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British tanks in World War One, circa 1917-18

5 technological innovations from WW1

Image Credit: Everett Collection / | Above: British tanks in World War One, circa 1917-18

War has always had a tendency to accelerate innovation and invention, and WW1 – with its bizarre clash of 19th and 20th century ideas and technologies – was no exception. From industrial killing machines to feminine hygiene, here are five technological creations still used today in combat and civilian life.

1. Tanks

The Allies began developing these armoured ‘landships’ in 1915, but the first tanks didn’t make their way into battle until the Somme offensive the following year. So named due to their resemblance to water tanks (and disguised as such on their way to the front), they were first used in force on 16 September during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette and proved to be cumbersome death traps more adept at killing their own occupants than the enemy. But their potential was undeniable, and by July 1918 The Tank Corps was established, garnering almost 30,000 members by the end of the war.

2. Machine guns

Before WW1, the most popular automatic rapid-fire weapon was the Gatling gun, which resembled a cannon and weighed about as much, limiting its use in 20th-century warfare. Produced by the British with mobility in mind were the Vickers gun, a heavy-calibre machine gun that required a minimum six-man team to operate but gained a reputation for absolute reliability, and the American-invented Lewis gun, the Vickers’ lighter but less trustworthy offspring. While most of the war’s casualties were caused by heavy artillery, the portability and power of the machine gun made it an effective addition to arsenals on both sides.

3. Tactical air support

Less than fifteen years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, those new-fangled flying contraptions called aeroplanes were being used for reconnaissance in WW1, along with balloons and airships. The initial plane builds were primitive, but necessity did its job, and soon both sides were racing to design mono and biplane fighters that could hold heavy bombs and machine guns while maintaining (or, at this point, having) manoeuvrability. By mid-1915, the infantries were already getting some entertainment by watching dogfights in the skies, and air superiority became a significant factor in tactical success in the second half of the war.

4. Poison gas

Although poison gas accounted for only a small number of the war’s deaths in total, its effects were pervasive and devastating. First used by the Germans during the Battle of Second Ypres in 1915, gas actually proved largely ineffective as a traditional weapon; its success depended not only on the type of gas and the sophistication of its delivery method but also often on the weather conditions on the day. However, poison gas became possibly the most important psychological weapon of the war, and soldiers and engineers alike spent much of their time and resources anticipating and guarding against terrifying (and, many felt, immoral) death. More than twenty years later, that fear would influence military and civilian response to WW2.

5. Sanitary napkins

Not every innovation to come out of the war was designed to kill; after all, something had to be used to soak up all the blood. Cellucotton – a by-product of processed sugar cane – was first developed during the war for use as field bandages, being more absorbent, cheaper and more plentiful than surgical cotton. It wasn’t long before a few whip-smart nurses found that cellucotton made for a great disposable sanitary napkin, and in 1920 Kotex brought out its first commercial pad, freeing women everywhere from the drudgery of the reusable rag.