The Surprising Ways Military Technology Is Used in Real Life

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: David Mark/Pixabay

When you think of the military, what pops to mind? Tanks, grenades and AR-15s? What about undershirts, duct tape and canned peas? Surprisingly, we have the military to thank for those creations, and much more.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly makes sense when it comes to the items on this list. Soldiers need the best technology possible — whether it's a weapon or a wristwatch. Here are just a few of the military inventions we now use in everyday life.

Microwave Ovens

Many of us don't remember life before microwave ovens, but for our parents and grandparents, they were life-changing technology. Imagine wanting to heat up leftovers — but you have to turn on the oven, wait for it to pre-heat, and sit around until dinner is warm. Totally inconvenient!

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Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg/Bloomberg Collection/Getty Images

While the military didn't necessarily invent microwaves so you could warm up Nana's casserole, engineer Percy Spencer did use military technology to make it happen. The first microwaves (so-called because of their tiny size) were electromagnetic waves developed as radar technology during World War II. Percy accidentally discovered the heating effect in 1945.

Jet Engines

Jet engines were being worked on as far back as the 1930s when inventor Frank Whittle filed the first official patent. The idea didn't take off until 1944 when the Germans took the world's first jet fighter (the Messerschmitt Me 262) to the skies at the peak of World War II.

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Luckily, the Nazis were low on funds by that point and unable to produce many aircraft. In the years that followed, jet engine technology continued to improve. Incidentally, the Boeing 747 — used today by most major commercial airliners — also came from military technology: Boeing is one of the world's largest weapons manufacturers!

Weather Radar

Can you imagine life without a daily weather report? People joke about how often the forecast is wrong, but in reality, meteorologists accurately predict the weather about 80% of the time. Glance at your phone and you'll know what to expect, not just for today, but for the entire week ahead!

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Surprisingly, this is another technology that came out of World War II. Soldiers operating radar machines discovered that weather could slow down readouts and create echoes in the equipment. As technology evolved, scientists were able to study that data and use it to decipher the weather.


Canned Food

Keeping troops fed, of course, is vital to the success of any war — and around 1810, the French government offered a cash reward to anyone who could come up with a cheap way to preserve large quantities of food. While the initial product was made from glass, canned foods as we know them had taken over by World War I.

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Canning preserves edibles in airtight containers, making them shelf-stable and safe to eat for one to five years or more. Today's pantries are stocked to the brim with canned veggies, soups and even meats.

Sanitary Napkins

Next time you grab a pack of sanitary napkins off the supermarket shelf, know this: Benjamin Franklin invented them. However, he had no idea what his invention would end up being used for. He originally created pads to help wounded soldiers stop bleeding while they received medical treatment.

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The original manufacturers of pads were also bandage makers, but in the years since, a lot has changed. Somewhere around World War I, the invention was adapted to help women cope with menstruation. Soon after, the product became commercially available as Kotex Pads — though many markets refused to carry them at the time!

GPS Navigation

Remember when you had to actually read a paper map to figure out where you were going? Yeah, neither do we. We thank our lucky stars every single day that the nice lady in the phone can tell us how to get to the office or go to the mall.

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However, it was only in the 1990s that satellite navigation became available to the public. Prior to that, American satellites were exclusively used for a space-based navigation system owned and operated by the United States government. The system helped soldiers identify targets, track plane trajectories, map out itineraries and much more.


Aerosol Bug Spray

If you're a fan of the great outdoors, you know that insects are a huge problem. Mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs are carriers of several dangerous — and often life-threatening — diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, lyme disease and rocky mountain spotted fever. Luckily, bug spray can keep you safe.

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How did the military end up developing this life-saving tool? Soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II needed a way to kill mosquitoes. In a partnership with the Department of Defense, two scientists invented the first-ever "bug bomb." Today, insecticides are widely available in easy-to-use aerosol cans.

The Life-Saving EpiPen

Anyone following the recent price gouging controversy surrounding the EpiPen might be surprised to learn that the inventor never collected a penny in royalties. How is that possible? The original product (the ComboPen) was an auto-injector filled with nerve gas antidote — and it belonged to the U.S. military.

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Around the same time in the early 1970s, a similar device became available to civilians. The EpiPen made it possible for those with severe allergies to quickly dispense life-saving medication in the event of anaphylaxis — a life-threatening allergic attack that can cause restricted airways and rapid heart rate, among other symptoms.

Blood Banks and Transfusions

If you've ever gone in for surgery and received donor blood, you have the military to thank. Since the dawn of time, soldiers have faced life-threatening conditions on the battlefield. Eventually, it became evident that they needed a way to provide dying men with donor blood rapidly.

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The technology needed for emergency blood banks and transfusion techniques was developed around World War I when the first blood transfusions were made person-to-person. Technology quickly improved, and blood banks were set up to help with casualties. Today, blood banks and transfusions are used in the civilian world.


The Space Program

The United States was the first country to put a man on the moon — and oddly, we have the Nazis to thank for it. During WWII, German scientists worked on creating long-range rockets. Post-war, the U.S. took those scientists back to the states and asked for their help.

