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More wartime inventions that
benefit mankind

Second in a two-part series

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By Paul Niemann

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[SEPT. 16, 2004]  As we discovered last week, war has produced many popular inventions that we take for granted. These include aerosol cans, food preservation, synthetic rubber, Silly Putty (yes, Silly Putty), jet engines, rockets and radar.

Today we continue where we left off last week by taking a look at three more important wartime inventions, including one that has saved millions of lives since it was discovered by accident in 1928.

The data translating apparatus, also known as secret Project PX…

During World War II the U. S. Army awarded a grant to inventors John Mauchly and John Eckert Jr. to build a device to help the war effort. Originally labeled as Project PX, the ENIAC, which stands for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was the first electronic digital computer. It is also the system to which modern computers trace their roots.

Within two years, the ENIAC was able to predict the weather, calculate atomic energy and study wind tunnel design, among other uses. It stood 150 feet long, weighed over 30 tons, contained 18,000 vacuum tubes and required 200 people to operate. Yet it was 1,000 times faster than previous calculators.

The war had ended by the time the ENIAC was introduced to the public in 1946. Mauchly and Eckert then went on to develop the first commercial computer, the UNIVAC, which stands for UNIVersal Automatic Computer. Both inventors were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2002.


"Oh, I see they've got the Internet on computers now."

-- Homer Simpson

Staying on the theme of computers, ARPA, which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency (enough with the acronyms already!), produced the forerunner to the Internet, known as ARPAnet. The need for the Internet was inspired by war -- the Cold War -- because the United States government was concerned that a nuclear attack could wipe out our intelligence system.

Here's an abbreviated version of how the Internet evolved: ARPA was created by the U.S. Department of Defense as part of the U.S. reaction to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik. By 1969, computer scientists had begun work on the ARPAnet, which was a network of huge supercomputers from five major universities that could exchange information with each other.


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The National Science Foundation, or NSFnet, linked them together and eventually replaced the slower ARPAnet in 1990. I think you know where we're going with this. NSFnet formed the backbone of today's Internet, and the rest is history.

It took only four years for the Internet to reach 50 million users in the United States. By comparison, radio took 38 years, television took 13 years and personal computers took 16 years to reach critical mass.

Genius + luck = the accidental discovery…

Penicillin began saving lives in 1943 when two men -- neither of whom was named Fleming -- figured out how to produce it as an antibiotic.

Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 by accident when he left his lab for a two-week vacation and returned to find that a mold had developed on a plate of staphylococcus culture. After further research, he found that the mold had stopped the bacteria from spreading. Even though the entire world knows about his discovery, it went virtually unknown for more than 10 years.

It wasn't until two other men, Howard Florey and Earnest Chain, figured out how to produce penicillin as an antibiotic in 1939 that it actually benefited society. Florey and Chain had researched Fleming's work to study ways to use molds to kill bacteria. Even though they knew how to produce it as an antibiotic, they weren't able to have the drug mass-produced in Great Britain. In 1941 Florey flew to America with another colleague and got U.S. assistance for its production once the United States entered the war.

By the end of World War II, penicillin had begun saving millions of lives and also led to the discovery of many other antibiotics that are used today. Fleming, Florey and Chain split the 1945 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Next week: You might be an inventor if ….

[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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