Today is Veterans Day Observed. At Nicely Done Sites we would like to thank every veteran who put on a uniform to defend our great nation. Veteran’s Day was originally known as Armistice Day or the day that the World War 1 came to an end. On the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 at 11:00 (that would be 100 years ago yesterday) the guns of the Western Front fell silent after over four years of slaughter and destruction. The German army was breaking, its equipment falling apart and it withdrew its support for Kaiser Wilhelm necessitating the suing for peace. The Allies were bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of American “doughboys” to prop up the shattered French army and the worn out British army in France and Belgium. It was the Americans who were able to tip the balance toward the Allied side which necessitated the peace talks and the end of the war.

World War One is considered to be a war fought with modern weaponry but with 19th century tactics. Soldiers would advance in a line against modern artillery and machine guns with disastrous results like on the first day of the Battle of the Somme where the British army lost 50,000 men in one day. But like with all wars technology was used not only to improve intelligence and communications but to save lives (and to take lives as well). On this the anniversary of the end of what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars we look at some of the technology that was pioneered or became commonplace during the war some of which we or our militaries still use today. This is a bit of a long one but then you might have off today to observe Veterans Day so you might need something to kill some time. Enjoy!

The Airplane

British Sopwith Camel

British Sopwith Camel

Now sure the airplane was not new technology since Wilbur and Orville Wright had pioneered powered flight in 1903 but this was the first conflict in which war went into the skies. Airplanes were pushed to be bigger, faster and stronger. New weaponry was added like machine guns and what was perhaps the biggest aerial innovation of the war in the interrupter gear which allowed a pilot to fire those machine guns without damaging his propeller. This piece of technology was developed by Swiss-born Franz Schneider just before the war and Dutch-born Anthony Fokker developed a working model, which was adopted by the Germans in 1915 with British and French engineers following shortly thereafter. Aerial warfare has never been the same since though more modern innovation made this obsolete.

Controlling potentially hundreds of airplanes in the sky is not an easy task today and it was certainly not an easy task then. Today computers and radar help air traffic controllers but in 1914 that was just a dream. Instead a new technology of the time was used to communicate with the ground to bring some order to the chaos, radio. The US Army was the leader in this technology beginning work while still neutral in 1915 when radio telegraphs were installed in some planes. By the following year a message could be sent over this system a distance of 140 miles and it was also capable of communicating with another airplane as well. The problem was that an antenna nearly 400 feet long was required making it somewhat impractical for combat use. The following year a radio system was used to transmit a human voice from an airplane to a ground controller. Besides air traffic control this innovation has had major influence on many pieces of technology since.

For the pilots how could this new technology be incorporated into an airplane effectively? Having a radioman in the plane would involve more weight then the plane could potentially handle which would cut down on armaments the plane could carry and on its maneuverability. Planes of the time were made of a wooden frame with canvas so they could not carry a heavy payload. In 1918 a flying cap was developed by the British General Post Office that included two dual receivers and a throat microphone that fit snugly in the cap allowing the pilot to keep his hands on the controls and on the guns. We would recognize them today as headphones and headsets.


Drones are becoming popular tools in many different tasks from package delivery to smuggling. The first drone though was developed during World War One by the US Navy. Now obviously a far cry from what we know today as a drone it was intended to be a pilotless bomb. Developed by Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt in 1916 it used gyroscopes to keep stabilized and a barometer to control altitude. A prototype flew for the first time in 1918 but hitting a target even the size of a ship proved to be elusive. The Navy recognized the potential value and despite the end of the war the project continued. Radio control was added but the drone never proved viable and the Navy lost interest in 1925 but this was an idea well ahead of its time.

Weapons of War

One of the most famous innovations of World War One was the tank. The war started as a war of movement in France before bogging down into trench warfare. Unable to maneuver, generals simply sent waves of soldiers forward to try to break the enemy lines with brute force and they were fed into the teeth of horrific new weapons like the machine gun, the flamethrower and poison gas. The war became a war of attrition. While some generals were certainly incompetent or in above their heads they had little option as the Western Front was one giant line of fortifications running from the Alps to the Channel.

