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Whether you realize it or not, your daily life is filled with products and technologies invented, improved, or popularized by military research. From your morning cup of instant coffee to your late-night tactical nuclear strike against an underground bunker, you're benefiting from the massive and frequently unexpected leaps in technological development brought on by the frenzy of wartime spending and research. Here are ten everyday items that you may or may not have realized were forged in the hellish fires of lethal combat.
10. THE INTERNET
Probably the most visible product of military research is what you're using to read this very article. The research, protocols, and basic hardware that became the foundation of the Internet were all developed by primarily military government agencies, beginning with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 1962 mandate to connect the computers of the Pentagon, the Strategic Air Command, and the bombproof defense command centers buried deep below Cheyenne Mountain.
DARPA research teams came up with the fundamental technologies that made computer networking possible, and when the military computers were successfully linked, the government made the technology available to America's college system, where it was further refined until it became the preferred distribution channel for all the world's news, entertainment, and pornography.
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9. THE GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM
Ground-based radio systems like LORAN had been a vital part of sea and air navigation since the Thirties, but the tumult of World War II had shown that a system dependent on terrestrial antennas and command centers was vulnerable to enemy attack. The United States Navy, in great need of an all-weather navigation system practically invulnerable from enemy action, commissioned the "Transit/NAVSTAR" satellite system in the Sixties as an aid to their Polaris-class nuclear missile subs, and the navigational system soon spread to the rest of the American military establishment.
Transit was so useful that NATO adopted and enlarged it to form a navigational network named "Navstar-GPS," a system that the Reagan administration released to the public shortly after a Korean airliner strayed into Russian airspace and was shot down. Today, the technology is so ubiquitous that it's hard to buy a cellphone that doesn't have a GPS antenna built into it.
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8. DIGITAL CAMERAS
Major governments have launched sophisticated spy satellites with super-high-resolution cameras into orbit since the late fifties in order to sneak a peek on each others' troop concentrations and industrial developments. While the photos from these satellites were priceless in intelligence terms, there was one major technical snag that made relying on them a pain in the ass: the only way to get at these pictures was to grab the undeveloped film canisters that the satellite would periodically poop out, a complicated operation that involved a mid-air snagging of the canister's tiny parachute as it drifted through the atmosphere.
Almost a third of the results of America's otherwise successful "Keyhole" spy satellite program were lost due to this tricky retrieval program, but the NASA/USAF KH-11 "Kennan" satellite of 1976 put an end to the problem with the use of a revolutionary electro-optical camera that transmitted images in encoded digital format. The fundamentals of the technology are still in use in modern digital cameras, and the updated form of the KH-11 is still a major part of American surveillance technology.
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Penicillin was first isolated in a usable anti-bacterial agent in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, but its medical usefulness wasn't apparent until the beginning of the Second World War. The rots and infectious diseases that plagued the wounded soldiers of World War One were largely eliminated by early antibiotic treatments like sulfonamide and benzylpenicillin. After the war, these antibiotics became a common part of Western medicine, so much so that the overuse of these medicines is now a major health problem.
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6. CANNED FOOD
Back when France was an unstoppable military superpower instead of a tired joke about cheese eating, the French government under Napoleon offered an astonishing 12,000 franc reward to any inventor that could create a way to preserve and store lots of cheap crappy food. At the time, France was busy kicking ass throughout almost all of Europe and was seriously considering launching an assault on a completely new and different continent, so the French military was extremely interested in any new developments in feeding a huge number of people as cheaply as possible.
Chef and brewer Nicolas Appert happened to notice that food cooked in sealed jars never seemed to spoil, and his discovery was soon adapted to the use of tin cans for preservation. Unfortunately for French soldiers, the invention of the can-opener came a full thirty years after the invention of the can, so troops in the field had to make do with bayonets, entrenchment tools, and sharp rocks in order to eat the carefully-preserved foods within the can.
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5. AMBULANCE SERVICES
A refinement of the traditional process of carting away the dead and dying to someplace where they would stink less, the ambulance first made an appearance in the Spanish army of the late 15th century. The "ambulancias" more properly referred to the portable military hospitals that followed the troops around, but came to be attached to the wagons and litters that would remove the wounded from the battlefield after the fight had been won.
The "flying ambulance" of Napoleon's army is closer to our modern conception of the ambulance-a two or four-wheeled carriage that would venture out into enemy fire to rescue the wounded and provide basic first aid until the patient reached the hospital camp.
