The science and technology of World War II


Provided by The National Museum of World War II.

For all the role of science, mathematics, and new inventions in earlier wars, no war had as profound an effect on the technologies of our current lives than World War II (1939-45). And no war was as profoundly affected by science, math, and technology than WWII.


We can point to numerous new inventions and scientific principles that emerged during the war. These include advances in rocketry, pioneered by Nazi Germany. The V-1 or “buzz bomb” was an automatic aircraft (today known as a “cruise missile”) and the V-2 was a “ballistic missile” that flew into space before falling down on its target (both were rained on London during 1944-45, killing thousands of civilians). The “rocket team” that developed these weapons for Germany were brought to the United States after World War II, settled in Huntsville, Alabama, under their leader Wernher von Braun, and then helped to build the rockets that sent American astronauts into space and to the moon. Electronic computers were developed by the British for breaking the Nazi “Enigma” codes, and by the Americans for calculating ballistics and other battlefield equations. Numerous small “computers”—from hand-held calculating tables made out of cardboard, to mechanical trajectory calculators, to some of the earliest electronic digital computers, could be found in everything from soldiers’ pockets to large command and control centers. Early control centers aboard ships and aircraft pioneered the networked, interactive computing that is so central to our lives today.


Seeing through the clouds and beyond

The entire technology of radar, which is the ability to use radio waves to detect objects at a distance, was barely invented at the start of the war but became highly developed in just a few years at sites like the “Radiation Laboratory” at MIT. By allowing people to “see” remotely, at very long distances, radar made the idea of “surprise attack” virtually obsolete and vastly enlarged the arena of modern warfare (today’s radars can see potential attackers from thousands of miles away). Radar allowed nations to track incoming air attacks, guided bombers to their targets, and directed anti-aircraft guns toward airplanes flying high above. Researchers not only constructed the radars, but also devised countermeasures: during their bombing raids, Allied bombers dropped thousands of tiny strips of tinfoil, code-named “window” and “chaff” to jam enemy radar.


Two different types of chaff and their canisters, with a ruler for scale. Chaff was dropped from planes during World War II to jam enemy radar.

By constructing complex pieces of electronic equipment that had to be small, rugged, and reliable, radar engineering also set the foundations for modern electronics, especially television. Radar signals could also be used for navigation, as a ship or airplane could measure its distance from several radar beacons to “triangulate” its position. A system for radar navigation, called LORAN (long-range navigation) was the precursor to today’s satellite-based GPS technology.

The military found other uses for radar. Meteorologists, for example, could track storms with this new technology—a crucial skill to have when planning major military operations like D-Day. When weapons designers discovered a way to place tiny radar sets onto artillery shells, the proximity fuse was invented. These new fuses would explode when they neared their targets. By the end of the war, proximity fuses had became a critical component in many anti-aircraft shells.

A real shot in the arm

World War II also saw advances in medical technology. Penicillin was not invented during the war, but it was first mass produced during the war, the key to making it available to millions of people (during World War II it was mostly used to treat the venereal diseases gonorrhea and syphilis, which had been the scourge of armies for thousands of years).


While penicillin itself is still used today, it was also the precursor to the antibiotics that we take today to keep simple infections from becoming life-threatening illnesses. Medicines against tropical diseases like malaria also became critical for the United States to fight in tropical climates like the South Pacific. Pesticides like DDT played a critical role in killing mosquitoes (although the environmental impacts of DDT would last a long time; a famous book about DDT, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), would help found the modern environmental movement). The science and technology of blood transfusions were also perfected during World War II, as was aviation medicine, which allowed people (including us) to fly safely at high altitudes for long periods. Studies of night vision, supplemental oxygen, even crash helmets and safety belts emerged from aviation medicine.

One word, “plastics”

Chemical labs cooked up a host of new technologies, from new types of explosives to incendiary bombs (including napalm, a form of jellied gasoline heavily used in Vietnam, but first used on the Pacific island of Tinian against the Japanese), flame throwers, and smoke screens. New materials and new uses for old materials appeared as well. Companies manufacturing consumer goods (such as silverware) converted to manufacture military goods (such as surgical instruments). Automobile factories re-tooled to make tanks and airplanes. These industrial modifications required rapid and creative engineering, transportation, and communications solutions. Because of the need to put most resources into the war effort, consumers at home experienced shortages and rationing of many basic items such as rubber, gasoline, paper, and coffee (the country imposed a national “Victory” speed limit of 35 miles per hour to save wear on tires—natural rubber being in short supply since the Japanese had occupied much of Southeast Asia). Consumers had to conserve, or just do with out. Women’s skirts were made shorter to save material and bathing suits were made out of two pieces (these later became known as “bikinis,” named after an island in the Pacific where the army tested atomic weapons). The 3M company felt compelled to run advertisements apologizing to homemakers for the scarcity of Scotch tape in stores across the country; available supplies of the product had been diverted to the front for the war effort. 3M promised “when victory comes “Scotch” cellulose tape will be back again in your home and office.”

