You have to love research and development. Whether the R&D is done in the private sector or by a governing body, we have all seen great benefit from the discoveries of others – be them intentional or accidental. If not for military and government research, there are many everyday items and utilities that we wouldn’t have today. In fact, if not for government and military research, you wouldn’t even be able to read this article the way you’re reading it. There would be no Internet to view it on. You’d have to read it in a print magazine like some kind of backwards cave person.
The governments of many countries put at least a billion dollars into research and development, typically for use by the military and intelligence branches in some fashion. A handful of governments (the United States, China, the European Union, Japan, and Germany) all put in at least $100 billion each into R&D per year, the former three putting in almost $400 billion or more into R&D each.
That’s a lot of money and it’s usually well spent. It gives us incredible things like spaceships, sophisticated weapons technology, and huge advancements in medicine. We expect things like that to come out of government funded research. What we don’t expect to come out of that brand of R&D are things like:
15. Maxi Pads and Tampons
Many of us couldn’t imagine a life without maxi pads or tampons. That is, roughly half of us couldn’t anyways. In addition to helping women with a number of issues like menstruation and the aftermath of vaginal surgery, a number of people have used them as a makeshift bandage/bleeding stopper in camping and survival situations. The fact of the matter is, the latter was actually the initial use for the products – or at least the material they are made from was.
The first products of this nature were developed by nurses during the French War to help stop excessive bleeding. This design was actually based on something Ben Franklin had designed for similar reasons.
14. Men’s Wristwatches
Many of us probably know that before watches were worn on wrists they were kept in pockets and fastened to clothing with a chain. The conversion from pocket watch to highly fashionable wrist accessory can be traced back to the military.
There are some that believe the idea that the wristwatch goes all the way back to Napoleonic Wars – created out of Napoleon’s frustration with constantly having to pull out his pocket watch.
There are also some who believe that the first male wristwatch came to be in 1880 when an officer strapped his pocket watch to his wrist – prompting his superiors to push the idea into manufacturing and commission similar pieces.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the EpiPen these days regarding major price increases from big pharmaceutical industries. Let’s move away from that discussion and talk a little bit about their history.
The EpiPen is commonly used to administer a shot of epinephrine to treat severe allergic reactions. Epinephrine is another name for the hormone adrenaline. After scientists discovered they could produce the chemical outside of the body in large quantities, research went into a number of possible uses.
An engineer named Sheldon Kaplan eventually came up with the pen used to administer the adrenaline without effecting the chemical. It was originally referred to as a “combo pen” and soldiers used it to inject themselves in the event of chemical warfare.
12. Penicillin (Antibiotics)
We’ve all probably heard the story of Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin by accident. The story goes, Fleming accidentally left a petri dish uncovered and it became contaminated with mold. Fleming later discovered this mold was destroying the bacteria around it.
Trial tests were done on humans with great success and the drug was developed for use in the military during World War II. Its use in the war staved off a variety of infections and saved thousands of lives. Due to these successes, research went into the ability to produce mass quantities of the antibiotic for general civilian use. This would go on to inspire research into other forms of antibiotics as well.
11. Digital Photography
Digital photography wasn’t necessarily developed for battle situations during war, but the concepts that digital cameras would employ all have their roots in government and military technologies.
The first items to employ some of the features seen in digital cameras were devices used to take images during the Space Race with the Russians. In addition, similar technologies were used for surveillance purposes during the Cold War as well. The latter method was developed by Eastman Kodak (yes, that Kodak) using sensors instead of film for aerial imagery.
10. The Internet
Some folks have heard the jokes about former Vice President Al Gore making claims that he invented the Internet. You really can’t have a conversation about the history of the Internet without someone bringing it up. Was Al Gore there, working alongside engineers when creating ARPANET? No. Does he deserve a little credit? Actually…yeah.
Working on networked communications for the military had been going on for a number of decades prior to the Internet as we’ve come to know it. ARPANET was one of the major predecessors to our Internet – a network of networked networks, if you will. As it became a useful tool in the world of academia, the idea that the same concepts could be employed for civilian communication and information access was noticed. It was Al Gore who was one of the first politicians to majorly push its development to what we are familiar with today.
9. Virtual Reality
The term ‘virtual reality’ can be used to describe a number of things, so its true beginnings can get a little mucky. Some even describe using a screen to display data on a computing device as virtual reality. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to stick with the virtual reality we’re most familiar with today.
Some degree of VR training had been used in the UK since the 1980s. Obviously these early training systems weren’t fully immersive. They more or less gave soldiers an idea of something and allowed them to prep without destroying equipment or crashing a plane.
The first fully immersive VR training system, the Dismounted Soldier Training System, was developed for the U.S. Military in 2012 – not that long ago! It’s strikingly similar to the huge full body rigs popping up in modern video game VR.
