Gifts of the War by Patrick Ardagh-Walter

The First World War, or the Great War, as it was originally known, lasted from the 28th of July 1914 to the 11th of November 1918. 65 million soldiers fought in the conflict, and at least 8 million died as 19th-century tactics struggled to adapt to 20th-century technology. However, during this war, and sometimes because of it, several inventions have developed that form the foundation of some modern age technology.

Gas Masks

On April 22nd, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used chlorine gas against the Allied forces, causing significant casualties. Chlorine gas reacts with water to form hypochlorous acid, which means that moisture in the mouth, throat and eyes becomes a target, causing blistering of the eyes and throat, blurred vision, shortness of breath, and eventually, a painful death.

The allied response was to issue masks of cotton pads, which the soldiers would then have to soak with urine. The ammonia in the urine would then neutralise the gas. However, this was both rather unpleasant and not easy to fight with, and a new solution had to be found. With the work of John Haldane and Edward Harrison, the “Small Box Respirator” was created and made the standard issue for British troops. Edward Harrison sadly died not three years later, likely due to the toll taken by testing the effectiveness of the masks himself.

Thankfully, his sacrifice was not in vain, as the respirator saved countless lives in the rest of the war, and formed the foundation of respirators and gas masks today, which are used in construction to protect against welding fumes, in demolition when asbestos particles may be present, and in many other scenarios where there is a danger of leaks of harmful gases and particles.


While the typical perception of the deep sea is that of a silent and tranquil place, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sound travels at nearly 1500 metres per second in the ocean, about four times faster than in air, and this can be very useful for both military and civilian operations alike.

During the war, the German U-Boats were an ever-present threat on the seas, hunting trade vessels and laying undersea mines. Thus, hydrophones capable of locating these submarines were needed. These were eventually developed by a team of scientists, including Ernest Rutherford and William Bragg, who developed a hydrophone using piezoelectric materials, which generate an electric charge when flexed or squeezed. As the pressure waves from the sound reach the microphone, this creates a charge which can then be picked up and turned back into sound. The anti-U-Boat vessels also used a “baffle”, essentially an air-filled shield to block sound waves from the noise of the detecting vessel, allowing them to listen for submarines whilst on the move. Hydrophones are now used in various undersea areas, but often in the field of marine biology, as many undersea animals, such as whales, use sound to communicate.

Portable X-Ray Machines

Marie Curie may be known for her discovery of Polonium and Radium, but during World War One, whilst most of her lab researchers were being drafted and sent to the front lines, she also made contributions to the war effort. Taking her daughter Irene, at the time only 17 years old, she convinced wealthy acquaintances to give her money and cars, which she converted into portable miniature X-ray machines. These were then driven to the front, where they were used for medical imaging of injured soldiers with broken limbs and shrapnel wounds.

Medical X-rays work by placing the part of a patient to be imaged between an x-ray source and a detector. Different kinds of tissue, or foreign objects in the case of shrapnel, absorb x-rays better than others, which leads to contrast in the image, as absorbent bones show up clearly against muscle and other organs, which allow x-rays to pass through easily. During World War One, and today, this means that surgeons can spot more subtle fractures, and also shrapnel and bone fragments that would cause infection if not removed. Curie’s machines, later known as “Little Curies” saved many soldiers on the front lines from a slow death by infection, and even today, more than a century later, similar machines can be brought out rapidly to the scene of an emergency, saving countless lives.

These inventions, and more, were created by nations at war; their innovation fuelled by necessity. However, the invention of the gas mask has likely saved millions from conditions like asbestosis, or slow carbon monoxide poisoning. The hydrophone has allowed us to hear the wonders of the sea,  and the creation of the Little Curies has allowed at-the-scene surgeries to pull hundreds of thousands back from the brink of death. Let us appreciate the achievements of the men and women, who made so many sacrifices over a century ago, to make these inventions possible.

References the number of mobilised and killed forces. the Second Battle of Ypres. Chlorine gas poisoning symptoms. Haldane and Harrison’s invention. Speed of sound in water. Hydrophones. The origin of “Little Curies”. How medical X-ray imaging works.

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