New materials emerged to fill these voids; many had been invented just before the war but found wide use during World War II: plastic wrap (trademarked as Saran wrap) became a substitute for aluminum foil for covering food (and was used for covering guns during shipping); cardboard milk and juice containers replaced glass bottles; acrylic sheets were molded into bomber noses and fighter-plane canopies; plywood emerged as a substitute for scarce metals, for everything from the hulls of PT boats to aircraft wings. The look and feel of 1950s America – a “modern” world of molded plywood furniture, fiberglass, plastics, and polyester – had its roots in the materials innovations of World War II.

You are what you eat


The science of nutrition expanded greatly during WWII. In the United States, scientists worked to identify which vitamins and minerals were most essential to a healthy body and in what amounts. Studies were conducted to determine how many calories were burned doing various activities. Proper food preparation, storage and handling, and preservation became a top priority for the military. Soldiers’ rations were carefully formulated to supply the maximum amount of nutrition and energy, while providing for variety and taste. Meeting these challenges meant working first in the laboratory before working in the kitchen. The development of the D-ration provides a great example. The “D” ration was a high-calorie emergency ration that came in the form of a fortified chocolate bar. A three-portion package of these bars would provide a soldier with 1,800 calories of energy. Once the military settled on a chocolate bar for their emergency ration, scientists set about creating it, with the following requirements: it had to weigh 4 ounces, it had to be high in calories, it had to be able to withstand high temperatures, and it had to taste “a little better than a boiled potato.” This last requirement was imposed to keep soldiers from snacking on their emergency rations in non-emergency situations. By the end of the war, millions of these rations had been produced in the United States and delivered around the world, along with billions of other rations for the military.

The destoyer of worlds


And of course we’re all familiar with the Atomic Bomb, two of which were dropped on Japan to end the Pacific war in 1945. In a pioneering effort, the United States mobilized a massive cadre of scientists, engineers, and industrial plants. Two cities were selected to house processes integral to the bomb’s development. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was surrounded by 59,000 acres of farmland and wilderness. The workers here separated out uranium for the bomb. In Hanford, Washington, the city was chosen for its 500,000 acres of isolated land bordering the Columbia River. Here workers created the new element plutonium. Atomic weapons are so complicated, in terms of the physics, and so difficult to build, in terms of the technology, that two different types of weapons were built, to increase the chances of getting at least one of them right. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a uranium-type bomb, and the one dropped on Nagasaki used plutonium.

Scientists in Nazi Germany were working on an atomic bomb as well. But without the huge commitment of resources that the American government offered its scientists, they barely got out of the starting gate. The Atomic Bomb was like radar in that a small number of devices could make a major impact on military operations, so the new invention could have an effect before going into full scale mass production. By contrast, most conventional weapons took so long to mass produce that if they were not at least on the drawing board when the war started they often arrived too late to impact the war. It is notable, however, that the speed with which new weapons systems came on-line, from the drawing board to the factory floor to the battlefield had never before been seen.

New ideas for a new age of warfare

Again, as in earlier eras, perhaps the most profound impacts of World War II were as much great ideas as they were pieces of hardware. Before the war, scientists were professors who ran small laboratories with students, with small amounts of money. Before the war scientists were looking into fundamental principles of the natural world, without much regard for practical applications, and they rarely attracted the attention of national governments. During World War II, science became mobilized on a grand scale; many of these professors and their students dropped everything to work on war-related challenges and initiative. The massive “research and development” (R&D) laboratory emerged in its modern form. The paradigmof these efforts was the “Manhattan Project” which put thousands of physicists together with Army-scaled logistics and designed, built, and manufactured the first atomic bombs. Other laboratories included the so-called “Radiation Laboratory” at MIT which developed radar. Numerous other laboratories focused on everything from electronics to medical research to psychological testing. By the end of the war, the atomic bomb made it clear that science had, in the words of one scientist, “lost its innocence” – that is it was now a critical tool of military power, and was given government money for research at many thousands of times the pre-war levels. Scientists became advisors to presidents on the most pressing issues of national and foreign policy. Ever since World War II, the American government has mobilized science, mathematics, and engineering on a vast scale, whether in large government laboratories, by funding research in universities, or by purchasing high-tech products from companies in industry.