Eureka Moments — Seven Everyday Inventions That Came From Warfare

The conflicts of the past two centuries have spawned a number of innovations that have changed everyday life. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“An array of peacetime products, ideas and amenities that civilians now use on a daily basis, were all pioneered during the major wars of the past 200 years.”

HUMAN CONFLICT has driven innovation. All manner of technological breakthroughs have come as a result of the need to dominate the battlefield. Consider the crossbow, siege engines, automatic weapons, submarines, radar, guided missiles and nuclear energy. Interestingly enough, war has given the world more than just weaponry. The following array of peacetime products, ideas and amenities that civilians now use on a daily basis, were all pioneered during the major wars of the past 200 years.

Kleenex was first used as filters in gas masks.

Kleenex was first used as filters in gas masks.


The now ubiquitous disposable facial tissues were first introduced not for nose blowing, but as cheap paper-based liners for gas mask filters during the First World War. Originally called Cheesecloth UGG, the tissues replaced the fabric used inside wartime respirators when cotton was needed more for bandages and field dressings. Following the war, The Kimberly Clark Corporation got its hands on the idea and marketed its own paper tissues, dubbed Kleenex as disposable face towels for make-up removal. Introduced in 1924, company officials were amazed to discover that within two years of the product’s launch, more than half of Kleenex buyers were blowing their noses with the tissues. Interestingly enough, paper disposable handkerchiefs were in use in feudal Japan as early as the 17th Century.

Canned food was invented in Napoleonic France.

Canned Food

The advent of conscription in Revolutionary France led to the first mass army in modern history. Between 1800 and 1812, the French military swelled to more than 2.6 million men. With so many mouths to feed, large-scale food production and preservation became an issue of national survival for France. As Napoleon famously and presciently put it: An army marches on its stomach. Accordingly, Bonaparte’s generals offered the considerable sum of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a method of storing large quantities of food in containers in such a way that would prevent spoiling. In 1809, an inventor named Nicolas Appert discovered that he could seal edibles in tin cans and then cook the container, contents and all. The heat would kill germs and the seal would prevent new ones from growing within. The canned food could then be stored for months, even years without going bad. The breakthrough allowed for large armies to remain in the field longer without having to spend precious time and resources foraging for food. Amazingly, can openers wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years. Prior to that, soldiers would puncture cans with bayonets, split them with hatchets or smash them open using rocks.


The French soldiers probably could believe it wasn’t butter, but that didn’t bother Emperor Napoleon III who ruled France from 1852 to 1870. The nephew and heir of Bonaparte was looking for an inexpensive butter substitute for his soldiers and sailors and offered a reward to any inventor who could come up with something suitable. A chemist by the name of Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès built on an 1813 discovery of fatty acids and came up with something he called oleomargarine that could be made from Palm oil and animal fat. Mège-Mouriès patented his creation in 1869. A Dutch company that went onto become the soap manufacturer Unilever eventually bought the patent, dropped the prefix “oleo” and went on to mass produce and sell margarine. The buttery spread would remain partly animal based until rationing during World War Two when vegetable oil was used in its production.

The first instant coffee from the U.S. Civil War wasn’t exactly good to the last drop.

Instant Coffee

It’s hard to understate the importance of coffee among the soldiers of the American Civil War. While the Yankee blockade made coffee a prized luxury for Confederate troops, Northern soldiers enjoyed a generous ration of raw coffee beans. Armies, particularly those from the north, simply wouldn’t move until the soldiers got their morning java. Unfortunately, the time it took for soldiers to dry, roast and then brew the beans drove the officers to distraction. Something had to be done to speed up the morning coffee ritual. Pre-ground coffee was available, but crooked army suppliers frequently cut the blend with sawdust, dirt and other impurities. Instead the army tried something new: instant coffee. Dubbed Essence of Coffee, the drink was actually a thick concentrated java-based sludge that could be dolled out by the barrel, boiled in water and enjoyed by soldiers in camp – although ‘enjoyed’ might be too strong a word. The concoction supposedly tasted terrible and was known to turn soldiers stomachs. After the war, the concept was modified and improved and by 1901 instant coffee ready for the masses and well received.

A battlefield embalming tent.


In Ancient Egypt, the bodies of dead pharaohs were preserved in salt before mummification. The same process was favoured in China. During the Renaissance, it was discovered that both human corpses and animal specimens could be pickled in alcohol. In fact, Nelson’s body was famously shipped back to England after his death at Trafalgar in a cask of booze (which his own sailors supposedly tapped and drank). By the U.S. Civil War, an American doctor and entrepreneur named Dr. Thomas Holmes had perfected a little-known method of embalming the dead by draining the blood and replacing it with a cocktail of chemicals including arsenic and turpentine. Holmes travelled with the Union Army throughout the war practicing his macabre art on the corpses of slain officers who had made previous arrangements to have their remains shipped home in the event they were killed. Unfortunately, the bloody conflict made for a booming embalming business. When President Lincoln was killed at the war’s end, his body was also embalmed and shipped across the country by train making stops at various points for public viewing. Not surprisingly, embalming became popular following the war, with subsequent generations of Americans literally dying to try it out.

An 18th Century political cartoon pokes fun at William Pitt’s income tax, used to finance the war with France.

Income Tax

Another wartime invention is income tax. The first of its kind was supposedly levied in 1188 by King Henry II to raise funds for the Third Crusade. It was appropriately named the Saladin Tithe, after the sultan of Syria and Egypt against whom the European armies fought. The idea was revived in 1799 by Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger) to raise much needed cash for the widening war against France. The rate then was nearly 1 percent on incomes over £60 a year and 10 percent on incomes over £200. It raised £6 million in 1799 alone. The tax was repealed in 1816, but became permanent the following century. An American tax of 3 percent on all incomes over $800 was established in 1861 to help finance the U.S. Civil War. It too was repealed after 1865, but made permanent in 1893.

A World War One ad promoting Daylight Savings Time.

Daylight Savings Time

The first use of daylight savings time (DST) occurred during the First Word War. In April 1916, the whole of Kaiser’s Germany, along with the little town of Brandon, Manitoba on the Canadian prairies implemented DST within days of each other as a method of conserving the energy needed for lighting. The Germans called it Sommerzeit. The rest of the British Empire adopted the concept the next month, as did the United States in 1918. While the practice of setting the clocks forward had been proposed in the previous decade by a number of politicians, scientists and even an a noted British industrialist and golfer (who argued it would give him more time on the links), the idea failed to gain traction among voters. DST would be repealed following the Armistice, but would become standardized in many parts of the world by 1960.


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5 comments for “Eureka Moments — Seven Everyday Inventions That Came From Warfare

  1. 17 October, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Reblogged this on Asatru / Heathen South Africa.

  2. 17 October, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Wow, income tax… What a great invnetion! 😉

    A little known fact is that the German Kaiser introduced a tax on sparkling wine and light bulbs to finanace the German Warfleet. We are still paying those today, although the fleet has been sunk twice (during both World Wars) and we do not have a Warfleet anymore. So it seems hard to get rid of taxes once introduced.

    BTW.: I think there are many other great inventions based on military purposes like radio communication or GPS (civilian GPS systems are actually less acurate than their military brethren and than they could be for this very reason). And an oft neglected field is medicine. Many of the great techniques, tools and medications were actually invented for the purpose to get soldiers off the field alive or back onto the field ASAP.

    • 17 October, 2012 at 5:54 am

      I didn’t know about those German taxes. As for the medical advances and gps, you are absolutely right.

  3. 19 October, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    The embalming on the battlefield… wow…

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