Special Report

Popular Commercial Products You Never Knew Were Invented by the Military

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The Biden Administration recently unveiled its $715 billion defense budget proposal for fiscal year 2022. The administration said this discretionary funding request, if approved, would enhance the country’s defenses in large part through  innovation and modernization. 

The U.S. armed forces indeed has a long history of innovation, with many of the inventions originally created with battlefield necessities in mind often finding civilian uses. Dozens of devices, gadgets, foods, and more that we use every day were initially conceived by and for the military.

24/7 Wall St. identified 19 commercial products that were developed as the direct result of military research. These products range from hi-tech marvels to simple household items.

Many of the inventions created for the military and later popularized for commercial products were made around World War II. During the war, it was necessary to find ways to keep troops safe and healthy and their vehicles and equipment running while miles away from home fighting in Europe and the Pacific. 

Some foods, gadgets, vehicles, and accessories developed for soldiers became so popular with troops that GIs wanted to continue to use them in civilian life after returning from battle. If veterans like a product, there can be a huge market for it, as there are an estimated 18 million veterans currently in the U.S. as well as over 1 million active duty service members. These are the states with the most people in the military.

Click here to see 19 commercial products invented by the military

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1. Sanitary pads
>Year invented: 1914

The earliest evidence of tampon-like feminine hygiene products dates back to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the modern tampon has its roots in World War I. Until the 1920s, there was no ubiquitous form of menstrual absorption products, and many women relied on homemade solutions. During WWI, a cheap alternative padding was developed when a cotton supply shortage increased the demand for other forms of cheap bandaging. The same material would also be used in the development of Kleenex as a one-use replacement for handkerchiefs.

Under a government contract, Kimberly-Clark Co. was able to manufacture cellucotton, an absorbent material made from wood pulp. The material caught the attention of Red Cross nurses, who began to utilize cellucotton wads during menstruation. After the war, Kimberly-Clark repurposed cellucotton to make sanitary napkins and Kotex pads. While today it is estimated that 70% of women of menstruating age use tampons, many drug and department stores initially refused to carry the Kotex pads due to sensitivity to the issue.

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2. Aviator sunglasses
>Year invented: 1930s

Today an iconic fashion item, the characteristic shape and dark lenses of aviator sunglasses were once necessary protection for test pilots subject to the dangerously bright sunlight of the upper atmosphere. In the 1930s, optics manufacturer Bausch & Lomb developed aviator goggles under the direction of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Bausch & Lomb rebranded the sunglasses in 1937 as Ray-Ban — as they banish the sun’s rays — and sold them to the civilian population.

By World War II, aviators were a standard accessory for U.S. soldiers. The glasses were further popularized by Hollywood stars in the 1950s, and the cultural vanguard continued to wear them throughout the decades.

Source: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory / Wikimedia Commons

 

3. Weather radar
>Year invented: 1930s

The same radar technology used in weather forecasting was once used to save Allied lives in World War II. In the 1930s, researchers observed that aircraft could disrupt a radio signal. This discovery led to the use of radar as a means of detecting enemy planes during the war.

This technology was far from perfect. Some radar operators noticed that the weather could cause interference with the readouts. After the war, researchers were able to fine tune radar technology, making it possible to detect severe storms and high winds earlier than ever possible before.

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4. Jeep
>Year invented: 1940

In World War II, the U.S. Army had a need for a light reconnaissance vehicle and asked automakers to develop prototypes and submit proposals. The government chose the design of American Bantam car company — a four-wheel drive vehicle with a top speed of 65 mph. The automobile’s namesake, General Purpose, was abbreviated to G.P. and eventually nicknamed Jeep. The Jeep proved an invaluable contribution to the U.S. military effort, with then General Dwight D. Eisenhower stating that “America could not have won World War II without it.” The company manufactured more than 600,000 jeeps during the war, and later sold the postwar surplus to the public rather cheaply.

Today, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sells Jeeps. While the military use of jeeps has dwindled since World War II, U.S. sales of the Jeep Wrangler – which bears many of the design characteristics of the original – was over 200,000 in 2020.

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5. Aerosol bug spray
>Year invented: 1941

In World War II, soldiers stationed in the South Pacific needed an easy way to kill mosquitos, which could potentially carry malaria. In a partnership with the Department of Defense, two scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan, took on the task of developing a way to deliver insecticide as a fine mist. The first aerosol can was patented in 1941 and nicknamed “bug bomb” by soldiers.

In 1949, engineer and veteran Robert Abplanalp patented a cheaper plastic aerosol valve meant for commercial mass production. He started the Precision Valve Corporation to market the invention and turned a profit almost immediately. The aerosol can has since been refined and is now less harmful to the environment.

