March 2021 Featured Article

Inventions that Turn the Tide

Accuracy is crucial for any author, but particularly so for writers of historical fiction to ensure that an anachronism-a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists-doesn’t occur and draw the reader out of the story.


Wartime is a difficult period, but because “necessity is the mother of invention,” can also be a season of great technological advancements. As I research the 1930s and 1940s for my World War II books, I’m often surprised to discover an invention that occurred during this pivotal era of history. Here are just a few of them:


Radar: Rumors in the British government indicated the Nazis were on their way to completing a “death ray,” a weapon that could obliterate towns, cities, and people. Desperate to know whether the Germans were capable of building such a weapon, Britain’s Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence also wondered whether they might be able to construct one themselves. CSSAD pulled together the country’s academic minds who worked for months to no avail. One of the lead scientists, Robert Watson-Watt who determined that electromagnetic radiation could detect clouds was asked if the research could be used to kill enemy pilots. The emphatic answer was no, but the magnetrons could be used to detect planes, just like clouds, as many as one hundred miles away, thus allowing the Royal Air Force to be in the sky and waiting for the Luftwaffe.


Pressurized aircraft cabin: The quintessential photo of a WWII pilot shows a good-looking man in a leather helmet, goggles, fur-lined boots, leather gloves, and wool coveralls with a silk scarf at the neck to prevent chafing as the pilot constantly swiveled his neck during flight. The reason for the heavy outerwear was the sub-zero temperatures experienced in the air. It was not until 1944, the B29 bomber was introduced with an experimental system that provided a pressurized cockpit, nose, and shaft leading along the aircraft to the unpressurized launch bays.


Aerosol can: The first metal aerosol spray cans were being tested as early as 1862, but apparently were too bulky to be commercially successful. Sixty five years would pass before a Norwegian engineer devised a can that could hold and dispense products. In 1943, Department of Agriculture researchers developed a small aerosol can that could be pressurized with liquefied gas (a fluorocarbon) as a portable system to spray pesticide on malaria-carrying insects. This design made products like hair spray possible.


Synthetic rubber and oil: Rubber was a vital material in war materiel. However, by 1942 the Japanese had seized the Dutch East Indies and the Malay Peninsula, cutting off the U.S. supply of natural rubber. In an unprecedented spirit of cooperation, businesses such as Firestone, Goodyear, Goodrich, and US Rubber company, which had all been working on different formulas for synthetic rubber, agreed to share patents and scientific information to solve the nation’s rubber crisis. As a result, by 1944 facilities were producing around 800,000 tons of synthetic rubber annually.


Super Glue: Dr. Harry Coover worked for Eastman-Kodak, and in 1942 was tasked with finding a clear plastic that could be used to create precision gunsights. He and his team researched numerous chemicals known as cyanoacrylates. One chemical mixture bonded so strongly it was difficult to separate. Considered a failure the team moved on to other chemicals, but years later Dr. Coover would resurrect the project as an adhesive.


Duct Tape: An Illinois mom named Vesta Stoudt, who had two sons serving in the U.S. Navy, worked at the Green River Ordnance Plant. She noticed that the boxes of ammunition she packed and inspected had a flaw. They were sealed with paper tape, with a tab to open them. The box was dipped in wax to make it waterproof, but the paper tape was very thin, and the tabs often tore off, leaving soldiers frantically trying to open the box while under fire. Mrs. Stoudt had the idea to create waterproof cloth tape, but her supervisors weren’t interested in her suggestion, so she sent a letter to President Roosevelt outlining the problem and her solution, complete with diagrams! Impressed, he passed her letter to the War Production Board who contacted Mrs. Stoudt to let her know her idea had been approved. Johnson & Johnson was selected to make the product.


Which of these items surprised you as having been developed during WWII?

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