Why you should care

Because we benefit from war in ways you might find surprising.

Konrad Adenauer fancied himself a man of invention. The future German chancellor wasn’t known for winning people over with his earliest creations, but Emma, his wife, humored him. She even wore a hairpin he had made, even though its claim to fame was that it was impossible to close. These and other of his ideas failed to take off, but when World War I hit, Adenauer’s inventiveness took a timely turn.

Say “modern warfare” and automatically people conjure images of widespread destruction — tangled masses of metal, torn-up roads and entire neighborhoods leveled. But world wars have also been times when the most creative minds were given access to resources to turn improbable, and often very practical, ideas into reality.

In the middle of the First World War, Germany and Austria-Hungary were in crisis. Between a shipping blockade and munitions production, coal was hard to come by, and governments needed to cut back on its use in burning street lamps. So they reached for a decades-old theory by a New Zealand academic for extending the sunlit workday. Both countries put daylight saving time into practice in 1916, and Allied countries followed suit as the war continued, with the U.S. even calling what we know now as DST “war time.” When the fighting ended, the concept stuck in more than 70 countries. We no longer use DST to conserve energy, but the shift in schedule turned out to be useful for adding another hour of sunlight to the dark winter months.

Many of the creature comforts we take for granted were born in wartime.

Shrewd entrepreneurs were constantly on the lookout for other prewar inventions they could turn into wartime best sellers. Products from zippers and tea bags to sanitary towels and wristwatches all got picked up by various militaries during the wars. For example, in The Healing Power of Tea, Caroline Dow writes that it’s unknown who dipped the first tea bags in water, though many credit merchant William Sullivan with bringing them to market in 1908. But the netted botanicals really gained steam after the German firm Teekanne supplied the “teebombe” to troops during World War I. Similarly, the inventor of the modern zipper, Swedish-American engineer Gideon Sundback seized an opportunity during the war to get his stalled product into the mainstream. He invented a new production machine for the zipper that required far less metal than his previous process, making this assembly line product an attractive sell to the thrifty wartime military, who then used the zippers on soldiers’ bags, clothing and equipment.

These small conveniences often don’t get picked up in peacetime, design historian Georgia Newmarch explains. Today, the only conflict surrounding products and the Western consumer stems from the vast choices available at the store. “These inventions remind us that, out of a crisis, products are created in haste to solve problems” that otherwise seem trivial, she says.

After all, why not use a tea ball or a strainer instead of a tea bag? But when you add the “need to have a quick cuppa … suddenly the home front is changed forever,” she notes.

Sometimes, though, scarcity is the mother of invention. Food shortages hit Cologne, Germany, early on in World War I, prompting widespread concern. Adenauer, the city’s soon-to-be mayor, is credited with an unlikely invention that helped feed his people: vegetarian sausage. Combining flour, corn, barley, rice and soya, he started a trend that remains a popular menu item at SoHo brunch spots today. Allegedly the “Cologne Sausage” didn’t taste very good, but by World War II, ration cookbooks had developed recipes we still enjoy now.

Even actual instruments of destruction have sometimes been put to surprising peacetime use. The most shocking is an invention that you probably have in your garage and that sustains a whopping third of the world’s current population, despite being used to make deadly gas during World War I. Shortly before the conflict, German chemist Fritz Haber had invented a process to create industrial-strength ammonia fertilizer for the lethal gas it produced. And while the technology was used during the war primarily for destructive purposes, Haber’s fertilizer also made today’s large-scale agriculture possible. Without Haber’s process, which protects huge fields from infestation, we’d struggle to feed much of the planet.

Wars exact an immeasurable toll, so no one would propose we’re better off because of them. But many of the creature comforts and daily essentials we enjoy and take for granted today were born in wartime. Which means you’ll probably never look at a cup of tea the same way again.

Comment

OZYFlashback

Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.