Drones, like the EpiPen, are mired in controversy. Many feel that sending unmanned drones to execute an attack is unethical, since there is no human factor and you’re taking lives without putting your own on the line. There are also many that believe civilian drones that can take images are a huge invasion of our personal privacy. Even Amazon testing a drone delivery system was frowned upon as many believed theft would be too easy.
All drone usage seems to have some kind of debate around it. That being said, unmanned vehicles of flight are obviously useful in regards to preserving the lives of soldiers and extremely helpful in espionage and recon. Like most technologies, things get smaller and more affordable, which led to the ever-growing hobby of civilians building their own drones.
The history of ambulances goes back pretty far. In fact, the first ambulances weren’t even motorized – they were drawn by horses and people. Whether you’re talking about a horse-drawn ambulance or a motorized ambulance, both methods were first used by the military during war time to transport wounded soldiers from the front-line and back to a base where they could be tended to with some degree of safety. The first carts used to haul patients go all the way back to 1487 when used by Spanish forces during the siege of Málaga.
6. Aviator Sunglasses
Along with big, bulky wristwatches, hipsters across the globe can thank the military for another one of their favorite fashion accessories – aviator sunglasses!
The first pair of “pilots glasses” were originally developed by Bausch & Lomb (later marketed as Ray-Ban Aviators) to protect a pilot’s eyes while manning aircraft. Their large design was made to cover most of the eye’s range of vision and keep as little light from coming in as possible. They eventually phased out bulky and uncomfortable flight goggles. In fact, aviators were one of the first popularized sunglasses developed. Sunglasses in general owe their roots to military wear.
5. Super Glue
A name we’ve already seen on the list comes up again when talking about these products that first saw use or development in the military, and it’s a bit surprising. Kodak, a name most associated with photography, is actually responsible for stumbling across super glue.
The formula for super glue was first put together when Dr. Harry Coover of Kodak was trying to create an extra clear plastic to be used as lenses for gun sights. The formula didn’t work, so it sat in a drawer for a number of years. Dr. Coover eventually went back to the formula when trying to develop a new plastic for airplane canopies. Once again, the intention didn’t quite work out, but during these tests Coover discovered he had a powerful adhesive on his hands. As time went on, Coover also discovered the ability to use this new adhesive on the human body to assist in surgery and seal wounds. It was first used in this manner during the Vietnam War and many, many lives were saved as a result.
4. The Jeep
The Jeep has been a vehicle of choice for many off-road drivers and thrill seekers for decades at this point. It’s even said that the Jeep was the first SUV put into production. Don’t say this to a Jeep enthusiast though. They believe there to be a fine distinction between the Jeep and the modern SUV.
The Jeep originally went by the name of the Willys MB. Four-Wheel Drive automobiles had seen use in the military in the first World War, but by the second World War the United States Army commissioned the development of a light-weight recon vehicle that could drive off-road. This led to the production of the Willys MB, and later, the Ford GPW.
It’s hard to think of the GPS (Global Positioning System) as something that was developed by the military when you think of the mundane things we use it for in the civilian world. Our most recent obsession with the use of GPS was for those three weeks that we as a world were completely and mindlessly committed to the mobile game Pokemon Go. We were constantly concerned with losing our GPS signals during Pikachu’s little reign of terror.
We also use GPS to find the nearest Chipotle when going out of town.
To think, this was originally developed for military use to gather intelligence during the Cold War. Something so seemingly simple is actually a vast network of satellites that carry and keep all sorts of geographical data. When you use GPS, your device is in constant communication with a satellite in outer space.
2. Microwave Ovens
Believe it or not, cooking with microwaves was discovered by a man named Percy Spencer who had no high school education. Spencer joined the military after working at a mill and taught himself about radio and radar while keeping watch. This self-motivated learning would lead to Spencer becoming one of the leading names in radar.
When Spencer was working on radar for Raytheon, he was standing in front of an active radar set. He later noticed that the candy bar in his pants had melted. Intrigued, he later aimed the radar set at corn kernels – creating microwave popcorn. He later cooked an egg in this fashion as well.
Eventually, he enclosed this all in a metal box and cooked all sorts of food in it and monitored the effects. A patent was taken out in 1945 and microwave ovens were sold as a large unit called a Radarange for $5000 a piece. They were 6 feet tall and weighed over 700 pounds!
1. Duct Tape
Out of everything on this list, the one thing we could not live without is duct tape. Duct tape fixes everything. It’s the true multi-tool. There are poor college students driving around in cars that have seen so much duct tape repair that they’re pretty much made out of duct tape. Something in your house is probably held together by duct tape right now. Some people even seal drafty windows with duct tape during the colder seasons! People make wallets out of duct tape! Here’s to you, duct tape! Nothing can do what you do!
The famous tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson for the U.S. military, not necessarily as an adhesive, but as a means to seal moisture away from ammunition cases. Turns out, it wasn’t great at sealing the cases but soldiers began using it to repair anything and everything. They even used it to repair themselves as an emergency means of closing wounds.
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