One of the most infamous inventions of WWII was the atomic bomb. In August 1946, the United States launched its first (and so far only) nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 110,000 to 210,000 people.
While the bomb is distinguished by its devastating impact, there were many other non-lethal innovations during the war in medicine and technology that radically reshaped the world.
Some of these innovations were based on pre-war research or designs that could not take off until the US or British governments funded these projects to aid Allied forces. Here are six innovations resulting from this development push.
1. Flu shots
The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 had a major effect on World War I and motivated the United States military to develop the first influenza vaccine. Scientists began isolating influenza viruses in the 1930s, and in the 1940s the U.S. military helped sponsor the development of a vaccine against them.
The United States approved the first influenza vaccine for military use in 1945 and for civilian use in 1946. One of the principal investigators of the project was Jonas Salk, the American scientist who would later develop the polio vaccine.
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Before the widespread use of antibiotics like penicillin in the United States, even small cuts and scrapes could lead to fatal infections. Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but it wasn’t until World War II that the United States began to mass produce it as a medical treatment.
Making penicillin for soldiers was a top priority for the US War Department, which touted the effort as “a race against death” in a poster. Military surgeons were amazed at how the drug reduced pain, increased chances of survival, and made it easier for nurses and medics to care for soldiers on the battlefield.
The United States considered the drug so essential to the war effort that, in preparation for the D-Day landings, the country produced 2.3 million doses of penicillin for Allied troops. After the war, civilians also had access to this vital drug.
WATCH: D-Day: The Untold Stories on HISTORY Vault
3. Jet engines
Frank Whittle, an English engineer in the Royal Air Force, filed the first patent for the jet engine in 1930. But the first country to fly a jet plane was Germany, which performed a flight test of its model on August 27, 1939, a few days before the country invaded Poland.
“Germany and Japan have been really preparing for WWII for about a decade,” says Rob Wallace, the STEM education specialist at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
With the start of the war, the British government developed planes based on Whittle’s plans. The first Allied aircraft to use jet propulsion took off on May 15, 1941. Jet planes could go faster than propeller-driven planes, but also required significantly more fuel and were more difficult to handle. Although they had no impact on the war (they were still in the early stages of their development), jet engines would later transform military and civilian transport.
WATCH: Modern Wonders: Jet Engines in HISTORY Vault
4. Blood plasma transfusion
During World War II, an American surgeon named Charles Drew standardized the production of blood plasma for medical use.
“They developed this whole system in which they sent two sterile jars, one containing water and one containing lyophilized blood plasma and they mixed them together,” Wallace explains.
Unlike whole blood, plasma can be given to anyone, regardless of a person’s blood type, making it easy to deliver on the battlefield.
5. Electronic computers
In the 1940s, the word “computers” referred to people (mostly women) who performed complex calculations by hand. During World War II, the United States began to develop new machines for performing ballistic trajectory calculations, and those who had done calculations by hand took jobs programming these machines.
READ MORE: When computer coding was a ‘woman’s’ job
Programmers who worked on the ENIAC machine at the University of Pennsylvania included Jean Jennings Bartik, who then led the development of computer storage and memory, and Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton, who went on to create the first software application. . Lt. Grace Hopper (later a US Navy Rear Admiral) also programmed the Mark I machine at Harvard University during the war, and went on to develop the first computer programming language.
In Britain, Alan Turing invented an electromechanical machine called the Bombe which helped break the German Enigma cipher. While not technically what we would now call a “computer,” the Bomb was a precursor to the Colossus machines, a series of British electronic computers. During the war, programmers like Dorothy Du Boisson and Elsie Booker used Colossus machines to crack messages encrypted with the German cipher Lorenz.
MIT’s Radiation Lab, or “Rad Lab,” played an important role in the advancement of radar technology in the 1940s. However, the lab’s original goal was to use electromagnetic radiation as a weapon and not as a form of detection.
“Their first idea they had was that if we could send a beam of electromagnetic energy to an airplane, maybe we could kill the pilot by cooking them or something,” Wallace says. “The kitchen wasn’t working, but they were getting a bounce that they could receive and they had the idea that they could use electromagnetic radiation like they used sound radiation in sonar. So they started working on the radar.
Radar aided Allied forces in detecting enemy ships and planes. It was later found to have many non-military uses, including guiding civilian missiles and detecting major weather events such as hurricanes.