Today, we wonder how war influences technology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The common wisdom has always
said that war speeds up invention -- that airplane
performance, ship technology, and engine design all
raced ahead during World Wars I and II, that
governments can speed the creation of ideas. All
that, the common wisdom accepts. Only it does so
without a shred of supporting evidence.
Proponents often attribute one invention in
particular to war, the invention of radar. Yet that concept is
almost as old as radio itself. Radio pioneers
Marconi and Tesla both noted that we could locate
metal objects by bouncing radio signals off them;
and as early as 1904 a German engineer named
Hülsmeyer patented a radio echo device for
locating ships at sea.
However, I shall use airplane speeds to explain my
doubts. We all know how important it was to speed
up airplanes during World Wars I and II. Yet World
War II airplanes like our B-17 bomber, or the
German Messerschmitt 109 and the British Spitfire
fighters, all existed before the war. The Spitfire,
adapted from a peacetime racing plane, flew (like
most fighters at the start of the war) at about 350
miles per hour. By 1945 the advanced American
fighters, the P-38s and P-47s, reached 420 mph. The
early German jet, the Messerschmitt 262, used in
the waning days of the war, reached 585 mph. But
even it had been on the drawing boards before the
The remarkable fact is that, throughout its
history, the speed of flight has doubled every nine
years. The rate of increase was perfectly steady
from the first primitive airships in the 1880s
until orbital flight made speed records a
non-issue. That nine-year doubling was absolutely
untouched by war, depression or government.
The same story also holds throughout World War I.
In 1914 the first scouting planes flew around 80
mph. By the end of the war in 1918 the advanced
SPADs could fly 134 mph, and that is consistent
with a simple doubling every nine years. In other
words, once our creative energies were turned loose
on the airplane, those energies went right on
expressing themselves, war or not.
What a government's commitment does increase during
war is production. And, make no mistake, our
miracles of production during World War II were
dazzling. When we needed freighters, the Kaiser
steel company set out to make an out-of-date, but
They sped up the process until they were able to
make a complete ship, keel to launch, in as little
as four days.
But that was production. Human ingenuity is quite a
different creature. It is remarkably impervious to
external pressure. We are told that necessity is
the mother of invention, but history does not bear
that out. The true mother of invention is our
powerful driving internal need to invent. We invent
because we want to invent. The parents of invention
are those inexorable internal needs for pleasure,
self-satisfaction, and freedom.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lienhard, J.H., Some Ideas about Growth and Quality
in Technology. Technology Forecasting and Social
Change, Vol. 27, 1985, pp. 265-281.
The converse to the argument that war drives
technology is built by Martin van Creveld. Van
Creveld argues that the form and shape of war is
strongly formed by the availability of technology.
(See Creveld, M., Technology and War: From 2000
BC to the Present. New York: The Free Press,
For quantitative evidence in support of these
ideas, see Episode 559.
For additional illustrations, see episodes 1492 and 1562.
This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 35.
Industrial engineer Albert Swarts points out that
production should not be separated from creative
invention as I have seemingly done in the
second-to-the-last paragraph. He is correct. Kaiser
was enormously creative in developing the means to
build Liberty Ships so rapidly. However, creativity
can no more be driven by external forces upon
production than any other creativity can be driven.
In other episodes, I encounter many stories in
which such driving resulting in disaster (e.g.:
67, 199, 1387, 1190) and few where it was a
success (e.g.: 391). The
need for high production soars during war. That
need in turn spawns many disasters and a few
successes as well.