War: The great technology accelerator

Quite a lot of gadgets we use today are all thanks to the R&D that took place in wars, both hot and cold

The armed forces have optimized a whole array of technologies that have led to more and more products coming into our daily lives at a fast pace. And even if there isn’t a war going on, war research is an ongoing process and continues to give technology an edge.

Beating the Nazis–CDMA

During WW2, when the British forces sent communication over a certain frequency, the Germans monitored and jammed that frequency. So the Allies turned to CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) which can transmit simultaneously over a wide range of frequencies, making it virtually impossible for the Germans to do anything. Qualcomm made the chips and hence had the patent for the technology for decades before CDMA handsets came out in 1995.

Powering cruise missiles–GPS

The US military uses GPS to guide smart bombs and cruise missiles, enhance ‘locational awareness’ and improve their command of forces. And for that they spend around $400 million a year. An interesting offshoot is that the military allows others to use it for free and hence we have a host of GPS devices, location based tracking and the like. 1978 saw the launch of the first GPS satellite and today, we have dozens with ageing ones being replaced all the time. This was also as a result of extensive research and steps taken during the cold war with erstwhile Russia.

Helping you become a couch potato–Remote control

While the patent for a remote control was lying in the US patent office from 1893 and invented in 1932, it was only during World War 2 that a remote control was extensively used to set off the Wasserfall missile. Then in the fifties, the first wired TV remote control was made called (what else!) Lazy Bones. The wireless remote came soon after that and brought about a big cultural change, breeding a whole generation of couch potatoes with it.

Attack of the Luftwaffe–Jet planes

Before World War 2, planes were powered by a petrol tank and a propeller. Now there’s only so much you can do with such a plane. The speed and capacity reaches a dead-end after a point of time. The Germans changed the rules of the game by replacing those old engines altogether with jet engines. The West was already looking into the science of jet planes. So, after World War 2, jet technology went ahead full steam and that laid the foundation for the modern passenger plane.

A great leap forward in computing–ENIAC

Short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, ENIAC was the first device that could solve wide-ranging computing problems and could be reprogrammed. It was used during WW2 and cost about half-a-million dollars. This monster weighed 27 tonnes and comprised 5 million hand-soldered joints, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 17,468 vacuum tubes, all in a huge room. Today the complete power of ENIAC can be put in single chip that you can place on your little finger!

The Germans got this right–Satellite TV

During World War 2, the Germans were working on V-2 rocket (V stands for Vergeltungswaffe or Vengeance). It is thanks to this research that rockets were developed that could launch satellites and put man on the moon. After the war, science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke stated that ‘higher a TV tower, more the transmission range and clarity’, hence a satellite should be used to relay TV signals. This dream was realized in 1962, when the first TV signal was relayed through satellite.

Protection for fighter pilots–Ray Ban sunglasses

When the United States Air Force approached Bausch & Lomb in the thirties for sunglasses for their pilots for UV protection at high altitudes, the legendary Aviator sunglasses were born in 1936. It made the American pilots so cool that the Ray Ban brand was formed and the Aviator was sold to the public in 1937. It was reported that after Tom Cruise used the Aviator in Top Gun, sales increased by 40 percent that year. But for the record, the Wayfarer, released in 1953, is Ray Ban’s bestseller till date.

(This article appeared in the February 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)