Top 8 inventions & innovations of WWII

As one of the largest events in human history, World War II spawned numerous important inventions that still affect modern life.

Jet engine

Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle share credit for the development of the jet engine even though they worked independently of one another.

They patented the designs in the early 30s, made prototypes in the late 30s, and successfully flew the first flights in the early 40s.

The Germans thought it especially useful as a way to help them overcome Allied superiority in numbers.

Jet planes are the modern foundation of military air forces and civilian transport.

Heinkel He 178, the world’s first aircraft to fly purely on turbojet power, 1939.
Heinkel He 178, the world’s first aircraft to fly purely on turbojet power, 1939.

Synthetic rubber and oil

Both of these materials were essential in the creation and use of planes, tanks, and vehicles. The Germans faced a critical shortage of oil for much of the war, particularly after they retreated from Southern Russian and the Romanian oil fields.

The United States started to use synthetic oil as well when they realized it helped the airplane engines run better and stay cleaner for longer.

WWII poster about synthetic rubber tires.
WWII poster about synthetic rubber tires.

The Allies developed synthetic rubber when the Axis powers controlled much of the natural rubber in the South Pacific. Again, the synthetic materials helped produce better tires that lasted longer and performed better.

These synthetic materials continue to help both high powered machines and more regularly powered machines, like our cars.

Sheet of synthetic rubber coming off the rolling mill at the plant of Goodrich (1941).
Sheet of synthetic rubber coming off the rolling mill at the plant of Goodrich (1941).

Pressurized cabins

Flying at high altitudes was not only uncomfortably cold but dangerous. The high altitudes could result in sickness and hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen in the blood.

The pilots had oxygen masks that helped prevent this, but these masks were bulky and often prevented the pilots from operating and making repairs in combat conditions.

World War II-era flying helmet and oxygen mask.
World War II-era flying helmet and oxygen mask.

The B29 bomber introduced in 1944 built upon experimental systems and provided a pressurized cockpit, nose, and a shaft leading along the ship to the unpressurized launch bays.

The pressurized cabin was used after World War II (along with jet engines) to make commercial flights possible.

Interior photo of the rear pressurized cabin of the B-29 Superfortress, June 1944.
Interior photo of the rear pressurized cabin of the B-29 Superfortress, June 1944.

Radar

Radar was developed in the early 20th century by many nations seeking both to detect and send radio waves. The most promising development came from Sir Robert Watson Watt, the grandson of the famous inventor James Watt.

In 1934, Britain became worried about a rumored “death ray” that Germany had developed.

A 1925 radio magazine photograph of Grindell-Matthews death ray.
A 1925 radio magazine photograph of Grindell-Matthews death ray.

Watt studied the matter and found no evidence of a death ray, but did find promising leads in the science of radio detection.

By the start of the Battle of Britain, the government had developed a series of radar stations along the coast that gave them vital advanced warnings of German air attacks.

This Morris Commercial T-type van, originally used as a portable radio reception testbed, was later refitted for the Daventry Experiment. It is shown in 1933, being operated by “Jock” Herd.
This Morris Commercial T-type van, originally used as a portable radio reception testbed, was later refitted for the Daventry Experiment. It is shown in 1933, being operated by “Jock” Herd.

It was so important for the defense of Britain that German radar technology was the target of perhaps the most daring and crazy commando mission of the war.

Radar systems remain a vital part of missile defense today.

The first workable radar unit constructed by Robert Watson-Watt and his team. The four widely separated NT46 tubes can be seen. Production units were largely identical. Photo: Elektrik Fanne CC BY-SA 4.0
The first workable radar unit constructed by Robert Watson-Watt and his team. The four widely separated NT46 tubes can be seen. Production units were largely identical. Photo: Elektrik Fanne CC BY-SA 4.0
East Coast Chain Home radar station.
East Coast Chain Home radar station.

