach its original military use on any scale until it was offered to civilians and reached mainstream consumer use (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”).
But the real power of the Internet lies in its design, its design for military use.
Don Nielson, one of the original developers suggested that the Internet was more than “a technical accomplishment — it’s a design decision” (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”). The Internet is powerful because it is flexible. It needs to be flexible:
…because the US military is everywhere. It maintains nearly 800 bases in more than 70 countries around the world. It has hundreds of ships, thousands of warplanes, and tens of thousands of armored vehicles. The reason the internet can work across any device, network, and medium — the reason a smartphone in Sao Paulo can stream a song from a server in Singapore — is because it needed to be as ubiquitous as the American security apparatus that financed its construction (Tarnoff, “How the internet…”).
So, just remember, the next time you watch a cat video, binge a Netflix series, or make a goofy TikTok, you owe it all to the military and their flexible need for communication.
That’s right, three of the inventions you use everyday, owe their existence to the US military and war, your microwave, your phone’s GPS, and the Internet.
We’d all prefer war to disappear into peace, but in a sinful, fallen world, that is simply not possible. It is encouraging to remind ourselves that some of the most beautiful things in life come from conflict, not that that’s a reason for conflict.
Though war is awful and violent and evil in many ways, we might not have microwaves, GPS, the Internet, or many, many more inventions without the need war creates. If we must war, then at least it births inventions that greatly enhance life on earth.
As I started at the top of this piece, this is Memorial Day weekend in the United States. It’s a time for us to remember the sacrifice of the brave men and women who allow us to “…sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us” (Winston Churchill). We thank our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen for protecting our borders and freedoms and fighting battles that allow such technology to be invented. Thank you for your service, I dedicate this piece and its accompanying YouTube video to you. May God bless you and these United States of America.
Blitz, Matt. “How the Microwave Was Invented by Accident .” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 5 Nov. 2018, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a19567/how-the-microwave-was-invented-by-accident/.
Mueller, Steve. “The 55 Greatest Military Quotes of All Time.” Planet of Success, 4 May 2020, www.planetofsuccess.com/blog/2017/greatest-military-quotes/.
“A Quote by Winston S. Churchill.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/39557-we-sleep-safely-at-night-because-rough-men-stand-ready.
Shu, Les. “Military Technologies That Have Trickled down to Consumers.” Digital Trends, Digital Trends, 23 May 2014, www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/modern-civilian-tech-made-possible-wartime-research-development/.
Smith, Ernie. “The Military-Industrial Complex Roots of GPS.” Vice, 13 Mar. 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/qve7e7/the-history-of-gps.
Tarnoff, Ben. “How the Internet Was Invented.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 July 2016, www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/15/how-the-internet-was-invented-1976-arpa-kahn-cerf.