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6/28/2014
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7 Surprising Technologies From World War I

WWI marked the first time technology was widely used in war. Look back 100 years at early drones, wearables, and other technologies that had lasting influence.
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Tech from the trenches in WWI
One hundred years ago -- June 28, 1914 -- a series of events began leading up to the First World War. A human tragedy of enormous scale, the world after WWI was much different than the world before. Among other distinctions, WWI arguably brought us the first technological war -- a war in which the race to develop new weapons was as feverish as that to develop new tactics. In a war that saw battle lines move little in the space of two to four years, and in which small movements in those lines came at a cost of tens of thousands of lives per meter, military leaders were desperate for any technology that could deliver even the smallest advantage over their enemies.

As is the case with most times of great change, some of the developments involved evolution of existing technology, some were based on re-application of technologies already in use for other purposes, and some were brand-spanking new developments in science and technology. We've examined all three types in this slideshow, and we think that the combination will reveal some surprises for most readers.

It's easy to believe, for example, that WWI saw the first significant use of mobile electrical devices. But if you thought that aerial drones are a product of the GoPro generation, then you're in for a surprise. It's possible you'll also be caught off guard by some of the things that were first carried in the First World War: It's one thing to coordinate the actions of huge groups with a central tech repository. It's quite another to put the means of that coordination on the arm of every team leader in the organization.

Even at a century's remove, the utter horror of this war can't be forgotten. Some of our peeks into the technologies of World War I carry a light tone, but our levity is reserved for the technologies (and the forms they took) rather than the sacrifices of those who served, or for the families, nations -- and nations that were never to be again -- that they left behind.

The political maps of the world were redrawn by what seemed to be a simple assassination a hundred years ago. Whether we stop to think of it often or not, our lives and the technology that surrounds us were similarly changed. While 100 years is a long time in tech terms, some of the technologies that made their debut (or became widespread) during the First World War continue to shape our world today. Let's take a look back at them.

(Source: Public Domain)

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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7/4/2014 | 5:06:57 AM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
@Technocrati: Well, at least if it's on your keychain, you're not likely to lose it.

Unless, of course, you lose your keys.  But then, you've got other problems too, in that case.

I also have some fun ones in interesting shapes, such as rubber poker chips.

My least favorite ones are the ones that are embedded in this plastic business card-like thing.  I mean, hey, handy for your wallet, I guess, but I see people just rip the drive itself right off of those things.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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7/2/2014 | 2:16:22 AM
Re: imagination = reality
Intraspecies fighting as clans/tribes/factions/etc. war amongst each other is, alas, a fact of evolution.  We're little different than ants or meerkats or several other animals in that respect.  So I doubt 100 years will do much to change that.

And think of all the moons and stars and planets we'll have to fight over with space travel!
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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7/2/2014 | 2:11:20 AM
Re: "War: What is it good for?"
@Laurianne: I learned about the super glue thing from Breaking Bad.  There's an episode in the first season where a character uses it to heal a wound (although he's using the household stuff -- which, again, may not be the best idea).
Jamescon
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Jamescon,
User Rank: Author
7/1/2014 | 11:03:37 AM
Carnage and technology
Curt. Great slideshow. I've seen some general media coverage of the 100th anniversary of The Great War, but it's pretty limited (on comparisonn to the D-Day coverage), maybe because all the vets and most of their immediate families are gone now. What is impossible to grasp today is the carnage, where the deaths of 10,000 men in a day simply met that the pompous military leaders would vow to attack again the next day. It was all for the sake of an extra few hundred yards of mud and the egos of nations that wanted to play with new military toys, such as dreadnaughts, airplanes, tanks, machine guns and even new generations of rifles. 

Add to that the misery brought home in the form of influenza (entire families dying in a house that nobody would enter and being unable to do anything even if they did enter), and the fact that WWI really only laid the groundwork for WWII. It's true that the US Civil War may have introduced more technology, but as you note WWI made more general use of those technologies. Then WWII was fought based largely on the next generation of technology and people.

This slideshow was a wonderful idea, and I hope it sheds a bit of light on just how horrible war is, even if it awakens just a few people.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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7/1/2014 | 12:31:36 AM
Re: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I
@zerox203: "Wrist stuff" is cool (just look at the fans of FitBit).  One of my favorite pieces of tech conference swag are these orange rubber bracelets, put out by Avere Systems, that are really USB drives.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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7/1/2014 | 12:29:24 AM
Re: Technology did not begin with WW1
@Jim Wagner: Right you are!  Of course, this article, you'll notice, came on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, which started WWI -- so the point is more about recognizing that anniversary.  Nonetheless, your points are very well taken!  Basic technologies that we take for granted today -- or even consider quaint and far outdated -- were extremely advantageous in early warfare.


The much-debated "heat ray/death ray" of Archimedes immediately comes to mind.  Whether or not it's true, the guy did some pretty neat stuff when it came to warfare.

(@Curt/Dave: Maybe earlier warfare technologies would be a good topic for a followup?  Or a Geekend piece?)

Anyway, all this talk of triremes and chariots and technological development desperately makes me want to play Sid Meier's Civilization now.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
6/30/2014 | 11:39:15 PM
Re: Technology Evolution
Thanks, @jastro. I think that wars are opportunities for a technological version of what biologists call punctuated equilibrium. We know that technology doesn't advance in a smooth line -- wars, catastrophes, and other unusual circumstances tend to be related to times of faster development. If we could accurately predict these unusual points on the timeline then we'd be much better at predicting the future in general!
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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6/30/2014 | 8:06:20 PM
WWi more technical, but Civil War set patterns that played out in it
The Civil War has been marked by historians as the first modern war; in its latter stages no one had to instruct the troops to dig trenches. By its end, repeating rifles and gatling guns were in use. The First World War was horrible for the scale that it brought to trench warfare, each side hurling a million shells into the lines of the other in a battle. Then there was the influenza afterward, believed to have been a particularly virulent virus that jumped from the bloodstream of pigs being slaughtered for the troops into the blood of humans doing the work. One horror begets another. So many young people who survived the carnage of the war were then killed by the disasse.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/30/2014 | 1:03:33 PM
Re: "War: What is it good for?"
Joe, this reminds me of the trauma surgeons in Boston hospitals who commented they used medical lessons they had learned in the Iraq conflict when they treated Boston marathon bombing victims. I did not know about the super glue example.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
6/30/2014 | 12:51:29 PM
Re: Tactics Didn't Keep Up
Excellent point, but either way the tactics didn't keep up. The tactics (trench warfare) developed to counter certain technologitical adances (more sophisticated and reliable automatic weapons) were proved ineffective with the advent of still other technologies (nerve gas, tanks, air warfare, etc.). Seems like trench warfare could have worked during the Civil War. 

 
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