Warfare a driving force behind hi-tech advances

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2006, 12:00am

Military inventions have made a profound contribution to mankind's progress

Now in its fourth year, the Iraq conflict looks less and less like the hi-tech 'perfect war' originally advertised. Commentators on the region routinely use such terms as 'civil war', 'bloodbath' and 'quagmire'.

It's an old story. War is only 'smart' and clean in computer games.

Paradoxically the military, despite the carnage it wreaks, is, like the Hindu goddess Kali, both creative and destructive. And always has been, according to warfare and leadership expert Jim Stroup (www.managingleadership.com), who, among other exploits, served in the Gulf War.

From the beginning of history, military needs have been key spurs to progress, cajoling innovation ever forward.

Thanks to centuries of advance by Arab and Turkish armies, Europeans became adept at and devoted to the craft of warfare.

'The Europeans struggled furiously to establish their own western despotism, to recreate the Roman Empire,' Mr Stroup says.

'These efforts extended from Charlemagne to Hitler and set off a military arms and technology race that involved the greatest minds of each age, from Leonardo da Vinci to Darpa [Defence Advanced Research Project Agency].'

The internet stems from a Darpa network that emerged in 1969. The 'darpanet' was designed to route information automatically over multiple avenues, lowering the chances of damage or destruction caused by electromagnetic repercussions from nuclear war.

Another invention spawned by the military that looks set to last is GPS (Global Positioning System), or 'sat nav'.

Now used to track California gang members, GPS emerged during the Cold War to help the military quickly pinpoint the positions of surfaced nuclear submarines.

Military contributions to everyday life go well beyond GPS and the Net.

'The invention of the stirrup is widely recognised as a profound military invention that revolutionised warfare by creating the possibility for organised cavalry,' Mr Stroup says.

The stirrup was not the first military invention with a 'wide scale' civilian application. The winner of this award, according to Mr Stroup, may well be the spoked wheel.

Invented by the Egyptians for use in the war chariots in 1,500 BC, the spoked wheel was structurally sound yet lightweight. The invention gave the military an edge that would translate to the civilian future.

'Just ask [cyclist] Lance Armstrong,' Mr Stroup says.

Thanks to the revolutionary innovation of mass production, chariots multiplied. Mass production fell out of use until more than a thousand years later, when the Chinese applied it to the manufacture of cross-bows.

The technique disappeared again, only to be revived a third time in the late 18th century when American inventor Eli Whitney manufactured muskets with interchangeable parts for the army.

The military continued to dominate mass production and the assembly of devices from interchangeable parts until automobile manufacturer Henry Ford embraced the concept.

Yet another example of military ingenuity having a lasting impact on society is radar, perfected by the British in the second world war so that their numerically inferior air force could identify incoming German squadrons and thus be able to concentrate their forces effectively.

'The effectiveness of radar is now enjoyed by all of us who use or benefit from the travel and trade offered by the aviation and shipping industries,' Mr Stroup says. He also points to how sonar, developed to pinpoint enemy submarines, is used to map and survey the ocean floor.

Other military-driven technologies range from simple radio to laser communication networks and, controversially, nuclear power.

Even the modern plastics industry may be seen as an outgrowth of military research in gunpowder development.

Many advances in chemistry, ceramics, miniaturisation and metallurgy also owe a debt to the military.

Mr Stroup says the impact of the military balances out. 'The historical and powerful drive for military superiority has been as creative as it has been destructive,' he said.