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6. Duct tape
>Year invented: 1942

During World War II, the U.S. military was in need of a durable adhesive tape that could maintain its bond under harsh field conditions. The military asked Johnson & Johnson Co. to develop the idea, and initially called it duck tape for its waterproof nature. Civilians began to utilize the product heavily during the postwar housing boom, when it was used to seal central air and heating systems. Duck tape was used in ductwork so much that it was renamed and recolored to match the silver metallic color of HVAC systems.

Known for its versatile uses, duct tape has recently taken on another life as material used in a variety of personal products, including wallets, bags, and phone cases. Multiple companies, including Scotch and Duck Brand, now manufacture duct tape.

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7. Super glue
>Year invented: 1942

Eastman Kodak was one of many companies that contributed to the war effort during World War II. In 1942, while testing a variety of compounds for use in a plastic rifle sight, Dr. Harry Coover, a company chemist, inadvertently created cyanoacrylate, a compound later marketed as Super Glue. The material was incredibly durable but was dismissed for being too sticky. When a colleague was testing cyanoacrylate nine years later, Dr. Coover had another encounter with the material.

As the colleague complained the compound ruined his equipment, Coover realized its commercial potential. Super Glue was first sold as a commercial product in 1958. The product was eventually adopted by military surgeons during the Vietnam War, who would spray it over wounds to stop bleeding instantly.

Source: CollinsChin / Getty Images

8. Synthetic rubber
>Year invented: 1942

In the early 20th century, rubber was harvested from trees in South America, but soon southern Asia became the dominant producer of the world’s rubber. The global supply of natural rubber was sufficient until World War II, when the Axis powers cut off nearly all of the rubber supply from Asia.

Rubber is an incredibly valuable substance for the military. In addition to tires, the U.S. military needed rubber for airplanes, tanks, vehicles, and battleships. In desperate need of the substance, the U.S. government turned to companies like Firestone, Goodyear, and Standard Oil to create a replacement. They quickly whipped up a synthetic rubber recipe, which is still used to this day.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pugno_muliebriter/

9. Silly Putty
>Year invented: 1943

In the 1940s, the United States needed a new source of rubber after Japan invaded Malaysia and cut off U.S. supply of the material. The War Production Board asked the nation’s industries for help. A chemist at General Electric came up with a stretchy, bouncy material made of boric acid and silicone oil. While highly unique, the material had no military application.

The material caught on, however, after GE executives began showing it off at cocktail parties and one interested party, adman Peter Hodgson, bought the manufacturing rights and changed the name to Silly Putty. The product, packaged in small plastic eggs as a toy, began selling in 1950 and immediately caught on. In 1968, astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission used Silly Putty to help keep their instruments in place. Since 1950, the company has sold more than 350 million Silly Putty eggs.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

10. Cheetos
>Year invented: 1943

The popular snack food Cheetos probably reminds people today mostly of sitting around on the couch. But the puffed up cheesy and crunchy foodstuff was actually created in WWII as a way to satiate hungry soldiers who were missing the cheese they ate back home.

In 1943, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist George Sanders developed the first cheese powder at the behest of the U.S. military — first by shredding or grating cheese, then drying it out. By removing the moisture from cheese, it would not only last longer, but weigh less, making it easier to ship overseas to troops. After the war ended, the Fritos company combined the newly-developed dehydrated cheese and some of its puffed up “enriched cornmeal” to make a new snack. In 1948, the company began selling Cheetos. Eventually Cheetos became one of America’s favorite snack foods.

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11. Walkie Talkie
>Year invented: 1943

The two-way radios that have come to be known as walkie talkies were a massive leap forward in communications technology when they debuted in WWII. Though two Canadian inventors may have created the earliest versions of two-way radios, walkie talkies as we know them today were developed by the company now known as Motorola as part of a military contract from 1940.

Motorola, then known as Galvin Manufacturing, created the SCR-536 or “handie-talkie” in 1940. Three years later, it came out with the SCR300 — the world’s first FM portable two-way radio. The 35 pound device had a range of up to 20 miles. This mobility garnered the “walkie talkie” nickname.

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12. Frozen juice concentrate
>Year invented: 1945

In 1943, the USDA and the Florida Citrus Commission set to work on the development of a frozen juice concentrate that could be sent to U.S. soldiers overseas. At the time of their collaboration, orange juice that had been frozen and thawed would turn an unappetizing brown color. The thawed juice also developed a bitter taste, prompting soldiers to nickname the beverage “battery acid.” Eventually, USDA scientists discovered that adding a dash of fresh orange juice to the concentrate before freezing it preserved its flavor.

