11 Incredible Products That Were Really Invented by the U.S. Military

ByNoah Caldwell

These days the U.S. Department of Defense is cutting budgets, winding down after a decade of war and profligate spending. Even their technological edge is being challenged; Google is competing mightily with the military's techno-research wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), taking the lead in the new wave of robotic hardware.

But once upon a time the U.S. military, through the old War Department, DARPA or any number of private companies it commissioned, was the premier inventive force in American technological ingenuity. Its products not only survived the transition from wartime to peace, but also thrived in the consumer market. 

Here's a quick run-down of some of the DoD's most famous and influential products to hit the mainstream. Will advancements in solar energy be next?

1. Walkie-talkies

The original backpack-worn Motorola "Walkie-Talkie." Image Credit: Wikimedia 

In 1940 Motorola received a War Department contract to produce the SCR-300, a portable two-way radio carried on a soldier's back, hence name "Walkie-Talkie." (Eventually the handheld SCR-536 was also put out, with the nickname "Handie-Talkie," which unsurprisingly didn't catch on.)

Motorola produced a whopping 50,000 devices for the U.S. military throughout the war, and after 1945 the slimmed-down handheld version penetrated the consumer market. To this day Motorola has integrated the vintage technology into one of its lines of cell phones to circumvent sketchy service areas. 

2. Super Glue

The original Eastman Kodak headquarters in Rochester, NY. Image Credit: Wikimedia

The original super glue was technically a "cyanoacrylate," discovered by Eastman Kodak chemist Harry Coover in 1942. Coover and his team were looking for materials for the U.S. Army that worked with clear plastic gunsights, but further research into the newly discovered substance marked it nearly unusable due to its strong adhesion to everything

In 1958 the newly dubbed "Super Glue" entered the market, thus dooming many a curious child to having his or her poor hands painfully stuck together.

3. Duct tape

In 1972 Apollo 17 astronauts repaired the fender of the lunar rover with strips of duct tape. Image Credit: Wikimedia

It turns out that you were right all along when you called it "duck" tape. Soldiers in World War II first using the new adhesive called it a variety of names, one of them being an homage to the small water fowl. Johnson & Johnson had created a tape for infantrymen that could seal their ammunition cases in any weather and be ripped from the adhesive with their bare hands.

After the war, the tape got its grey coloring (it was a camo-esque green pattern before, go figure) and made its way into hardware stores. Eventually it became known as a good wrap for air ducts, kicking off its new name and decades of confusion about whether there really is a "t" at the end.

4. Silly Putty

Image Credit: thestrong.org

Not all inventions turn out the way they're planned. In the case of Silly Putty, in 1943 engineer James Wright of General Electric was working on finding a chemical substitute for rubber, which was in high demand and short supply during the war. When Wright mixed silicone oil and boric acid, he produced a gooey, bouncy substance, but it couldn't replace rubber.

For years the putty was a relatively unknown novelty, stumping scientists for its practicality and failing to reach the shelves of toy stores. Finally an advertising consultant got a toymaker to package it in plastic eggs, and when a reporter for The New Yorker picked up the product, the sensation caught on.

5. Early GPS technology

Parts of the original Transit 1A satellite, in 1958 or 1959. Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Navy's Transit satellite was America's answer to the success of Sputnik 1, which became the first man-made orbiting object when it was launched by the Soviets in October 1957. Developed by DARPA and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, Transit wasn't fully functional until 1964 (one of their satellites was accidentally damaged by an American high-altitude nuclear test).

But upon completion, its fleet of up to 10 satellites could transmit locational data to U.S. submarines and private boats, and once even gave a corrected elevation reading for Mt. Everest. This model of satellite-based navigation data was co-opted by the modern GPS system, which was—you guessed it—created by the U.S. Department of Defense.

6. Digital photography

A KH-11 "Keyhole" satellite image of Soviet ships in the Black Sea. This photo was leaked by intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison in 1985, resulting in a conviction of espionage. Image Credit: Wikimedia

The KH-11 Kennan satellite, launched in 1976 by the American National Reconnaissance Office, was the first major project to use digital photography. A year prior, Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak had discovered a way to use a sensor (instead of film) to collect light, and a means of storing the information numerically. Developing this technology for aerial imagery meant that real-time optics could be conveyed from the satellite, marking a huge step forward in Cold War surveillance. 

7. Virtual reality

The Aspen Movie Map was a late-1970s predecessor of Google Street View funded by DARPA. Over the course of a year, a car drove down every road in Aspen, Colo., taking a picture with a gyroscopically stabilized camera every 10 feet. By capturing the front, back and sides of the vehicle, the images could be linked to 2-D representation of the town and explored like a video game. 

The project was experimental, but the technology was intended for quickly and remotely familiarizing soldiers with war zones (though it's unclear how they would have gotten the street footage). The Mansfield Amendment of 1973 had severely limited the scope of DARPA's research to exclusively military applications, so the Aspen Movie Map had to fit the bill.

8. The EpiPen

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Before they were in your summer camp's first aid kit (and every peanut-allergic kid's back pocket), early versions of the EpiPen autoinjector technology were used by the military to safeguard against nerve gas attacks. The Mark I NAAK (Nerve Agent Antidote Kit) is still a regular part of a service member's kit.

9. The early Internet

An early diagram of ARPANET, showing connections on the server. Note that computers were almost exclusively at universities. Image Credit: Wikimedia

In 1963 computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider sent a memo to his colleagues titled "Intergalactic Computing Network," which laid out a theoretical network much akin to our Internet. Licklider was folded into the mix at ARPA (they hadn't yet added a "D" at the beginning), and his conceptual framework formed the basis of ARPANET. The new feature of this network was "time-sharing" (not the condo kind), which allowed computer resources to be used by multiple people at once, thereby creating efficiency by smoothing out spikes and dips in user activity.

10. The Deep Web

This message was posted on the Silk Road web page after it was taken down by authorities last October. Image Credit: Wikimedia

When the FBI took down the online black marketplace Silk Road last October, the general public got a brief but eerie look into the hidden nether regions of the Internet. Silk Road operated on the Deep Web (or Darknet, or Dark Web), where users interact with complete anonymity. Ironically, the software that enabled such activity was created by the U.S. Navy and patented in 1998 as the "onion routing network for securely moving data through communication networks." Onion routing encrypts information at every step, sending it to various nodes before it arrives at the recipient. Though it might seem excessive, in the age of NSA surveillance, it's not incredibly surprising that onion routing is catching on.

11. Nuclear energy

Workers on the Manhattan Project monitor machines used to separate isotopes of uranium. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Considering the infamy of the Manhattan Project, nuclear energy may be the most unsurprising item on this list, but it's certainly one of the most important.

Following World War II, President Harry Truman faced immense political pressure to transition America's nascent nuclear program into a peacetime role. With the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission was created, which oversaw future regulation of the industry (and the switch from military to civilian control of nuclear weaponry). The long-term effects of this transition can easily be seen today: The U.S. is the largest producer of commercial nuclear power in the world, and nuclear power accounts for 19.2% of the nation's total electric energy supply. 

Today the Department of Defense is deploying solar energy, especially in the Middle East and Africa, and could help kickstart advancements that fuel the next energy revolution. In a few years, it might even be No. 12 on this list.

Correction: April 21, 2016