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Is war the stepmother of invention?

First in a two-part series

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By Paul Niemann

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[SEPT. 9, 2004]  It's common knowledge that weapons such as machine guns, hand grenades and tanks were invented to help countries win wars. In fact, wartime inventions go all the way back to the second century B.C., when the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes invented the catapult.

As the news is filled with coverage of the war on terror every day, the staff here at Invention Mysteries World Headquarters wondered if any beneficial inventions have ever resulted from war. It turns out that there have been quite a few.

While writing this story, I remembered the "combination spoon and can opener" that hangs on my dad's basement wall to this day as a memento from his service in the Korean War. Like the inventions profiled in this story, that invention was probably born out of necessity. Unlike the inventions profiled in this story, though, it didn't have a useful purpose once the war was over.

Would you rather ride in a two-wheel or four-wheel "vehicle"?

It probably comes as no surprise that the first ambulance system in the United States was a direct result of war. Or that a government official was against the system before he was for it. The surprising part is that the war that gave us the ambulance was the Civil War.

The Union's medical director, Jonathan Letterman, established the first ambulance system at the start of the war to transport injured soldiers to the field hospitals. The nation's first trial lawyer was right behind that very first ambulance.

Unlike modern ambulances, those used in the Civil War were drawn by horses, since no motor vehicles had been invented yet. Later ambulances used railroads and steamships to transport the wounded soldiers; some boats were even remade as floating hospitals. Just as today, the earliest ambulances were outfitted with medical supplies, and people who were not able or willing to fight ran the ambulance system.

Supply wagons were also used as ambulances following major battles. These wagons weren't the most comfortable means of transportation, but at least their floors were covered with hay.

In the 1950s, the United States began using helicopters as ambulances during the Korean War.


[to top of second column in this article]

The general-purpose vehicle

Originally known as the "general purpose vehicle" and then as the GP for short, the jeep's powerful engine, four-wheel drive and deep-treaded tires helped soldiers navigate through all types of terrain in World War II.

Just before the war began, the U.S. government called on 135 American car companies to create a prototype for what would become the jeep. It took the tiny American Bantam Car Company only seven weeks to produce the winning prototype, but the U.S. Army awarded the contract to the larger Willys Truck Company and Ford Motor Company. To add insult to injury, the contract called for Willys and Ford to produce the jeep based on Bantam's original design.

Just how big a role did the jeep play in World War II?

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said that America could not have won without it.

Free OJ!

We depart from the theme of vehicles with our third wartime invention. No, this segment is not about a white Ford Bronco but rather frozen concentrate orange juice.

What's so important about frozen concentrate orange juice?

It's simple when you think about it. Soldiers were inflicted with scurvy all year-round, but orange juice -- which helped cure scurvy -- was available only during the warmer months.

Dr. Edwin Moore led a team that developed the frozen concentrate during World War II. Despite the importance of their work, they received no royalties for their discovery because they were working for the U.S. government at the time.

Next week we'll take a look at more war-related inventions, including the one that saved more than a million lives since World War II, even though it was discovered by accident.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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