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The result? A top-notch program that helped America win the space race and implement the first manned mission to the cosmos. Since then, many rockets have gone into space, and astronauts have walked on the moon. Soon, it may even be possible for civilians to head into space!

Wristwatches — a Clock You Can Wear!

Smartphones mean that we have a world of information readily available, right at our fingertips: date, weather, maps and even news and entertainment. But it wasn't all that long ago that people couldn't tell the time if they didn't have a clock on the wall.

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Wristwatches were born out of necessity on the battlefield when soldiers had to synchronize military maneuvers without altering the enemy. It is thought that the first instance of such a feat occurred in the early 1800s when a German officer strapped a pocket watch to his wrist. Since then, technology has come a long way!

Digital Cameras You Can Use Anywhere

The history of the digital camera began in 1961 in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The technology was intended to take pictures of planets and stars while traveling through space to determine the astronaut's position. Soon, the cameras were being used in spy satellites to take aerial images of enemy installations.

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By the 1970s, the first self-contained digital camera was created — and it eventually made its way into the civilian world. The first commercial option was developed by Fairchild in 1976, though it would be many years before the technology became what we know and recognize as a digital camera today.


Fix-All Duct Tape

Is there anything Duct Tape can't do? You can use it to fix a tent, patch a hose, and even remove splinters. There are a million other uses for Duct Tape because it's literally the one tool that can do it all.

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Who invented the most useful item you could ever possibly keep in your home? The military, of course! The original was developed during World War II. It was capable of resisting water and dirt and was strong enough to repair military equipment. Today, it comes in a variety of sizes and colors — and is still tough as nails.

Synthetic Rubber Tires

Did you know that the tires on your car today aren't real rubber? They're actually made out of a blend of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, carbon black and a variety of other chemical substances. This wasn't the case, however, until around 1934.

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In the late 1800s, manufacturers began making vehicle tires using natural rubber from suppliers in Southeast Asia. During World War II when Japan occupied much of that region, supplies became unavailable, and the Allies were forced to adapt. The result? Synthetic rubber, which is still widely used today in a variety of applications.

Jetpacks for Everyone!

A jetpack is a wearable device (like a backpack) that allows the user to fly. They seem like something you'd see on The Jetsons or in a Sci-Fi movie. Despite our childhood dreams, they're more often used for movie stunts than anything in regular life.

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Like so many other inventions, the jetpack came out of World War II. Around that time, the U.S. military invested a lot of time and money into researching personal propulsion devices — the thought being that they could quickly get soldiers out of harm's way. Though they never really caught on, it was a cool idea!


Frozen Juice Concentrate

What's one thing soldiers say they miss when they're deployed? Fresh-squeezed orange juice. In 1943, the USDA and the Florida Citrus Commission remedied the situation by developing a frozen concentrate that could be sent overseas. The only problem? Orange juice that was frozen and then thawed would turn brown.

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Scientists discovered that adding a bit of fresh juice to the concentrate before freezing improved both the color and taste. The process was patented in 1945, and by 1946, Minute Maid was selling frozen juice commercially. Today, frozen juice concentrates come in a variety of flavors from orange to fruit punch.

Life-Saving Penicillin

The term penicillin refers to a group of drugs that are used to fight bacteria in your body. They can treat many different maladies, such as ear infections, respiratory tract infections and scarlet fever. They do not treat viral infections, such as the flu.

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It's hard to imagine that before World War I, this cure-all medication did not exist. During that time, Alexander Fleming (a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps) witnessed many soldiers tragically dying from sepsis. He later discovered a type of mold that released a substance that inhibited bacterial growth. Today, we know that substance as "penicillin."

Toy Drones

These days, it's rare to be at any event and not see a drone. People use them to take videos and photos at concerts, fairs, sporting events, and more. It's even possible to buy toy drones for children (or children at heart) to play with at home.

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It's safe to say, however, that these unmanned aerial vehicles did not start as just playthings. The original drones were used to survey battlefields or go on missions deemed too dangerous for human beings — and the concept can be dated back to 1849 when Austria sent unmanned balloons to drop bombs on Venice!


Walkie-Talkie Fun

Many a little kid has played soldier using a toy walkie-talkies to communicate with friends. Those little kids aren't too far off when they play their games — the first walkie talkies were used for communication between soldiers.

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Like many things on this list, the walkie-talkie has its origins in World War II. It was developed during that time for infantry use and later field artillery and tank crews to provide convenient communication on the battlefield. Walkie-talkies spread to the civilian world, and today they're used on job sites, for outdoor recreation, and of course as toys.

Freeze-Dried Foods

The process of freeze-drying goes back to the 15th century when the Incas used a rudimentary method to store and preserve their crops. Modern techniques, however, were developed during World War II, when blood serum was freeze-dried for safe transport, allowing for treatment of the wounded.

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Soon after, the same process was used for freeze-drying penicillin and bone, and it quickly became a recognized technique for preserving biological material. Today, freeze-drying is used for a wide variety of applications, including pharmaceuticals, restoration of water-damaged materials and food. One of the most iconic uses loved by children everywhere is astronaut ice cream.

Superglue to Repair Anything

If you've ever stuck your fingers together using superglue, you know how strong it is. Today, the product is available under a variety of brand names, and it's the go-to tool when other adhesives won't work. It's recommended for glass, leather, ceramics, metal, wood and certain plastics — pretty much everything but your fingers.

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It should come as no surprise that this bonding substance was developed during World War II. Scientists were tasked with finding a material for creating clear plastic gun sights for weapons. During the process, they accidentally discovered a substance that stuck to everything, and superglue was born.


Always-Cool Aviator Sunglasses

Today, aviator sunglasses are associated more with the movie Top Gun than they are with the military — but Tom Cruise was not, in fact, the first one to rock them. Aviator sunglasses go way back to the 1930s when military pilots used them to protect their eyes while flying.

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Though aviators are now a must-have fashion item, they were originally used to replace the clunky flight goggles of yesteryear. The new lenses offered many benefits, including being lighter, thinner, and frankly, better looking. The look soon caught on with the Hollywood elite, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ambulance Medical Transport

Finally, a military invention that DOESN'T come from World War II! This one goes all the way back to 1487. It was during the late 15th century that ambulances first appeared on the battlefield, used by the Spanish army during the War of Naples.

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At the time, wagons were used to pick up the dead rather than save the still-living. In later years, ambulances were used in many military situations, often in the form of stretchers, carts or wagons. With the advent of the motor vehicle during the 19th century, ambulances quickly made their way into civilian life.

Night Vision Cameras

Today, you can buy a night vision camera or a pair of night vision binoculars in any sporting goods store. Heck, your phone probably has a night vision camera — and even your car might have this game-changing technology. This is yet another invention that was developed out of necessity during World War II.

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The German army was intent on observing the enemy during the evening hours. By the mid-1940s, the technology had made its way onto the battlefield via scopes and rangefinders mounted on panther tanks. Later, smaller versions were mounted onto rifles and became widely used throughout the military.


Cotton Undershirts

People have been wearing undergarments for thousands of years. The first iteration was probably the loincloth, but since then, unders have taken on different forms. Unfortunately, for much of history, undergarments were made out of scratchy, uncomfortable wool. That all changed in 1905.

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During the early 20th century, cotton, T-shaped undershirts became part of the official U.S. Navy uniform. Before that time, undershirts of this variety were never mass-produced or worn, but they quickly gained in popularity. The convenience and practicality of a shirt that didn't need to be buttoned-up appealed to a variety of men — both military and civilian.

Convenient Instant Coffee

Instant coffee is not an invention of the military per se, but the armed forces did help to make it as popular as it is today. Instant coffee was first mass-produced in the United States in 1910. It's fair to say that consumers did not like it — in fact, it was a total bomb.

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The military, however, loved the idea of a quick and easy coffee soldiers could make in the field. According to Nestle, during one year of World War II, the entire production from the U.S. Nescafe plant — in excess of one million cases — went solely to the military!

Disposable Razors

Until about 100 years ago, shaving was a dangerous business. Why? Because trimming your stubble required the use of a straight razor — commonly known as the "cut-throat" razor. It wasn't just a clever nickname: One false move could spell certain disaster.

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The military quickly took notice — that was one weapon they didn't want anywhere near the battlefield. Luckily, by 1931, Schick razors were readily available on store shelves, and by WWII, they were standard-issue for soldiers. Because the razors were so convenient, most military men continued to use them after returning home, and the product soon became a commercial success.


Silly Putty

Silly Putty was all the rage in the 1950s. The product, packaged in small plastic eggs, is a small piece of putty with some very unusual properties: It can bounce, stretch, and float. More importantly, it can be used to copy the print out of newspapers.

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Silly Putty came about in the 1940s when the U.S. military needed a new source of rubber during World War II. A chemist at General Electric came up with what he thought was a fitting substitute, but the military disagreed. Even though it had no military use, it became a huge commercial success.

Modern Computers

Looking at today's computers, you would never know that they started as gigantic machines that used punch cards and mechanical looms to solve problems. We've come a long way since then. But where did those first computers come from?

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The first mechanical computer, created by Charles Babbage in 1822, was capable of computing several sets of numbers and making hard copies of the results. Technology improved immensely during World War II when the U.S. Army developed a machine called Colossus meant to decipher messages sent via Nazi encryption devices. Since then, computer technology has grown by leaps and bounds.

The Internet

It should only stand to reason that since the military invented the modern computer, they also created the Internet. The World Wide Web as we know it initially started back in 1977 in the form of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). The project was funded by an arm of the U.S. Defense Department.

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ARPANET's original purpose was to link computers at Pentagon-funded research institutions over telephone lines. As different agencies connected to the network, it became a tentacle-like structure. It was the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite, much like the internet of today.