V2 missiles

Part of the reason for the development of radar was because of Germany’s development of missiles. Called “Vergeltungswaffe 2” in German and “Vengeance rockets” in popular parlance, these missiles were the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles.

A liquid fuel rocket propellant was used to launch missiles from deep inside Germany toward the heart of London. 3,000 British civilians died, and over 12,000 forced laborers in Germany died producing them.

V-2 rocket on Meillerwagen at Operation Backfire near Cuxhaven in 1945.
V-2 rocket on Meillerwagen at Operation Backfire near Cuxhaven in 1945.
Heavily camouflaged and highly mobile, attempts to attack the V-2 were unsuccessful. CH did help provide some early warning, the best solution to be had. Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 141-1879 CC BY-SA 3.0
Heavily camouflaged and highly mobile, attempts to attack the V-2 were unsuccessful. CH did help provide some early warning, the best solution to be had. Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 141-1879 CC BY-SA 3.0
The aftermath of a V-2 strike at Battersea, London (27 January 1945).
The aftermath of a V-2 strike at Battersea, London (27 January 1945).

The creators of the V rockets, such as Wernher von Braun, were the key intellectual foundation of the US space program that took America to the moon.

Guided missiles such as those launched by the American F35 or the carrier killing missiles developed by China are a vital part of modern militaries.

DF-21 and transporter erector launcher vehicle at the Beijing Military Museum.
DF-21 and transporter erector launcher vehicle at the Beijing Military Museum.

Guided weapons

Launching missiles at a long range was important, but so was steering them.

The Fritz Anti-ship bomb fielded by Germany in 1943 used radio to control and guide the bomb into its target, an Italian battleship.

The United States went one step further and used radar-guided bombs to remove the need for a human operator.

Modern technologies have perfected these techniques to the point that the Gulf War was called a video game war, and the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) guidance kit is a vital part of the American bombing force.

Fritz X Guided Bomb.Photo: Sanjay Acharya CC BY-SA 4.0
Fritz X Guided Bomb.Photo: Sanjay Acharya CC BY-SA 4.0

 

USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German radio-controlled glide bomb, while supporting Allied forces ashore during the Salerno operation, September 11, 1943.
USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German radio-controlled glide bomb, while supporting Allied forces ashore during the Salerno operation, September 11, 1943.

Helicopters

The Germans developed a single seat helicopter for reconnaissance and ferrying small items between ships. The air force wanted to use it for combat, and they added a second seat for a spotter who was often used to locate artillery.

After the helicopters performed well in bad weather while the rest of the air force was grounded, the Germans planned to make over 1,000 of these aircraft. But the Allies bombed key factories before they could make more than twenty-four.

Flettner Fl 282 with US markings during flight trials after World War II.
Flettner Fl 282 with US markings during flight trials after World War II.

The helicopter today is a key attack, reconnaissance, and medical unit. It increased the range of infantry soldiers in Vietnam and became a key part of American strategy there.

The downing of a Black Hawk in Somalia produced one of the fiercest infantry engagements of the modern era as well.

Black Hawk of the Colombian Air Force launching flares, 2011. Photo: Andrés Ramírez GFDL 1.2
Black Hawk of the Colombian Air Force launching flares, 2011. Photo: Andrés Ramírez GFDL 1.2

Penicillin

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 was accidental. Alexander Flemming left a petri dish of bacteria cultures unattended for several days. When he discovered his mistake, he saw that some of the bacteria in a ring around the growing mold culture had died due to contamination by a fungus.

Alexander Fleming, who is credited with discovering penicillin in 1928.
Alexander Fleming, who is credited with discovering penicillin in 1928.

Read another story from us: How Radar was the Game Changer of WWII and It’s Only Gets Better

Trials on human patients were so successful that the drug was used on soldiers in World War II to prevent infection. Previous medicines had been toxic to the human body, so this far more effective medicine saved millions of lives in World War II.

Penicillin is the basis for most of the antibiotics prescribed by doctors today.