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Topic section: Is war the mother of invention?
Is war the mother of invention?
No-one who has seen the classic film The Dambusters can have any doubt that the Second World War was the driving force behind many new inventions.
Picture: 01_10216085.jpg
The W1 jet engine designed by Frank Whittle and the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 jet aeroplane, built in 1941, which used this engine. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 Some of these inventions, such as ships made from sawdust and ice, were just potty, but others have changed the world. For example, we are told that the race to the Moon began when a V-2 landed in Chiswick in September 1944. The jet engine, another wartime invention, has enabled us to take affordable holidays in far-away places.

The Dambusters' bouncing bomb was a wartime invention, but how far is this true for more important developments? The first tanks were used during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916,

In war-time there is no need for an invention to be economically viable

 but were based on pre-war armoured tractors, which had hitherto aroused little interest. The basic concept of radar is almost as old as radio itself, and the first working demonstration using aircraft took place at Daventry in 1935. Two years later, the first jet engine was tested (on the ground) at nearby Rugby. Although the first experimental V2 (initially called the A4) was not launched until 1942, the key technologies involved had been developed by the German Army –  working with amateur enthusiasts – in the 1930s. Even the atomic bomb was not completely a wartime development – atomic fission was discovered in December 1938 and the early American work preceded the United States’ entry into the war.

Nylon, polythene, penicillin, anti-malarial drugs, and aerosol sprays are other examples of innovations which existed before 1939, but benefited from wartime development and the vast increase in demand. The Vietnam War is infamous for the use of Agent Orange and napalm, but they were both develope
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The study used by Sir Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the “bouncing bomb”.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
d before American troops entered Vietnam in 1965. Agent Orange was a kerosene solution of two weed killers developed in the mid-1940s. The original napalm was a genuine Second World War development (by a Harvard chemist, Louis Fieser, who also wrote a popular chemistry textbook). It worked better than petrol on its own in incendiary bombs and flame-throwers, but it was replaced in 1964 by napalm B, which used polystyrene as the gelling agent.

Clearly, these wars (or the expectation of war) accelerated the introduction of many inventions. This occurred not so much as the result of extra funding or even a heightened sense of urgency, but because of the removal of the commercial imperative – in war-time there is no need for an invention to be economically viable. War may not be the mother of invention, but it is certainly a hothouse of innovation.

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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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Topic section: Do inventions and war go hand-in-hand?
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Could wars be connected with economic cycles? It has been argued that the development of new technologies is associated with long economic waves. Can the outbreak of wars be connected to these spurts of innovation?  > more
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