Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 35:
THE INFLUENCE OF WAR

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 35.

Today, we ask 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 tells us that war speeds up invention -- that airplane performance, ship technology, and engine design all raced ahead during WW-I and II -- that governments can speed the creation of ideas. But there's good reason to ask if this is really true.

I'll use airplane speeds to show why I have doubts, but any other technology would show the same thing. Airplane speeds are a good thing to look at because we know how badly everybody wanted to speed up their planes during WW-I and II.

The important airplanes of WW-II -- planes like the B-17, the Messerschmitt 109, the Spitfire -- were all around before the war. The Spitfire was adapted from a peacetime racing plane and it, like most fighters at the start of the war, flew about 350 mph. By the end of the war in 1945 the advanced P-38s and P-47s reached 420 mph. The early German jet -- the Messerschmitt 262 -- which was used in the waning days of the war, reached 585 mph. But even it was on the drawing boards before the war.

The remarkable fact is that throughout its history the speed of flight has doubled every nine years. The rate of increase has been dead steady from the first primitive airships in the 1880s right up until orbital flight made speed a non-issue. That nine-year doubling has been absolutely untouched by war, depression, or presidential proclamations.

The story also holds for WW-I. In 1914 the early scouting planes flew around 80 mph. At the end of the war, in 1918, the advanced SPADs could fly 134 mph. And that's 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 government commitment does increase during war is production. And make no mistake, the increase of production during WW-II was nothing short of amazing. But human ingenuity is quite a different creature. It's remarkably impervious to external pressure. We're told that "necessity is the mother of invention," but history doesn't really bear that out. The true mother of invention is our powerful driving internal need to invent. We invent because we want to invent. It's freedom that's the real mother of invention.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Lienhard, J.H., Some Ideas about Growth and Quality in Technology. Technological 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, 1989.)

For quantitative evidence in support of the ideas presented here, see Episode 559.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1418.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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