7 Inventions That Sprang from World War I

iStock / iStock

Rapid advancements in military technology ensured World War I (1914-1918) was unlike any conflict the world had ever seen. But the era gave rise to a number of other useful—and often life-preserving—innovations, too. Take a look at some of the more enduring inventions that grew out of the First World War.


Diagnosing internal injuries was crucial for emergency physicians and other medical personnel, but bulky x-ray machines wasted precious moments when soldiers would need to be transferred for care. Sensing a need for immediate diagnoses, physicist and researcher Marie Curie led a charge to create smaller, portable units that could be driven directly onto the battlefield. By October 1914, Curie and her daughter were personally delivering the machines to military camps, helping the wounded stand a better chance of returning home.


To aid soldiers who suffered from severe burns, scarring, or other disfigurement from the battlefield, surgeon Harold Gillies brought more advanced techniques in cosmetic surgery, grafting, and facial reconstruction. His work helped restore a quality of life to so many enlistees that a surgical center was opened at Queen’s Hospital in 1917 dedicated to the rapidly evolving art of “plastic” surgery.


Konrad Adenauer was mayor of Cologne, Germany during the war when he took notice of food shortages, particularly meat. To combat a craving for sausages, Adenauer developed a recipe that used soy as a primary ingredient. While his own country wasn’t interested in a meatless product, then-enemy Great Britain was happy to grant him a patent in 1918.


The Germans weren’t the first to propose that the clock fall back in the autumn and spring forward ahead of the vernal equinox. (Benjamin Franklin thought the same back in 1784.) But Germany made it an official policy during World War I as a way to cut back on energy use.


Eager to navigate difficult enemy territory that held trenches and uneven terrain, British forces decided to design what some called a “land boat”: a massive armored vehicle that could practically steamroll its way forward, while protecting the soldiers inside. A prototype, “Little Willie,” was slow and cumbersome, but improvements made in 1916 allowed the tank to become an institution on the battlefield.


For soldiers in vehicles or in aircraft, it was imperative to be able to maintain communications for orders or updates. As transportation became more sophisticated, a system of flag-waving or hand signals became less practical. Radio transmissions became a popular way of keeping in touch. It’s believed that the primitive, bulky set-ups of 1914 gave way to smaller, handheld units by 1918, making it possible to warn even airborne troops of pending danger.


One of the 20th century’s greatest achievements, penicillin wasn’t synthesized in time to help infections during the war. But inventor Sir Alexander Fleming spoke often about his experiences tending to the badly infected in field hospitals during the conflict as a motivating factor behind its creation. Returning to his research, he was driven to combat the bacteria that proved as deadly as any human enemy; he eventually discovered penicillin in 1928. While bearing witness to war is never a positive thing, in Fleming’s case it inspired an antibiotic that’s saved countless lives.

Science’s brightest minds have always concerned themselves with keeping civilians and soldiers alike out of harm’s way. Click here for a glimpse at what the next 100 years may have in store for defense technologies.