"War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."
Well, at the risk of disagreeing with Edwin Starr’s classic '60s tune, war has – at the very least – given birth to many of the gadgets we rely upon today.
It’s no consolation for millions of lives lost, of course, but it’s true a good number of today’s technologies were created for the purposes of national defense -- or first mass adopted by the military.
From the radio and cell phone to GPS and the Internet, here’s a closer look at a few military technologies that have gone mainstream.
While first demonstrated in the 1890s by Tesla and Marconi, radio transmissions were initially tested, en masse, by the U.S. military as a communication tool between naval ships in the 1920s. Consumer adoption then followed in the '30s, as news could be dispersed much quicker than daily newspapers, not to mention an effective way to broadcast music, plays and soap operas. Both AM and the clearer-sounding FM radio are still healthy in many markets today, plus there's also subscription-based satellite radio, HD radio and Internet stations, as well.
While not resembling the cell phones we know today, "radiophones" were invented by a Canadian, Reginald Fessenden, at the turn of the 20th century, and first used by the U.S. Navy in the fall of 1907. One of the first commercial uses of mobile two-way radio technology, however, was a few years later in 1921, when the Detroit Police Department installed mobile radios in squad cars, operating at a whopping 2 Mhz. Cell phones didn't become a mainstream consumer phenomenon, of course, until the late '80s and early '90s.
Mobile phone jammers
Speaking of mobile phones, mobile phone jammers – an instrument that can disable cellular reception for a given area – was also a technology originally developed for the purposes of national defense against terrorist threats. For civilians, jammers might be used to prevent cellular communication in colleges (during exams, to prevent cheating), in some government buildings, jails, and other locations where communication could pose as a risk of some kind. Factoid: Jammers were used during many European theatrical performances in the early 2000s, but was later dropped when too many theatergoers complained about not being accessible in case of an emergency.
As early as the '50s, the U.S. Department of Defense discussed designs for a communication system that could withstand a nuclear strike, and found a computer network would be the best bet as it could break messages into small units and have them reassembled elsewhere. In the '60s, computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider made this happen with the D.O.D.'s Advanced Research Projects Agency (the "ARPA" in ARPANET), which was successfully deployed in 1969, while the first email was sent in 1971 (75 percent of ARPANET traffic was email). Academic institutions began using a similar "inter-network" of connected computers, followed by mainstream consumer adoption in the early '90s with the birth of the World Wide Web.
Originally intended for military intelligence, Global Positioning Service (GPS) technology became a product for civilians at the turn of the 21st century. By communicating with satellites that hover above the earth, your exact location on earth can now be pinpointed via triangulation; when paired with mapping software, these dashboard- or windshield-mounted devices give you turn-by-turn visual and audio directions to a specific address. They also could be used to access "points of interest," such as nearby restaurants and hotels. Today, the demand for standalone GPS units has diminished because many smartphones have this feature; many digital cameras now have embedded GPS chips to stamp geo-tagging data on photos.
Head to your local arcade and you might see kids wearing helmets and/or gloves for "virtual reality" games and activities -- tying together stereoscopic graphics, immersive sounds and real world movement -- to simulate another place or time through the hardware and software. But it was back in 1966, when Thomas A. Furness III introduced a visual flight stimulator for the U.S. Air Force. Two years later, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull, also added an augmented reality (AR) head mounted display (HMD) system. Many military shooters today offer a graphical "heads up display" that gives relevant information on your health, ammo, environment, and so on.
Speaking of interactive entertainment, Microsoft's popular Kinect for Xbox 360 is a peripheral that has multiple cameras, sensors and a microphone -- allowing gamers to play using their body and voice alone. Would you believe, however, this product is based on Israeli military technology? Developed by PrimeSense, this system can interpret specific gestures – allowing for true hands-free control using infrared sensors, a camera and microchip to track the movement of individuals in a 3D space. While not confirmed, some experts suggest PrimeSense's technology was used to train soldiers. Either way, it went on to become an entertainment toy in 2010 that allowed us to control games and other media like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Kinect technology will likely be included in the next-generation Xbox expected in 2013.
Did you enjoy that flight from, say, New York to Los Angeles? It's no surprise jumbo jets that can carry a large number of passengers weren't originally created for civilian travel – they got their start with the military. In fact, the Boeing 747 was designed as a military transporter first. In the '60s, Boeing had developed aircraft while bidding on a military contract but lost out to Lockheed's C-5 Galaxy. But its loyal customer, Pan Am, asked them to develop a giant passenger plane -- twice the size of the 707 – which was delivered in 1970.