World War II wasn’t just bomber planes and rationed nylon stockings. It was also a time of great innovation across all manner of things, some of which we use every day. And while iPods and mobile phones are amazing recent inventions, ever wondered where the world’s first programmable digital computers came from?
His name was Colossus. He was born during WWII to a doting, engineer father, Tommy Flowers. He was actually made up of a series of computers, all designed with one purpose in life: to break the ultimate code. The Lorenz cipher kind of sounds like a skin disease, but it was one of the key German codes that needed to be cracked at Bletchley Park, the home of British code breakers, just north of London. And that’s where Colossus came in. He cracked it. And then they cracked him.
He may not have been programmable by stored software, but Colossus was an integral step in the road to the iPhone. Sadly Colossus was sent to the scrap heap in an attempt to protect the secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park. Vale Colossus.
Some inventions come about by accident. As US soldiers used radar transmitters in WWII, they soon realised that there were small waves of heat emitting from the radars. It cannot be confirmed that they had left-over lasagne on hand, but they soon realised there was enough heat being produced that they could cook food. A couple of years after the war, this same technology was used to manufacture the first microwave oven. Bet the kids don’t realise that when they heat up their Lean Cuisine.
Some really fabulous medical inventions and innovations also came about in World War II. We all know a bit about penicillin and how Florey came across various moulds on a dirty lab bench. But it was WWII that forced drug companies to really ramp up production and true field research to be undertaken. In the Allergy Age, it is also interesting to know that the EpiPen used by thousands of kids around Australia was developed by the military during WWII. It was first used as a fast way to inject a nerve gas antidote to soldiers on the battlefield. And now it battles peanut butter sandwiches in the battlefield that is the schoolyard playground.
Saving the best for last
OK, sure, medical innovations and programmable computers are kind of life changing. But what about that feeling of watching a Slinky creep itself down a staircase? Surely that tops it all. The Slinky was another one of those accidental discoveries. A medical engineer was busy trying to discover a solution to steady ship equipment at sea. Boring. Instead he knocked a steel coil off the edge of a shelf and… boom! The Slinky was born, and is still an inter-generational best seller more than 70 years (and 300 million sales) later. Genius.