The ambulance cart became standard issue for Union troops during the Civil War, and in 1869 former Army surgeon Edward Dalton introduced the first large-scale ambulance service to the Commercial Hospital of Cincinnati. By the end of the following year, the service had answered 1401 emergency calls.
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4. MICROWAVE OVENS
One of the most dramatic technological advantages to come out of WWII was the power and sophistication of radar: beginning the war in the form of giant antenna installations that couldn't measure distance, altitude, and bearing at the same time and ending it in applications small enough to fit in some of the world's first guided missiles. While you're not likely to be using a lot of guided missiles in your everyday life, you're almost certain to use an accidental byproduct of radar research-the microwave oven.
Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was working with magnetrons to produce microwave radiation when he noticed that the candy bar in his coat pocket had melted. After confirming that he himself had not also melted and presumably getting a new coat, Spencer determined that the microwave radiation was responsible for heating the candy bar but not the wrapper, and proposed to use this phenomenon to cook foods.
Eight years later, Raytheon produced the gigantic 1161 Radarange for commercial and institutional use; a further thirteen years of tweaking and tinkering shrank the Radarange's size and price tag down to civilian levels, selling the new model under Raytheon's domestic badge Amana.
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3. AVIATOR SUNGLASSES
Today almost exclusively sported by ironic hipsters and extremely un-ironic cops, the classic "aviator" style of sunglasses was invented by the Ray-Ban corporation to protect pilots' eyes from glints and glares. Covering as much of the eye as possible and tempered to block up to 80% of incoming light, the original Aviators were essential equipment for fighter pilots and bomber crews who always had to keep an eye out for enemy planes coming out of the angle of the sun.
Aviators soon became inextricably linked in the public mind with the classic cool of the victorious American Air Force, as well as the grandiose swaggering of General Douglas MacArthur, who was rarely seen without his aviators. The popularity of corncob pipes, however, failed to make any noticeable gains.
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2. SAFETY RAZORS
Many believe that King Camp Gillette was the originator of the so-called "razor and blades" business model (sometimes expressed as "give 'em the razor, sell 'em the blades") as a fundamental part of the disposable "safety" razor concept he had developed in 1903. In fact, Gillette screwed up his launch, pricing blade refills much higher than the public was willing to pay for, and when his patents lapsed copycat companies adopted the sold nearly identical designs at much cheaper rates-a lower profit margin but a steady source of income.
Gillette regrouped and started pricing his stuff smarter, but he really hit it big when he snared the contract to supply every American soldier in WWI with a Gillette shaving kit. Practically overnight, the safety razor became an indispensable part of a man's grooming kit, assuring the success of the Gillette brand up to this day.
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1. TAMPONS AND PADS
In 1914, papermill and lumber company Kimberly-Clark hit upon an interesting new application for wood pulp (well, as interesting as wood pulp is likely to get, anyway). Carefully mixed and formed, it could be made into a fluffy material with five times the absorption power of cotton. Kimberly-Clark began selling their new "cellulocotton" to the military at cost, providing the soldiers of WWI with an excellent new material to use for bandaging and sealing wounds.
After the war, Kimberly-Clark found itself in possession of a number of huge factories dedicated to producing cellulocotton, but not nearly as much demand from civilian doctors and surgeons. It looked like a lot of plants would have to close, at the cost of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars, when one Kimberly-Clark executive came across an odd rumor concerning the Army nurses that had served at or near the front lines of the war.
At the time, women's menstrual pads were cumbersome cloth flaps that had to be washed and re-worn. Many women felt embarrassed by these "sanitary napkins," partly because it was considered outstandingly rude to talk about anything period-related in public and partly because these early pads were more similar to diapers than the little numbers of today.
The war nurses, being practical women, soon ditched their pads (which were a nightmare to keep clean in battlefield conditions) and cut themselves snips of cellulocotton, allowing them greater freedom of movement and comfort. When K-C found this out, they immediately launched the "Cellunap" sanitary napkin and eventually the Kotex (for "cotton textile") women's hygiene brand. Kotex ads were unusually upfront about the taboo subject of periods, and often made mention of the product's military roots and close connection to the military nurses.
Meanwhile, cellulocotton has typically been replaced in both field dressings and tampons by newer synthetics like Curlex, although medics today have been known to plunder the female hygiene sections of PXes and supply cars when they're running short of purpose-designed bandages.
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