The US armed forces have stormed bullet-riddled beaches and kept the peace in hostile territory, but in doing so they unknowingly beta-tested slews of technologies that ended up changing how we live, think and interact in ways they couldn't have imagined. Thank you for my freedom — and my gadgets!
Commanders in the field have always understood the tactical advantage of an elevated position, but the whole game changed when the Union Balloon Core hit the skies during the US Civil War. They weren't the first to fly balloons, but they did solve a lot of engineering problems — turns out using coal gas wasn't the best idea. It also that turns out that balloons weren't great for combat. But eyes in the sky during football games? Righteous.
When you look at these old proto-wireless phones used during WWII, it makes you feel kind of stupid for arguing about the weight of the iPhone 4S vs the Samsung Galaxy SII. The Motorola SCR300 backpack FM portable two-way radio weighed 16kg — 164 times more than the Motorola Droid RAZR. [Technology Review and Illinois Engineering Hall of Fame]
So we all know that the GPS in our smartphones relies on a constellation of communications satellites that are shot into the sky by the government, right? The government effort to launch navigation satellites for military use dates to the 1960s, but the the first satellite of what would become our Global Positioning System was launched in 1973. It was used by soldiers in the field almost immediately. [GPS.Gov]
Think what you will of soccer mums in SUVs, but the original gas-guzzling beast is a classic in motor vehicle history. At the beginning of WWII the Army only had huge 4x4 trucks, but it wanted something lighter, faster and easier to handle for reconnaissance. The result was the sporty Ford GP. [Flickr]
Everybody knows the multi-tool was first created by the company that would become Victorinox in the 1890s. Other tools cropped up along the way, but the iconic progenitor that brought them into our common vocabulary was the Swiss Army Knife — a name coined by US soldiers during World War II. [Flickr]
You can thank the Navy for the crazy diving helmets in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as for the best excursion on your Caribbean holiday. The US Navy Mark V Diving Helmet was first made in 1916 and wasn't replaced until 1984. Even though they look more like steampunk art than tools these days, the helmets have been continuously produced by DESCO since 1942. [DESCO]