12 Technological Advancements of World War I

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Erik Sass has been covering the events leading up to World War I exactly 100 years after they happened. But today he's here to discuss some inventions of The Great War.

1. Tanks

In 1914, the “war of movement” expected by most European generals settled down into an unexpected, and seemingly unwinnable, war of trenches. With machine guns reinforcing massed rifle fire from the defending trenches, attackers were mowed down by the thousands before they could even get to the other side of “no-man’s-land.”

A solution presented itself, however, in the form of the automobile, which took the world by storm after 1900. Powered by a small internal combustion engine burning diesel or gas, a heavily-armored vehicle could advance even in the face of overwhelming small arms fire. Add some serious guns and replace the wheels with armored treads to handle rough terrain, and the tank was born.

The first tank, the British Mark I, was designed in 1915 and first saw combat at the Somme in September 1916. The French soon followed suit with the Renault FT, which established the classic tank look (turret on top). Despite their later prowess in tank combat in WWII, the Germans never got around to large-scale tank production in WWI, although they did produce 21 tanks in the unwieldy A7V model.

2. Flamethrowers

Although the Byzantines and Chinese used weapons that hurled flaming material in the medieval period, the first design for a modern flamethrower was submitted to the German Army by Richard Fiedler in 1901, and the devices were tested by the Germans with an experimental detachment in 1911. Their true potential was only realized during trench warfare, however. After a massed assault on enemy lines, it wasn’t uncommon for enemy soldiers to hole up in bunkers and dugouts hollowed into the side of the trenches. Unlike grenades, flamethrowers could “neutralize” (i.e. burn alive) enemy soldiers in these confined spaces without inflicting structural damage (the bunkers might come in handy for the new residents). The flamethrower was first used by German troops near Verdun in February 1915.

3. Poison Gas


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Poison gas was used by both sides with devastating results (well, sometimes) during the Great War. The Germans pioneered the large-scale use of chemical weapons with a gas attack on Russian positions on January 31, 1915, during the Battle of Bolimov, but low temperatures froze the poison (xylyl bromide) in the shells. The first successful use of chemical weapons occurred on April 22, 1915, near Ypres, when the Germans sprayed chlorine gas from large cylinders towards trenches held by French colonial troops. The defenders fled, but typically for the First World War, this didn’t yield a decisive result: the Germans were slow to follow up with infantry attacks, the gas dissipated, and the Allied defenses were restored. Before long, of course, the Allies were using poison gas too, and over the course of the war both sides resorted to increasingly insidious compounds to beat gas masks, another new invention; thus the overall result was a huge increase in misery for not much change in the strategic situation (a recurring theme of the war).

4. Tracer Bullets


Photo courtesy of Military Cartridges

While the Great War involved a lot of futile activity, fighting at night was especially unproductive because there was no way to see where you were shooting. Night combat was made somewhat easier by the British invention of tracer bullets—rounds which emitted small amounts of flammable material that left a phosphorescent trail. The first attempt, in 1915, wasn’t actually that useful, as the trail was “erratic” and limited to 100 meters, but the second tracer model developed in 1916, the .303 SPG Mark VIIG, emitted a regular bright green-white trail and was a real hit (get it?). Its popularity was due in part to an unexpected side-benefit: the flammable agent could ignite hydrogen, which made it perfect for “balloon-busting” the German zeppelins then terrorizing England.

5. Interrupter Gear


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Airplanes had been around for just a decade when WWI started, and while they had obvious potential for combat applications as an aerial platform for bombs and machine guns, it wasn’t quite clear how the latter would work, since the propeller blades got in the way. In the first attempt, the U.S. Army basically tied the gun to the plane (pointing towards the ground) with a leather strap, and it was operated by a gunner who sat beside the pilot. This was not ideal for aerial combat and inconvenient because it required two airmen to operate. Another solution was mounting the gun well above the pilot, so the bullets cleared the propeller blades, but this made it hard to aim. After the Swiss engineer Franz Schneider patented his idea for an interrupter gear in 1913, a finished version was presented by Dutch designer Anthony Fokker, whose “synchronizer,” centered on a cam attached to the propeller shaft, allowed a machine gun to fire between the blades of a spinning propeller. The Germans adopted Fokker’s invention in May 1915, and the Allies soon produced their own versions. Schneider later sued Fokker for patent infringement.

6. Air traffic control

In the first days of flight, once a plane left the ground the pilot was pretty much isolated from the terrestrial world, unable to receive any information aside from obvious signals using flags or lamps. This changed thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Army, which installed the first operational two-way radios in planes during the Great War (but prior to U.S. involvement). Development began in 1915 at San Diego, and by 1916 technicians could send a radio telegraph over a distance of 140 miles; radio telegraph messages were also exchanged between planes in flight. Finally, in 1917, for the first time a human voice was transmitted by radio from a plane in flight to an operator on the ground.