The Tank

German soldiers with a captured British Tank

German soldiers with a captured British Tank

That is where the tank came in. Using engines designed for automobiles, which were just becoming popular throughout Europe, and placing armor around it, a tank could cross No Man’s Land on treads relatively safe from bullets and soldiers could safely follow right behind it, shielded from those machine guns. Of course there were problems, they broke down easily and they were still vulnerable to artillery fire not to mention the noxious fumes from the diesel engines that could be as deadly to its crew as the enemy could be. Casualties in the Tank Corps were high, at least initially.

The British Army was the first to design a tank in 1915 and they first saw action during the waning days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The French developed their own model (with a rotating turret) but the Germans were slow to develop their own, only producing 21 unwieldy models by the end of the war, being content to use captured Allied tanks. Their lasting legacy was the name the Germans gave to them, the Panzer, certainly much more manageable to say than Schützengrabenvernichtungspanzerkraftwagen. The tank played a major role in several offensives and counter-offensives and when linked with radio technology they proved invaluable. In the waning days of the war they spearheaded the attack at Amiens at the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive that broke the back of the Germans on the Western Front helping to bring an end to the war.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is giving us control of our lives like we have never seen before. It might be surprising that the concept is over 100 years old. On the battlefield communication is key and the emerging electronic communications technology would see a major advancement during the conflict and everything would become interconnected. Communications from the highest general down to the enlisted men was now possible.


German soldiers using a field telephone

German soldiers using a field telephone

The most obvious is for soldiers in the field to communicate with headquarters behind the lines. The most common method during World War 1 was to string telephone wire to connect a set of field telephones and telegraphs. This worked fine behind the lines where it was safer but the wire used was not durable and an artillery strike would easily knock this system out. In the field there were backups, like carrier pigeons (it was illegal in England to molest a homing pigeon during the war), dogs and humans or if within sight lamps or semaphore flags. All methods were dangerous at best and unreliable at worst. These electronic systems were also vulnerable to enemy interception as a German listener could easily tie their wires in.

New technology would help. The first innovation was the Fullerphone, developed by Royal Engineer Captain Algernon Fuller, which was a portable telegraph utilizing one wire with a DC signal. Not only was it portable but it also scrambled messages to avoid enemy interception. Was this the birth of electronic encryption technology? Later in the war the Fullerphone was updated to carry voice transmissions.


Laying telephone or telegraph wire in the field was necessary so that information could be relayed and reinforcements could be summoned. Laying this wire was dangerous with the Royal Engineer Signal Service taking 50% or more casualties during major operations. It took time too, several hours to set up and dig into the ground, and one well placed artillery round could make all of that work for naught. Wireless technology would prove to be the answer. Wireless communications were used for the first time during the Battle of Loos in 1915 to send three messages: one warning of friendly fire, one that troops were advancing into a trap and a final one telling an isolated unit that reinforcements were on the way. It changed the course of the battle.

The major issue with wireless communications before the war was power consumption but this was overcome leading to better and smaller equipment. By 1917 the sets were small enough to not only be advanced with the infantry but to be installed on tanks. At the Battle of Cambrai in late 1917 tanks went forward with wireless units. Command and control on the battlefield has never been the same.

Wireless signals also allowed for the gathering of intelligence, whether it was from an observer in a balloon or for scouts to locate enemy troops. This system was developed by Captain Henry Round and by 1916 his system was light enough at 57 pounds to go into a balloon. Instant intelligence could now be gathered leading to better decision making lifting the fog of war. Round’s system would be adapted for the aerial services as well being used for artillery spotting, for bombing and to prevent friendly fire.

A system of radio direction finding was developed using known wireless sets of the German Army. Not only were they able to intercept the messages but the British Intelligence Brigade could determine their location providing valuable intelligence. Microphones were also utilized to record the noise that came when German artillery fired and that data was used to triangulate their position for counter-fire.

