The Second World War was a pivotal moment in world history. No conflict before or since has had such a profound and far-reaching effect on our lives, both in terms of the war itself, and the technological advances we now take for granted.
In the struggle for world domination, both sides sought to out-fox the other with aggression and strategy, but the key to winning the war was often more subtle. Many of the key factors that secured victory were in fact dependent on the ‘boffins’, beavering away in laboratories and workshops, developing more advanced ways to obliterate the enemy.
But while seeking a military advantage, many scientific developments that came from the war proved just as adroit at improving people’s lives in peacetime and, ultimately, changing our world forever.
THE V-2 ROCKET
The V-2 was the world’s first ballistic missile. Officially designated as the Vergeltungswaffe 2 – or Retribution Weapon 2 – it was principally designed by Nazi Party and Waffen-SS member Wernher von Braun. Its primary purpose was to cause mass destruction to Allied cities in retaliation for Allied bombing of German cities. Starting in September 1944, the Germans sent over 3,000 V-2rockets towards London, Antwerp and Liege. According to the BBC, around 9,000 people were killed with another 12,000 concentration camp detainees and forced labourers dying during the production process.
As the German war machine was in its death throes, von Braun and his team knew their particular game was up. They didn’t want to surrender to the Soviets so they instead engineered their surrender to the Americans in May 1945. Von Braun’s brother Magnus, also a rocket scientist, found a soldier from the US 44th Infantry Division. In stilted English, he shouted ‘my name is Magnus von Braun, my brother invented the V-2 rocket. We want to surrender’.
The Americans immediately understood who they had. The scientist’s name was at the top of a list of people targeted for immediate interrogation and, as part of what became known as Operation Paperclip, von Braun and his team of specialists were transferred to the US. After their Nazi affiliations were essentially ‘bleached’ from official records, including creating fake work histories and expunging party memberships, they were cleared by the US security services to work in America.
While working on the Army’s ballistic missile programme, he and his team were amalgamated into NASA. He became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and assisted in the development of the Saturn 1B, as well as perhaps the most famous rocket of them all – the Saturn V rocket which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon in July 1969.
Like many of the world’s most important inventions – the x-ray, microwave ovens, Teflon and Velcro – the creation of penicillin was down to a stroke of luck. Renowned for his untidiness, Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming left a pile of cultures of the bacteria staphylococci on his desk. Upon returning from holiday, he noticed one of the petri dishes had formed a fungus and the bacteria surrounding the fungus had been killed.
When Fleming noticed the paradigm-shifting petri dish, he famously said ‘that’s funny…’
Further development of this ‘mould’- which he called penicillin, as it came from the Penicillium genus – led him to realise that it could destroy disease-causing bacteria, and his discovery was published in 1929 in the Journal of Experimental Pathology. Initially, short shrift was given to the article, but Fleming persisted and worked with a chemist called Howard Florey to see if the substance could be refined. When Fleming gave up on penicillin, Florey and his team mass-produced it with grants from the US and Britain, and the US War Production Board came up with a plan to distribute it on a massive scale to Allied troops fighting the war in Europe. 2.3m doses were produced in time for the D-Day landings in 1944.
Just over 12 months later, 646 billion units of penicillin a year were being produced (the 1945 version had almost 20 times the potency of the 1939 version), and it was being used en masse by field doctors to stave off infections and diseases. Estimates on the number of lives saved due to the administration of penicillin are hard to quantify, but it’s safe to say that during the war and in the 70 years hence, penicillin saved millions of lives and continues to do so.
‘It is difficult to convey the excitement of actually witnessing the amazing power of penicillin over infections for which there had previously been no effective treatment.’ – Professor Charles Fletcher, the first doctor to administer penicillin to a patient
RADIO DETECTION AND RANGING
Perhaps better known by its acronym, radar was in its infancy at the start of the Second World War. It was developed independently by both the Allies and the Axis in the mid-1930s. While the British system (known as RDF, or Range and Direction Finding) was fully operational, the German version – Funkmessgerät – was somewhat ignored by Hitler due to his stance against defensive measures and the Luftwaffe’s dismal attempts at incorporating the new systems.
At the same time, radar systems were being developed by Australia, Canada, the Soviet Union, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.
