Special Report

15 Commercial Products Invented by the Military

Detailed Findings and Methodology:

The military contracted out or sold many of these inventions to private companies. One exception is the modern GPS network. It was developed in the 1970s by Department of Defense (DoD) researchers and was built over the following two decades. The technology, initially designed as a guidance and tracking system for fighter planes, boats, and missiles, is today used in many civilian applications from personal to commercial aircraft navigation systems.

In other cases, the military became the primary consumer of a product shortly after it was invented by a private company. The government did not ask Boeing to develop the model 367-80 airplane, the prototype for the 747, but as soon as the plane demonstrated its utility the military purchased 29 of them. Similarly, the Jeep was designed by a company called American Bantam. The all-terrain scout vehicle was widely used by the military in World War II and eventually became very popular among ordinary consumers.

Many of these products appealed to civilians for the same reasons they appealed to soldiers. American consumers value convenience, affordability, and ease of use — qualities essential in a military setting. Instant coffee, for example, gained popularity during World War I, when it was likely the only option for soldiers living in trenches. Today, instant coffee is a popular choice for civilians who prefer its price and convenience over fresh coffee options.

Further, there is often an aesthetic appeal to military products, and many were popularized by military use. The rugged soldier aesthetic of items such as aviator sunglasses and Jeeps were largely behind the success of these products.

The commercial use of these products was often completely different from their intended military function. What eventually became feminine hygiene products under the Kotex brand was originally medical gauze developed for the military during World War I. Silly Putty was invented as a possible substitute for rubber. While it failed in this regard, it became a popular toy.

Unlike years past, these days the flow of innovations is increasingly reversed — from civilian to military application. The size of the consumer electronics market has far exceeded the military’s new technology budget, and the capacity for innovation in the private sector has likely surpassed the public sector.

While the military dedicated $12.3 billion to research on new science and technology in 2016, the three largest corporate spenders — Samsung, Intel, and Apple — spent a combined $32.9 billion on consumer electronics R&D that year. As private companies outspend and out-innovate the federal government, products first marketed to Americans are continuously being repurposed for the military.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed products that were developed for military use either by the military or by contractors and became a popular civilian products. We also considered products that originated in the private sector but were popularized as a result of military use. We excluded products where the military or contractors only played a part in the development of the product, as was the case with the computer and the internet. The products are ordered by invention dates of their precursors.

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