7. Depth Charges


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The German U-boat campaign against Allied shipping sank millions of tons of cargo and killed tens of thousands of sailors and civilians, forcing the Allies to figure out a way to combat the submarine menace. The solution was the depth charge, basically an underwater bomb that could be lobbed from the deck of a ship using a catapult or chute. Depth charges were set to go off at a certain depth by a hydrostatic pistol that measured water pressure, insuring the depth charge wouldn’t damage surface vessels, including the launch ship. After the idea was sketched out in 1913, the first practical depth charge, the Type D, was produced by the Royal Navy’s Torpedo and Mine School in January 1916. The first German U-boat sunk by depth charge was the U-68, destroyed on March 22, 1916.

8. Hydrophones

Of course it was a big help if you could actually locate the U-boat using sound waves, which required a microphone that could work underwater, or hydrophone. The first hydrophone was invented by 1914 by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor who actually started working on the idea as a way to locate icebergs following the Titanic disaster; however, it was of limited use because it couldn’t tell the direction of an underwater object, only the distance. The hydrophone was further improved by the Frenchman Paul Langevin and Russian Constantin Chilowsky, who invented an ultrasound transducer relying on piezoelectricity, or the electric charge held in certain minerals: a thin layer of quartz held between two metal plates responded to tiny changes in water pressure resulting from sound waves, allowing the user to determine both the distance and direction of an underwater object. The hydrophone claimed its first U-boat victim in April 1916. A later version perfected by the Americans could detect U-boats up to 25 miles away.

9. Aircraft Carriers


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The first time an airplane was launched from a moving ship was in May 1912, when commander Charles Rumney Samson piloted a Short S.27 pontoon biplane from a ramp on the deck of the HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay. However, the Hibernia wasn’t a true aircraft carrier, since planes couldn’t land on its deck; they had to set down on the water and then be retrieved, slowing the whole process considerably. The first real aircraft carrier was the HMS Furious, which began life as a 786-foot-long battle cruiser equipped with two massive 18-inch guns—until British naval designers figured out that these guns were so large they might shake the ship to pieces. Looking for another use for the vessel, they built a long platform capable of both launching and landing airplanes. To make more room for takeoffs and landings, the airplanes were stored in hangars under the runway, as they still are in modern aircraft carriers. Squadron Commander Edward Dunning became the first person to land a plane on a moving ship when he landed a Sopwith Pup on the Furious on August 2, 1917.

10. Pilotless Drones

The first pilotless drone was developed for the U.S. Navy in 1916 and 1917 by two inventors, Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt, who originally designed it as an unmanned aerial bomb—essentially a prototype cruise missile. Measuring just 18.5 feet across, with a 12-horsepower motor, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Aircraft weighed 175 pounds and was stabilized and directed (“piloted” is too generous) with gyroscopes and a barometer to determine altitude. The first unmanned flight in history occurred on Long Island on March 6, 1918. In the end, the targeting technique—point and fly—was too imprecise for it to be useful against ships during the war. Further development, by attempting to integrate remote radio control, continued for several years after the war, until the Navy lost interest in 1925.

11. Mobile X-Ray Machines

With millions of soldiers suffering grievous, life-threatening injuries, there was obviously a huge need during the Great War for the new wonder weapon of medical diagnostics, the X-ray—but these required very large machines that were both too bulky and too delicate to move. Enter Marie Curie, who set to work creating mobile X-ray stations for the French military immediately after the outbreak of war; by October 1914, she had installed X-ray machines in several cars and small trucks which toured smaller surgical stations at the front. By the end of the war there were 18 of these “radiologic cars” or “Little Curies” in operation. African-American inventor Frederick Jones developed an even smaller portable X-ray machine in 1919 (Jones also invented refrigeration units, air conditioning units, and the self-starting gasoline lawnmower).

12. Sanitary Napkins

Women traditionally improvised all kinds of disposable or washable undergarments to deal with their monthly period, all the way back to softened papyrus in ancient Egypt. But the modern sanitary napkin as we know it was made possible by the introduction of new cellulose bandage material during the First World War; it wasn’t long before French nurses figured out that clean, absorbent cellulose bandages were far superior to any predecessors. British and American nurses picked up on the habit, and corporate America wasn’t far behind: In 1920, Kimberly-Clark introduced the first commercial sanitary napkin, Kotex (that’s “cotton” + “texture”). But it was rough going at first, as no publications would carry advertisements for such a product. It wasn’t until 1926 that Montgomery Ward broke the barrier, carrying Kotex napkins in its popular catalogue.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

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