By bouncing radio waves off moving objects to accurately determine their speed, altitude, direction and range, the legacy element of the ‘surprise attack’ was mitigated and the perimeter of the war in the air was massively increased. Realising that the US was a vital ally – not only as a fighting force but also as a manufacturer – Prime Minister Winston Churchill shared Britain’s technological ‘secrets’ with the US in return for their military strength.
Early radar relied on a semiconductor crystal (the precursor of the transistor radio) and, as the technology developed, radar allowed countries to monitor and track attacks from the air; guide bombs towards specific destinations; and direct anti-aircraft missiles towards their airborne targets. In addition, the technology was used by meteorologists to track weather systems, which became a vital tool in the ability to accurately plan military operations.
As well as being a major boon when seeking and destroying enemy targets, radar signals could also be used as a form of navigation. By measuring distance from specified beacons, ships and planes could ‘triangulate’ positions. Around the same time, a land-based radar navigation known as LORAN – long range navigation – was developed at MIT for ships and planes within 600 miles of the US coast, and it became progressively more accurate over the next few years. Not only is LORAN still used by ships today, but the technology was also transferred into the foundations of modern electronics including television.
Over the years since the war, radar technology has developed to such a point that it’s a vital component of many of the world’s most sophisticated technological systems. These include air traffic control, astronomy, air defence and antimissile systems, ocean surveillance, meteorological monitoring and geological ground penetration.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of this wartime technology is its eventual evolution into navigation by satellite – satnav – and GPS technology, relied upon by millions of us when we want to navigate around traffic jams on the M25.
Mechanised wars cannot be fought without oil – it really is that simple. So, when Germany realised they had a stockpile of just 15m barrels and they were about to take on half the world in a six-year war, they needed to take action. They imported fuel from the Soviet Union and Romania, and looted close to five million barrels during the early part of the war.
Unsurprisingly, Hitler didn’t want Germany to be reliant on foreign anything, and that included oil. It was calculated that the Germans would need 7.25m barrels a month. However, with domestic production running at 5.35m barrels per month, supplies would run out by August 1941.
The Germans were desperate, and needed a way to come up with synthetic fuels to power their war machine. The answer was a blend of adipic acid ester and polyethylene oil that helped keep the Luftwaffe flying and German tanks and vehicles moving.
The Americans were also developing synthetic oils and rubber at the time (the Axis powers controlled the majority of the world’s natural rubber supply), and the oil substitute they created initially helped to make cold aircraft engines easier to start, and reduced the build-up of soot deposits in oil radiators.
In different formulas and concentrations, synthetic fuel is used in cars, planes, boats and indeed most vehicles, plus large-scale manufacturing. With a diminishing global reliance on fossil fuels and the ongoing controversy surrounding fracking, synthetic fuels will be used more and more thanks in part to the technology developed during the Second World War.
Computers, as we know them today, are highly complex and sophisticated machines with quite phenomenal processing power. Yet we owe our entire computer-powered world to technology that was developed before and during the Second World War.
Developed specifically for breaking German codes from cipher machines, the Colossus was the first programmable, electronic, digital computer and was employed at Bletchley Park, the Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS).
It used around 1,600 vacuum tubes to read paper tape, and then applied logical functions to crack German codes. It was not designed with any internal storage; for all new tasks, a series of plugs and switches were changed to alter the wiring. I Also, it was designed for one job only – to shorten the war – which it did (according to experts) by between two and four years.
The Americans later developed ENIAC – Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer – which was the forerunner to the general-purpose computers you are most likely reading this article on. Like the Colossus, it was digital and programmable, but unlike the Colossus, it was reprogrammable to solve what was called ‘a large class of numerical problems’.
ENIAC was designed to calculate artillery firing tables, and was used to conduct a feasibility study of the hydrogen bomb. But although it was used during the war, it wasn’t announced until the war was over. Scientists and engineers were excited at the potential of a machine with general purpose programmability, and such large (for the time) computational power.
While these machines paved the way for what came after, the basic principles of today’s computers are down to one man – Alan Turing. He was a computer scientist, mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst (as well as one of the principal architects of the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park’s famous Hut 8) who had the idea of controlling the operations of the computer by a program of coded instructions stored in the memory of the machine.
It would be impossible to list the practical applications of computer science. It invades, almost literally, everything we do, see and use. Industry, medicine, education, science, sport, the arts, finance and manufacturing – it all uses computer science thanks to men like Alan Turing.