On the High Seas

The Royal Navy utilized the technology as well and they used it so well that the German High Seas Fleet could not use their wireless communications at sea. Wireless signals could also be picked up from German U-Boats which allowed convoys to either avoid them or try to fight them (more on that in a bit).

At Headquarters

In London the communications network was immense. Whether it was intelligence gathering, code breaking or reporting from the front. Everything that a modern military communications center encompasses was there. It was also possible to get accurate and up to date information from the front using radio communications so the civilian government leaders could be kept apprised. The equipment might look a bit different but it would be recognizable today. The British government was so impressed with their communications systems at home that a national kill switch was developed so that it could not be utilized against them in the event of a German invasion.

War also allowed a new group of people to become involved with technology: women. Women took over many of the male-dominated professions particularly in the communications industry and proved to be very effective at their jobs. While their acceptance in a peacetime workforce would be years away women proved that they could handle tech jobs just as well as the men could and it helped the Suffrage Movement immensely.

Under the Sea

German U-Boats were a threat to Allied shipping. These wolfpacks and raiders sent hundreds of ships to the bottom and while their overzealousness contributed to bringing the US into the war they were highly effective. So effective that ships had to be grouped into convoys and protected by the Royal Navy to try to get as much cargo across the Atlantic and not sent to the bottom. But what if a U-Boat could be detected before it fired? Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden developed an underwater microphone known as a hydrophone in 1914. His original intention was to locate icebergs following the RMS Titanic disaster but it was adapted for military use. It was able to tell the distance to an object but not its direction.

That barrier was later overcome by French inventor Paul Langevin and Russian Constantin Chilowsky who developed an ultrasound transducer in 1916 which was able to determine directions as well. By the end of the war an American version could detect U-Boats up to 25 miles away. If engaged a new piece of weaponry called the depth charge could be used to destroy them or airplanes could be launched from the newly developed class of ships called aircraft carriers. By the end of the war nearly half of all U-Boats in service had been sunk.

Electricity and Light

Modern war required 24 hours of operations. No longer did night bring an end to fighting. Electricity was key to keeping headquarters up and running allowing generals to plan operations or deal with crises. Of course light had always been available because of fire but World War 1 was the first time that electricity was used to keep the lights on.

The pre-World War One years saw a naval arms race that had never been witnessed before. The Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet raced to see who could build bigger and better dreadnoughts and cruisers. Electricity was key to this as it allowed for more powerful and efficient communications and it powered the machines that allowed the increasingly heavier guns to be able to move. The Battle of Jutland could not have been fought without electricity.

Saving Lives

A Little Curie

A Little Curie

Not every invention of the war was used for taking lives. Some were used to save them. With millions of chunks of metal flying through the air hitting thousands of men effective treatment of the wounds was imperative. By quickly removing bullets and shrapnel a soldier would be able to recover and return to the ranks rather than dying, requiring amputation or succumbing to diseases like gangrene. So how do you find all of those pieces of metal? French inventor Marie Curie developed a medical diagnostic tool to do this. The devices were big and bulky but were able to be installed in rail cars or trucks starting in 1914. By the end of the war 18 of these “Little Curies” were available for use by the French Army. We would know them as X-Ray machines. These machines were eventually made smaller by American inventor Frederick Jones just after the war. Medical diagnoses have never been the same.

When the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918 the world was tired of war. Everyone believed that World War One was the war to end all wars and few believed that another war with even more destruction would be fought within the survivor’s lifetimes. Some of the political decisions made during the war still plague our planet to this day. The technology pioneered in this war would be improved upon and new technology would be incorporated to continue bringing death and destruction around the world. But with that destruction comes a great catalyst for technological innovation and acceptance. It is perhaps the only consolation that comes from the millions of deaths and injuries inflicted on both the combatant and civilian populations around the world.

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