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Topic section: Do inventions and war go hand-in-hand?
Do inventions and war go hand-in-hand?
Christopher Freeman, a British economist with an interest in technological innovation, has argued that the timing of new technologies is
Picture: 03_10411981.jpg
Balloons were used in the American Civil War, but were particularly associated with the siege of Paris in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 a consequence of long economic cycles called Kondratiev waves (named after the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev who was executed during Stalin’s purges). These economic ‘waves’ are of about 45 to 60 years’ duration. Whether we accept the concept of long waves or not, it is undeniable that there have been marked spurts of innovation in the last 250 years

Governments often use rearmament as a way of getting out of recessions

 which can be called ‘industrial revolutions’. Each of these bursts of innovation began in a recession and was followed by a boom. More interestingly from our point of view, they were also followed by wars. The Industrial Revolution was followed by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the so-called Second Industrial Revolution by the Crimean War and then the Franco-Prussian War, and the third Kondratiev wave by the First World War. The Second World War began a bit too soon for the fourth wave (although it clearly took advantage of the initial innovations of that wave) and should probably be considered the second half of the third-wave war, much as the Franco-Prussian War followed on from the Crimean War and the Austro-Prussian War. This suggests that the real fourth wave war was the Cold War, which accelerated existing technologies in much the same way as conventional wars.

If this correlation is valid, why do wars break out during the initial boom of the Kondratiev cycle? Recessions are a common link between innovation and war. Governments often use rearmament as a way of getting out of recessions. Recessions also come to an end when innovations promote production and improve productivity. There is also a psychological element – countries with a strong record
Picture: 03_10307586.jpg
The cavity magnetron was developed for radar use in 1940, but now forms the power source of the domestic microwave oven.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 of innovation become more confident about taking on other countries who are lagging (or appear to be lagging) in the technological race. This confidence is rarely tied to a particular advance, but to a more general belief in technological superiority.

Even if the hard evidence for Kondratiev waves is weak, and it is easy to manipulate dates to fit a preconceived notion, it can still be argued that innovations and military build-ups tend to occur during recessions, and the subsequent wars push the expansion of these innovations more quickly than peacetime conditions. A ‘real’ war is not always needed; a surrogate, such as the Cold War, the Space Race or perhaps even a ‘war on terrorism’ can work just as well. Is this a necessary state of affairs or can we find less destructive ways of promoting new technology?

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Topic section: Is war the mother of invention?
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Some inventions, such as the bouncing bomb or napalm, are genuine wartime inventions, but many military breakthroughs, including tanks and radar, were already being developed before war broke out. Is war the mother of invention or a hothouse for innovations?  > more

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Topic section: Is invention the mother of war?
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Can inventions persuade countries to embark on a war? Did the Haber-Bosch process for synthetic ammonia trigger the First World War? Many technologies have been developed with war in mind, but how far have these inventions influenced the war planners?  > more
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