5 Military Technologies Invented In WWI That We Still Use Today

The evolution of military technology is an ongoing process, and breakthroughs in new weapons and defensive systems make the news every year. However, many staples of modern warfare have their roots over a century ago – in World War One. From deadly drones to invaluable radio systems, here are five technologies developed in the Great War that are still used today.

1 – Tanks

An instantly recognisable symbol of 20th Century warfare, the tank was developed in secret by the Allies during World War One. It was conceived of as a so-called “land-ship,” but a codename for the project had to be used.

To maintain the element of surprise, the Allies referred to these new war machines as “Water Carriers,” and then later simply as “Tanks.” Although this was just a tactic to throw off the Germans, the name stuck.

To this day, tanks are still used in military actions across the globe. While the design of the tank has been refined and developed a great deal during the last century, this is one technological innovation we owe directly to World War One.

British Mark IV (Tadpole) tank


2 – Unmanned Drones

Though they’re often seen as a controversial symbol of modern warfare in the 21st Century, the unmanned drone has its roots in World War One. In 1916, the US Navy began working on prototypes of an unmanned aerial bomb. It weighed 175 pounds and proved to be less than effective – at least at first. Early attempts to test the new weapon yielded unsatisfactory results, with a lack of accuracy being the main problem. Eventually, interest and funding in the project dried up, and early attempts to build a functional drone were shelved.

A modern MQ-9 Reaper drone [source: Wikipedia / public domain]
A modern MQ-9 Reaper drone

Many years later, a model aeroplane enthusiast named John Stuart Foster Jr. decided to try using his hobby as the basis for developing a new weapon. By 1973, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had created two prototypes based on his designs – though they were relatively primitive by today’s standards. They formed an essential link in the chain between an idea first conceived of in World War One and a deadly weapon used by many nations today.

3 – Aircraft Carriers

Five years after the first plane was launched from the deck of a moving ship, World War One demanded fresh innovations in aerial warfare. No one had ever landed a plane on a moving ship, and there were no vessels designed specifically for this purpose. Britain, however, had just built a new warship, mounted with two enormous 18-inch guns. It was decided that the force of these weapons might damage the structure of the ship itself, so another use had to be found for the HMS Furious. A large platform was built onto the deck, allowing the vessel to become the first ship on which planes could be both launched and landed.

A modern American aircraft carrier [source: Wikipedia / public domain]
A modern American aircraft carrier

While modern aircraft carriers can weigh up to 70,000 tonnes and are built with a host of cutting-edge technology, World War One remains integral to their conception almost 100 years ago.

4 – Pilot Communication Systems

Until the start of World War One, there were no systems in place for pilots to communicate with anyone on the ground. Once a plane was in the air, its crew was completely cut off from fellow pilots around them and anyone down below. Although cable communications were initially developed to remedy the problem, these were just too easy for German forces to intercept. In the end, the answer proved to be radio technology and, although this had been around for a while, it was developed into a working communication system for pilots during World War One.

A military reconnaissance plane in WWI [source: Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain]
A military reconnaissance plane in WWI

It was in 1917 that, for the first time, a voice was transmitted from a flying plane to officials on the ground, via radio. It was a great breakthrough, and it paved the way not only to the systems used by modern military aircraft today, but to all subsequent air traffic control.

5 – Machine Guns

Before World War One, the Gatling gun was the closest thing to a modern machine gun in use. It was a large and unwieldy weapon, resembling a cannon and weighing almost as much. As such, it proved to be of little use in the battlefields of Europe. Something more effective and mobile was required, and the Vickers machine gun was the solution. Although each gun needed at least six men to operate it, it proved invaluable in combat, and quickly gained a reputation as an extremely reliable piece of equipment.

The Vickers Machine Gun in action during WWI [source: Wikipedia / Public Domain]
The Vickers Machine Gun in action during WWI

This weapon went on to become a fixture of modern warfare, with handheld machine guns seeing use throughout the world. While the gun’s development and evolution has certainly slowed in recent years, this is only because current designs meet most requirements and, for now, need little improvement.

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE