There’s a song from the 70s that’s best known for its iconic line: “War, huh! What is it good for?”
Initially released on March 1970 in the album Psychedelic Shack by the Temptations, the song “War” was as anti-war as it gets. The song, which portrayed war as nothing more than useless violence, released just before the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and was deemed too controversial by the band’s record label to be released as a single.
“War” would have been better received today when public consensus is that war is pretty much pointless. After all, what’s there to gain from sending young men and women to die far away from home?
No amount of wartime inventions can replace the lives lost in the wars they were invented in. But it’s hard to deny that these everyday things that have changed the way we live our lives exist largely because of war.
1. Jet Engines
The Wright brothers and their 1903 Wright flyer inspired a slew of inventors and investors to foray into the world of aviation. At the time, they were working on a new piece of tech called a turbine engine and played with the same principles first discovered by Heron of Alexandria with his steam-powered aeolipile.
The aeolipile was a steam turbine that used a hollow sphere, a pair of hollow tubes, and steam to lift the sphere into the air and make it turn. At the time it was first invented, it was little more than a scientific novelty.
By the time World War II rolled around, though? Two countries were working on giving man the wings he wasn’t born with. A Royal Air Force officer by the name of Frank Whittle created the first gas-turbine engine for the British forces, who used it to power the Gloster E.28/39 on through its initial flight on May 15, 1941.
On the other side, German inventor Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain had independently created a turbine engine that powered the He 178, Germany’s first fully operational jet plane in 1939.
Today, the aviation industry makes up $3.5 trillion of the world’s GDP, putting it in the same GDP rank as countries like the Netherlands and Indonesia. It has taken a hit lately thanks to the unrelenting mutations of the COVID-19 virus. It was forecasted to lose roughly $118 billion around the start of 2020 and another $38 billion in 2021.
2. Women’s Menstrual Pads
There’s one product that most people who have periods buy that may surprise you to learn it was actually a wartime invention: disposable menstrual products.
Jessica Kane over at Huffington Post did the math on how much periods cost those of us who have them in our lifetimes and it’s expensive. The average period runs from 3 to 7 days and the average person who menstruates gets their first period at around 13 years old up and keeps getting them every 28 days or so until about the age of 51. That’s a whopping 456 periods in 38 years, equivalent to 6.25 years of their life.
Now imagine being a person having their period before the invention of modern menstrual products.
Being “on the rag” wasn’t just a figure of speech. Before tampons and sanitary pads, actual rags were the go-to for keeping menstrual blood out of sight.
If you were a woman in 19th century America or as far back as ancient Greece, your best bet would have been sea sponges. If you were a lot more unlucky, you would have no option but to free bleed which is exactly what it sounds like. Women would just let their menstrual blood flow without any products.
In a time when no standardized or reliable method of period care existed, women just reached for whatever reasonably absorbent material they could find. This need for finding creative solutions led some field nurses during the First World War to a brilliant idea.
They noticed that the surgical dressings they were given to treat their patient’s wounds did a great job of absorbing an injured soldier’s blood. Blood elsewhere in the body was pretty much the same as blood from Aunt Flo’s monthly visits.
Soon enough, women started using this as a rudimentary precursor to sanitary pads, swapping it for fresh surgical dressings when the first one was soaked through. The use of sanitized absorbent material was far more hygienic than grabbing any old rag and the ability to dispose of used pads, rather than putting a used rag in the laundry, made it easier for women to manage their periods outside the home — meaning girls wouldn’t have to stay home from school and women wouldn’t have to skip work to avoid embarrassing period accidents in public.
Another theory is that sanitary pads were invented thanks to the abundance of Cellucotton, a type of wood pulp that was developed during the war as a substitute for cotton due to wartime shortages.
Kotex claimed the honor of introducing the modern sanitary pad to women in America and worldwide. The brand had competitors when it first launched in the 1910s but it quickly became the brand for menstrual products thanks to a clever marketing slogan: “Ask for them by name.” This allowed women to purchase the products by requesting the brand name, which saved them the embarrassment of having to ask a typically male store clerk for a menstrual product.
3. Daylight Savings Time
Daylight Savings Time makes “wartime” literal.
Imagine this, you’re one of the big shot officials during the First World War and you’re in charge of logistics. You need to figure out how to move troops throughout the country and into enemy terrain, how many goods you need to procure, and when you’re going to do all that. When you’re moving thousands of men and tons of cargo, one of the first things you’ll realize is that time isn’t as easy of a resource to obtain.
Or is it?
While you can’t roll up to a Ford factory and ask them to manufacture more time for you, what you can do is change when the day starts to get the most daylight out of each 24 hour period. Plus, more sunlight earlier in the day means offices, homes, and stores don’t eat up as much fuel as they’d need to otherwise, leaving even more supplies that you can now direct towards the war effort.
By March 19, 1918, Daylight Savings Time, or as people back then called it, “war time,” became official with the signing of the Standard Time Act which created the five timezones of North America: Atlantic Standard Time, Eastern Standard Time, Central Standard Time, etc. But even in 1942, when the Daylight Savings Time returned to help out with World War II, the time zones were better known as war times than standard times.
Its practical uses in war don’t appear to extend to civilian life. Daylight Savings Time has been associated with depressed moods, increased risk of mental illness due to disturbed sleeping patterns, and higher rates of stroke. That’s without counting the increase in fatal vehicular accidents that are attributed to this biannual tinkering with our watches.
Speaking of watches, there’s another wartime invention that might be on your wrist right now.
4. Your Wrist Watch
When Cartier first started doing business in 1847, it was just a small jewelry shop at 29 rue Montorgueil, Paris that the founder, Louis-Francois Cartier, took over from Adolphe Picard, his teacher.
It would have stayed that way if it weren’t for Alfred Cartier. Alfred was Louis-Francois’s son who had followed his father into the family business. He convinced his old man to start making and selling wristwatches as part of Maison Cartier’s product range.
Later on, Alfred’s own son, also a Louis Cartier, would create the Santos de Cartier in 1906. Why Santos? Because it was made for the famous Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont. As a pilot, Santos-Dumont had a problem: how was he supposed to tell the time while he was trying his best not to crash and die in a fiery lump of debris?
Lucky for him, he was friends with Louis Cartier who then started creating Cartier’s first modern wristwatch. Unlike the pocket watches of the time, you didn’t need to pull out the Santos de Cartier. Just lift your wrist, turn it to face you, and voila! You knew the midnight airstrike was just minutes away from starting.
It was also a practical object. As a busy man’s watch, the Santos de Cartier did away with the gold and gemstones often used in watches of the time and went for a simple leather strap.
Its lack of ornamentation and practical simplicity made the Santos de Cartier and similar models from other watchmakers an ideal alternative to wristwatches for soldiers on the battlefield.
Trench officers began adopting the wristwatch as part of their must-have soldier’s toolkit. Young men about to go to war would purchase these watches to synchronize them to the watches of artillerymen, giving the officers and their men a convenient way to gun down enemies without having their own brains blown out while taking out their pocket watches.
By the end of the war, wristwatches had become more than women’s accessories. The image of the trench officer and the Air Force pilot valiantly fighting for family and country had become ingrained in people’s ideas of national pride.
With the military man were his tools of the trade: goggles, revolvers, and the wristwatch. The wristwatch was finally associated with manhood, making it one of the most popular men’s accessories to date.
5. War Also Changed the Way Women Dress
Bras, high heels, red lipstick. If we were to draw a Venn diagram with those three things in the middle, it would be where war, women, and drag queens overlap.
Let’s start with the bras. Before the bra, women in the West wore corsets, a tight-fitting undergarment that covered part of or all of a woman’s torso to provide support to her chest and back area.
It does this thanks to laces, often found on the back, and stiff material ranging from whale bones to metal. Contrary to popular belief, the corset wasn’t the fashion devil’s invention to impose patriarchal beauty standards on women. It was actually pretty comfortable according to dress historians Bernadette Banner and Karolina Żebrowska.
I know what you’re thinking: If corsets were so comfortable, why did women switch to bras? The War Industries Board forced them to.
Corsets required stiff material to be able to give women adequate bust support and shape their bodies at the same time. The most popular material for this was steel. About 28,000 pounds of it, in fact.
All that steel was redirected to the war effort during World War I and when World War II rolled around looking for more steel, the corset had gone out of daily use for so long that it became obsolete.
Wind the clock back to the tenth century and a popular women’s fashion item today comes into existence. The high-heeled shoe exudes sensual femininity to us now but when it was first worn, it was to keep Persian cavalrymen’s feet firmly planted on stirrups. Notice the gap between the front part of the high heel and the actual heel itself? That’s where the stirrups go.
17th-century European men would adopt the style to invoke power and masculinity. By the 1730s, changes in the style of the high heel cemented it as a women’s accessory. Is this gender appropriation? Nope. Men stopped wearing the high heel because it was too feminine.
But maybe feminine is part of what it takes to win a war. When word got out that Adolf Hitler hated red lipstick, women in Allied countries began wearing it as a form of protest. The first women’s branch of the US Army, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, began to wear red lipstick to boost morale. Several red lipsticks were developed by make up brands looking to capitalize on the trend.
Among the most popular of these was “Victory Red” created by Elizabeth Arden. The patriotic shade still exists today thanks to vintage brands like Bésame Cosmetics, which has its own reproduction called “1941 Victory Red“.