Where would Virgin Atlantic and the Gap be without Hitler and Khrushchev?
War breeds technological innovation; that much is well known. London-based science writer Hambling takes a leisurely ramble through the back pages of WWII and Cold War history to show how ordinary consumers—to say nothing of armies—have benefited from martial inventions, a story that is less well known. Take, to name an even earlier example, the Burberry trench coat: A fashion favorite ever since it was introduced in 1901 as a British army raincoat, it still contains epaulettes for holding caps and gloves and rings on which to string grenades. And then there’s the T-shirt, born in 1942 as the US Navy’s T-type undershirt, which, after the war ended, “went back to civilian life with the returning veterans, and has gone from strength to strength ever since.” In just such a process, commercial jet aircraft were born of battle; among the other democratizing effects of WWII was the drop in airfare, for, as Hambling reckons, to fly from London to Australia before the war would have cost something like $35,000 in today’s money, whereas after the war “long-haul travel was no longer for the leisured classes.” In similar vein, the modern DVD resulted from the long and maniacal quest for the ultimate “death ray,” which is also yielding a variety of nonlethal, large-scale, Taser-like weapons that one day police squads and armies will be merrily using on crowds of rioters and insurgents. Each advance in technology, Hambling shows, has its upside and downside: Ground-penetrating radar, for instance, has enabled rescuers to find skiers buried in avalanches and detectives the bodies of long-disappeared murder victims, but kindred millimeter wave imaging devices may one day soon show the world just what’s in your pocket. And that would be a boon for entrepreneurs: As Hambling remarks, “Given the tabloids’ willingness to pay big money for scandal stories, it is easy to see how you could recoup the cost of an MMW imager fairly quickly.”
An entertaining companion to Tom Schachtman’s Terrors and Marvels (2002) and other entries in the little library of war-born technology.