The U.S. spends a lot of money on military research, but a lot of things civilians use everyday were designed or commissioned for military projects. Here are 13 of the best.
1. Portable fire extinguisher
The portable fire extinguisher was invented by a captain in the Cambridgeshire Militia. Capt. George W. Manby was obsessed with safety, inventing at least five safety devices. He invented the “extincteur” in 1819, a copper container filled with three gallons of pearl ash and some compressed air. Modern extinguishers are based on his design, though different metals and chemical compounds are used.
The Epipen, used to quickly administer adrenaline in patients experiencing anaphylactic shock, was invented in the 1970s by Dr. Sheldon Kaplan who based the design upon Cold War-era auto-injectors. The auto-injectors allowed troops to quickly and precisely administer antidotes if they were struck with nerve agents. Before auto-injectors, troops had to carry kits with syringes, rubber bands, and vials of medicine that could kill when used incorrectly and were tricky to administer in the field.
3. Blood banks
Though they are now generally associated with aid organizations like the Red Cross, blood banks were originally designed for military field hospitals. Then-Capt. Oswald Robertson suggested the use of preserved blood at casualty clearing stations at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. He had proven preserved blood would work in transfusions and knew that the battle would create too many casualties for doctors to transfuse directly from a donor to the patient, a method popular before blood banks.
Now used by civilians for everything from surveying fires to paintball to filming weddings, drones were originally attempted by the U.S. military in World War I as remote-controlled dive bombers — sort of like a long-range missile.
Of course, actual missiles and rockets were developed in World War II that made this unnecessary, so drones sat on a shelf until the 1980s when they began a limited surveillance role. After drone technology became cheaper and more accessible, they made the jump to the civilian world.
5. Vehicle navigation
The military famously led the way in GPS, developing positioning satellites for the U.S. Navy in 1960. The program was opened up to civilian use by President Reagan after a Korean jet was shot down by a Russian fighter when it accidentally wandered into Russian air space. Today, GPS is everywhere, especially in cars.
GPS wasn’t the first in-car navigation system though. That was an inertial guidance system from Honda that descended from World War II navigational aids for aviators.
6. The Space Program
The first American satellite was created by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and included instruments designed by a professor at the State University of Iowa. But, that equipment was riding on the Jupiter-C, a missile created by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency headed by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun also designed the V-2 which put the first manmade object in space.
In 1958, NASA was created and became the primary American body for exploring space. Now, civilian corporations like SpaceX are moving into the market as well.
7. Hemostatic bandages
Hemostatic bandages quickly control severe bleeding. They can work through a few different mechanisms depending on the hemostatic agent that is used. Some pull water from a wound and leave clotting agents behind in a higher concentration, some form a sticky substance atop a wound and reduce bleeding that way, and others are a protein-covered lattice that a clot can quickly form on.
All the major types were created for controlling extreme trauma on the battlefield. While most of the hemostatic bandages making their way to the civilian world are coming from recent breakthroughs, military doctors have been working on hemostatic bandages since 1909.
8. Duct/Duck tape
The Permacell company developed Duck Tape for the military in World War II as a way to quickly repair cracked windows, seal ammo cans and other cases, and repair trucks. When the war ended, it was quickly realized that the tap also worked well for air ducts and the tape changed from green to the iconic gray most people associate with it.
The first true electronic computers were invented by British and American scientists for use in World War II. The British Colossus was used to crack German codes during World War II. The American ENIAC wasn’t completed until just after the war, but it was the first programmable computer and would go on to aid in the creation of the hydrogen bomb.
10. One-handed tourniquets
While civilian medical services have typically been wary of tourniquets, they’ve been coming back around after seeing the outstanding performance of tourniquets in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently, important groups of doctors have begun advocating for tourniquets as required equipment in ambulances. Predictably, the best designs have been those catered to the military needs.
The popular Combat Action Tourniquet and Special Operations Forces Tourniquet were some of the first designs that allowed one-handed application. A new tourniquet designed for the Department of Defense is gaining attention for being easier to apply while still effectively controlling bleeding.
Microwave ovens were a byproduct of World War II radar research. The original radars in England told the general direction enemy aircraft were coming in from, but it wasn’t detailed or mobile. Britain wanted radars that could pinpoint attackers and that could be installed on fighters. They got their wish with the invention of the cavity magnetron.
The microwaves from the magnetron could also excite particles and cook food, as discovered by Perry Spencer, a Raytheon employee. He invented the microwave oven after a magnetron melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.
12. PTSD treatments
Civilians get post-traumatic stress disorder too, and military breakthroughs in treatment will be used to help non-military patients. The VA lists the current therapies they offer in their facilities, but they also use video games and dogs to treat service members and veterans.
13. The Internet
The ARPANET was created in 1969 as a decentralized communications network, meaning a bomb attack at one node would do minimal damage to the network as a while. It was formally shut down in 1989 since the growing civilian internet was already making it redundant.
So next time you’re watching that funny cat video on YouTube, be sure to go ahead and thank the troops.