While most people think private enterprise is responsible for innovation, a great deal of the technology Americans rely on comes from another well-known source: the U.S. military.
Over the years, the military, and the private enterprises developing products for the military, have created some of the most important products we use today. Some of the inventions have been less groundbreaking than others, such as Silly Putty and Aviator sunglasses. But some military research also directly led to significant innovations such as the microwave oven and the GPS.
The military contracted out most of these inventions to private companies. One exception is the modern GPS network. It was designed in the 1970s by researchers in both the Navy and Air Force and was built in the late '70s and '80s. The technology, initially designed as a guidance and tracking system for planes, boats and missiles, is today used in everything from commercial aircraft to personal navigation systems.
Private companies developed most of the products on this list, often answering the military's call during wartime. During World War II, a Johnson & Johnson division created what would eventually become duct tape, originally to seal containers and quickly repair equipment in the field. The Jeep was an all-terrain scout vehicle built by a company called Willy’s-Overland. The Jeep was widely used by the military in World War II and the Korean War and eventually also became a very popular domestic auto brand.
In many cases, the final use of the product completely differs from its intended military function. What eventually became feminine hygiene products under the Kotex brand was originally medical gauze developed for the military during World War I. Silly Putty was invented as a possible substitute for rubber. While it failed in this regard, it became a popular toy.
The military also played a part in developing even greater technologies. ARPANET, considered by many to be a precursor to the modern Internet, was a military program designed to share documents securely between facilities. In the 1940s and '50s, the military even played a role in the development of the modern computer.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed products that were either developed for military use by the military or contractors, or those which were created as the result of military research. We excluded products where the military or contractors only played a part in the development of the product, as was the case with the computer.
These are the famous products invented for the military.
> Date invented: 1959
The GPS, or global positioning system, was originally developed for Air Force and Navy use. Between 1973 and 1978, Dr. Bradford Parkinson worked with both military branches to develop the Navstar GPS system, which relies on numerous satellites positioned at staggered points around the earth. The system uses multiple satellites to triangulate users' location and help navigate. It can be very accurate any time of day, anywhere in the world. It is accurate enough for the military, which uses it to guide missiles and track aircraft and vessels. In The technology can now be found in many commercial applications, including airlines, cars and smartphones. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the United States launched a second generation of satellites, which are more accurate than the first. The European Union and China have begun to develop their own independent networks.
2. Duct Tape
> Date invented: 1942
In World War II, Johnson & Johnson’s Revolite Permacell division developed the widely purposable tape most Americans recognize as duct, or “duck” tape. The tape’s ease of use, durability and water-resistance made it useful to seal containers and fix windows and equipment during the war. The basic components of the product is medical tape with polyethylene backing. When used in the army, it was typically green, but after the war, it was used in civilian applications such as construction and repair and became recognizable for its silver-gray color. Several companies now manufacture duct tape, including Scotch and Duck-brand.
> Date invented: 1940s
Four-wheel-drive technology actually had been around since the turn of the 20th century. By the 1930s, the military needed a scout car that could have speed and versatility in addition to hauling power and all-terrain capacity. The problem was that these two features were mutually exclusive from an engineering standpoint. The first Jeep that made it to battle, the Willys-Overland MB, provided the answer as the perfect army scout vehicle. Its performance in the war was so outstanding that Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “America could not have won World War II without it.” With war hero status, the military buggy had no trouble transitioning into a civilian car, with Americans appreciating the new light utility vehicles. Now, the Jeep brand continues to market itself on military toughness, going as far as joining with the Call of Duty video game franchise to promote its vehicles.
4. Microwave Oven
> Date invented: 1945
The technology behind the microwave oven was developed during World War II. At the time, the U.S. and British militaries engineered the magnetron, which was the result of research conducted on radio transmission and radar detection. The magnetron produced much smaller radio waves, known as microwaves, and was small and powerful enough to be used in airplanes. Its detection capabilities helped solve the persistent problem of accurately bombing towns. Microwaves' ability to heat food was discovered accidentally after the war in 1945. Percy Lebaron Spencer, who was employed at the time by the American defense contractor Raytheon Company, realized at work one day that radar waves had melted a candy bar in his pocket. Raytheon produced the first commercially available microwave oven in 1954. Today, microwaves are used in a variety of applications, including in detecting speed, sending telephone and television communications, curing plywood, treating muscle soreness and of course in microwave ovens.
5. Aviator Sunglasses
> Date invented: 1937
The characteristically dark shades of the aviator sunglasses were at one time necessary for test pilots pushing the limits of the airplane. At high altitudes, a pilot’s eyes could either be severely damaged by the extremely bright light in the upper atmosphere, or they could freeze in temperatures approaching -80 degrees Fahrenheit. In such conditions, goggles with dark lenses and a tear-drop shape were ideal. A design that prevented as much sunlight as possible from reaching the eye led to Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, which became standard gear for men enlisted in the military during World War II. Since the war, Ray-Bans have made prominent appearances in movies such as Taxi Driver and Top Gun, and were famously worn by celebrities such as Michael Jackson.
6. Feminine Hygiene Products
> Date invented: 1910
During World War I, Kimberly-Clark began to actively manufacture cellucotton, a type of cellulose wadding derived from wood. Initially, cellucotton was used during the war to bandage soldiers, but then nurses began using it also during their menstrual cycle. Soon after the war, Kimberly-Clark began selling cellucotton to women, eventually deciding on the brand name Kotex -- based on the words “cotton texture." Initially, according to the company, it struggled to market Kotex due to social taboos. In an effort to sell more of its wadding, the company, using a slightly altered ingredient blend, began producing Kleenex tissues.
7. Silly Putty
> Date invented: 1943
Silly Putty was born out of desperation during World War II. Japanese forces had invaded rubber producing nations, limiting American access to the material. As a result, the U.S. military requested the private sector to create an alternative for the rubber used in boots and tires. In 1943, James Wright, an engineer with General Electric, developed the putty from boric acid and silicone oil. While the material had no practical uses, it caught-on very quickly as a novelty. Silly Putty became particularly popular after Peter Hodgson, who had first marketed the putty for a store in New Haven, recognized that people liked the goo for its unique properties -- it stretches and bounces but can be easily snapped into pieces. Hodgson began targeting children in the Silly Putty ads and selling it in the now-famous egg-shaped container. He eventually died a wealthy man.
8. Super Glue
> Date invented: 1951
Super Glue was inadvertently first created by Harry Coover and Fred Joyner, Tennessee-based employees of Eastman Kodak, in 1951. At the time, they were looking to find a substance that could be used as a heat-resistant coating for jet cockpits. But not until seven years later, in 1958, did Super Glue, which did not need heat or pressure for the adhesive to work, hit the market. The product never made its acknowledged inventor, Coover, wealthy. The product eventually had both medical and military uses -- it could be used in medical procedures and was used to treat wounded troops during the Vietnam War.
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