Military conflict is one of the greatest drivers of technological innovation, and the First World War was no exception. The years of conflict from 1914 to 1918 saw the creation of several technologies that still play an important role in the modern world. Unlike some other 20th-century conflicts, however, the First World War saw limited advances in civilian technology compared to its military development.
Although the idea of armoured fighting vehicles had existed for centuries, the first tanks were created to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the western front. Originally called "landships", their similarity to metal water tanks earned them the new name. Tank tactics were slow to develop, but they changed the face of warfare permanently.
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The First World War was a crucial period in the development of military aviation. During the early phases of the war, scouts operated in early unarmed aeroplanes. Even though their aircraft were not armed, pilots would skirmish with pistols and even javelins. Before long, aeroplanes were being armed with machine guns and fighter pilots were becoming celebrities. Airships also came into their own in this period, with German zeppelins attacking targets in France and Britain.
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The First World War was notable for the ways in which the technology of attack surpassed the technology of defence. One example of this was the development of new rapid-firing weapons. Submachine guns, intended for close combat, joined with light machine guns such as the American Browning Automatic Rifle to put an unheard-of level of firepower in the hands of individual soldiers.
Individual soldiers weren't the only ones to be given new firepower. High-explosive shells became commonplace for artillery, and newer and more devastating weapons such as heavy machine guns and flamethrowers inflicted terrible casualties. One of the most feared of such weapons was poison gas, initially deployed by the Germans. Many weapons pioneered during the war are today prohibited by international agreements.
The first use of poison gas in the First World War was in 1915; both sides responded to the deployment of this new weapon by issuing troops with protective gas masks. Although the technology of the gas mask has changed and developed over the intervening century, the basic principles and general appearance remain much the same.
Feminine hygiene products might not seem like a logical product of the battlefield, but the modern sanitary napkin is in fact a direct development of a wartime creation. American nurses seem to have adopted disposable cellulose-based bandages as an alternative to reusable cotton pads. After the war, bandage manufacturer Kimberly-Clark switched over to civilian production, marketing the same product to women.
Encrypted communications were nothing new in the First World War; armies had been transmitting internal messages in code for centuries. The prevalence of new communication methods, however, including radio and telephone, made information security increasingly vital. For instance, one-time pad cryptography promised completely secure encryption. Although this method is now known to have been understood prior to the war, this period is when it was first implemented.
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