The process was patented in 1945 but made available to any public or private entity that wished to use it. Minute Maid began selling frozen juice products commercially in 1946. Orange juice is now one of the most commonly consumed fruit product in the United States, with the average citizen drinking over 30 pounds of juice annually.

Source: Rostislav_Sedlacek / iStock via Getty Images

13. Microwave oven
>Year invented: 1946

Microwave technology was originally used as a radar to help locate enemies during World War II. The ability of microwaves to cook food was discovered by accident. While conducting research on microwave radar technology, an engineer at defense contractor Raytheon Company noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. This led to the realization that microwave equipment could be repurposed to heat and cook foods. Later that year, Raytheon Company filed the first patent for a microwave oven.

The first commercial microwave was manufactured in 1954 and was about the size of a refrigerator. Today, more than nine in 10 U.S. households own a microwave oven. The technology is one of many military inventions that have shaped the American kitchen and kitchens worldwide.

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14. GPS
>Year invented: 1960

Humans have been navigating the land and the sea for thousands of years, using more and more advanced methods to determine their position. In the 1960s, the DoD developed the original Global Positioning System (GPS). The idea was to use satellites to determine a user’s position on Earth by measuring his or her distance from three peripheral satellites in a process known as trilateration.

While the system became fully operational in March 1994, it captured the public’s interest long before then. President Ronald Reagan first ensured civil applications of GPS in 1983, after an incident where a Korean airliner that strayed off course and was shot down by the Soviet Union demonstrated the need for better navigational technology. The public received a comprehensive preview of the technology during the Gulf War, when soldiers used GPS to navigate across deserts and target enemies with an accuracy that was previously impossible. Today, GPS technology is used in consumer products such as cars and phones, as well as applications like earthquake research and geocaching.

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15. Lasers
>Year invented: 1960

Lasers, short for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation, are concentrated beams of light that can be used to measure distance, process information from sources like DVDs and barcodes, perform surgery, cut and engrave surfaces, and much more. But these beams were first developed by the military as a possible weapon.

Much of the groundwork for laser technology was laid by Columbia University physicist Charles Townes in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a team funded by the Pentagon. Eventually, the Army Signal Corps contracted Hughes Laboratory and Ted Maiman to work on the project. In 1960, using a silver-coated ruby rod, Maiman created the world’s first functional laser.

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16. The internet
>Year invented: 1969

You would not be able to check the weather anywhere in the world, share funny cat videos, or even read this article without the military sinking years of work and billions of dollars into ARPANET — the forerunner for the internet. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network began during the Cold War as a way for the U.S. military to develop an information sharing system without the need for a command center. The military was concerned any central location would be a Soviet target.

By the late 1960s, colleges were able to access the very limited trial run of ARPANET. At the time, the network users could only log onto a remote computer, print remotely, and transfer files. Decades of innovation honed the ARPANET into the World Wide Web we enjoy today.

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17. EpiPen
>Year invented: 1973

A must for anyone with severe allergies, the EpiPen was initially conceived of as a military device. Inventor Sheldon Kaplan worked at military contractor Survival Technology in Bethesda, Maryland, where he developed an autoinjector called the ComboPen. This invention was first designed to deliver a treatment to soldiers who had come into contact with a nerve agent. The ComboPen would quickly deliver the antidote into the bloodstream of the affected person.

Kaplan later tweaked this device to deliver epinephrine, which can help people who go into anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction. Though his name was on the patent, Kaplan received little credit for his breakthrough during his lifetime. He died in 2009 but was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016.

Source: Damir Khabirov / iStock via Getty Images

18. Virtual reality
>Year invented: 1979

Virtual reality in the 21st century is often used for entertainment, like in video games. But when the technology was first developed it was serious business. Early flight simulators had mechanisms that could move and jostle prospective pilots on the ground to prepare them for what they might experience in a real cockpit, but they were not advanced enough to provide visuals to the trainees.

In 1979, the military produced the first head-mounted visual display flight simulator. Using the simulator, pilots could train and practice flying jet fighters without the risk of crashing one of the multi-million dollar planes.

Source: Courtesy of U.S. Navy

19. Liquid hydrocarbon fuel
>Year invented: 2014

Though many of the innovations brought to us by the U.S. military that we use today were created around the two World Wars, military scientists continuously innovate. A new liquid hydrocarbon fuel is one of the more recent inventions. In 2014, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory flew a model plane that was powered by the carbon dioxide and hydrogen found in seawater.

While the Navy was looking for ways to power jets aboard ships, it was also looking to use this technology to power the ships themselves. Though this technology may be a ways out from powering Navy ships or commercial and recreational boats, that day may be getting closer. In July 2020, researchers found a way to convert carbon dioxide in the seawater into carbon monoxide, a crucial step in the process of turning seawater into fuel at an industrial scale.

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