The Role of War in Driving Technological Innovation

We use an array of technology every day and rarely think about the impetus behind their development. We may draw power for our device from a nuclear power plant. We may go on a network called the internet. We also may fly in a jet-powered airplane. In each case, we are drawing from research and development originally intended for the purpose of warfare.

How so?

War tends to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. Later, these military tools can evolve into non-military devices.

Was war really responsible for the internet?!

Yes! The purpose of the particular project was to develop the technologies and protocols necessary to allow multiple computers to connect directly to one another. This would allow people to share information with each other at unprecedented speeds. This network could also have another benefit: national security. By creating a robust and flexible network, the U.S. could ensure that in the event of catastrophe, access to the nation’s supercomputers could remain intact.

Another example of a technological advancement developed for the purpose of war (albeit more directly this time) is radar, which is actually an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. Interestingly, in an effort to evade radar and other detection technology, militaries today around the world are now busy developing stealth technology. It’s only a matter of time before these developments are directly used in the civilian sphere. 

And let’s not forget that the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which has led to extraordinary space exploration (and hopefully more to come), is a result of the Cold War. The Soviets were the first to launch a man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957. The U.S. feared that if the Soviets were able to launch a rocket with the payload size of Sputnik into space, then it was feasible they could also launch a nuclear warhead. Feeling a sense of urgency, President Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA as a way to exploit the military potential of space.

What did we learn today? We learned that there are economic and technological benefits to warfare since it leads to an infusion of capital into research and development. We also learned that it is not necessary to be actively engaged in war to forge ahead with technological development – even the threat of war motivates us to innovate.


Author: Symbiosis

I am a premedical student whose interests lay at the intersection between the humanities and science. I believe that by broadening our interests and investigating both the humanities and the sciences, we can engage in a humanistic approach to science and concurrently promote intellectual innovation by forging productive connections between the two cultures. - E.J. Tanenbaum

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