Monday, 18 May 2015

War - An Engine for Innovation

by Nicholas Graham

Many people say that war is not good for anything, and that the world would be a much better place if it had never existed. However the necessity of a way to defeat one’s enemy has been the cause of many new technologies which are still in use today, in both the military and civilian sectors. Here are a few examples, just to whet your appetite.

1.      Jet engine. The concept of jet engines and jet propulsion has been around for over 2000 years, but not in the form that we would think of today. By 1 A.D. the aeolipile had been invented, which was a spherical device with two nozzles that channelled steam so that the sphere would spin. However as it produced no mechanical power it was not seen as important. The next people to use jet propulsion were the Chinese during the thirteenth century. This was through the use of gunpowder-propelled fireworks, which were later developed into rockets for military use. However due to the inefficiency of these rockets jet propulsion technology made no further progressions until the twentieth century. Several nations attempted to use jet engines in their military aircraft during World War II. In 1928 Frank Whittle came up with a design for a turbojet for military aircraft. The end of result of the work by Frank and others was the Gloucester Meteor, the first British fighter plane with a jet engine, which entered service with the RAF in 1944, but did not play a particularly large role in the aerial battlegrounds near the end of the war. However in Germany the Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world’s first jet engine fighter, arriving shortly before the Gloucester Meteor. Due to effective bombing of German factories and facilities by the Allies, production started too late to get enough in the air to make a difference. If Germany had mass-produced these fighters when the design was first completed, it could have given them an edge in the battles for air superiority against the RAF in 1944 and 1945, as the German fighter jets could outperform most British fighter planes, including the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Nowadays, there are many different types of jet engine, and the main use for these is still for aircraft, both public and military.

2.      Anatomy. In the ancient world, physicians and scholars would conduct medical examinations upon corpses of enemy soldiers after a battle. They were not allowed to dishonour their own dead people by cutting up and opening up their corpses, but enemy soldiers did not have this privilege. A lot about human anatomy was discovered by these ancient physicians. The Roman Empire in particular contributed a vast amount of knowledge about human anatomy and how the body worked. Improved understanding of anatomy continued throughout the Napoleonic, Crimean and two World Wars.

3.      Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). This the piece of technology that allows us to have such thin televisions and screens. However the original reason LCDs were invented was not to reduce the size of your TV set. Liquid Crystal Display technology was developed as a totally new way of producing pictures on screens. Many different people worked on the theories and science behind liquid crystals and displays using them, however it was a military organisation that helped to provide one of the key breakthroughs. Late in the 1960s, the UK's Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern undertook pioneering work on the technology and worked alongside George William Gray and a team from the University of Hull in order to discover the exact type of liquid crystals which had the right properties for use in LCDs. This technology was developed for computers and other systems during the Cold War, and the British military played an important role in its creation and progression.

4.      The Hovercraft. The theories behind this particular invention had been around for quite a while before the military actually took an interest in it, and several inventors had come up with designs that were never realised due to a lack of funding. Christopher Cockerell, a British mechanical engineer, would be the first one to have his concept and design turned into a full scale vehicle. During the 1950s he tried to get all three branches of the military to give him funding for building a proper size version of his successful small scale models, but no-one was interested, as they did not believe that it applied to them. However Cockerell did finally manage to convince the Naval Research Development Corporation to fund the development of the hovercraft in 1958. In 1959, the SR.N1 was completed, the world’s first actual hovercraft. It is still used today as a military vehicle by nations such as Russia and the United States of America, but it is also used around the world as a commercial transport and by organisations such as the RNLI and the coastguard’s of various nations. At the moment the service run by Hovertravel between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth is the only public hovercraft service in the entire United Kingdom.

5.      Infrared detector. Infrared is a different part of the spectra to visible light, and this means that it can be used in ways that visible light cannot or to compensate for a lack of visible light. Nowadays, infrared detectors have many uses in many different areas of life. They are used as the sensor system in items such as burglar alarms and automatic doors, as well as for certain medical breathalysers. Their main use and original purpose however is that of night vision. There are two types of night vision, one where the existing light is massively amplified and one where you see the temperature of your surroundings. Infrared detectors are the technology behind this second type of night vision, sometimes referred to as heat vision. By the end of World War II, infrared technology was very much still in its infancy, although certain devices did exist such as the top-secret Type K Monocular “TABBY” Night Vision Device employed by the British special forces during the last years of the war. It was during the 1950s that the militaries of various nations took a serious interest in this type of technology and its possible applications. One of these applications was in guided (heat-seeking) missiles, such as the Sidewinder, which entered service in the US and UK military from the mid-1950s.

6.      Radar. This is one technology that has stayed the almost exactly the same in its uses since its development, as it has mainly just extended to be used in various different devices. Radar is a method of detecting objects by using radio waves. They are emitted from a device and will be reflected if they hit an object. If reflected back they will be received by a sensor. By sending out waves that have a specific speed, you can use the time it took for the wave to return to find out how far away the detected object is. This was developed by many different nations during the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1930s many different systems of detection and tracking were created, primarily by the militaries of the UK, Germany and the US. However it was the British who had developed the best systems in the final years before the war, and it was the use of radar technology to detect and track enemy fighters that was one of the major factors in the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain in the early part of World War II. Radar technology is still heavily used by the military in order to detect and track planes, boats and missiles, but is now used commercially as well, for navigational purposes, both in the air and at sea.

7.      Radio direction finding. This is similar to radar in that it also uses radio waves to determine the position of an object. However it works in almost the reverse way to radar. It is used to detect the bearing or direction to a source which is emitting radio waves, but it does not give the distance. The purpose of this technology is to find out the location of the device itself, rather than to find out the location of another device. By having several stations in various locations emitting radio waves of the same frequency, a person in a vehicle with an RDF device can work out their position either through studying the interference patterns of the radio waves or through using the bearings of the various radio sources to triangulate their position. This technology was exploited by both sides during World War II, although arguably the British made better use of it. British forces developed this technology to create high-frequency direction finders during the 1930s, partially for their own use in aircraft and on naval vessels, but partially to locate German U-boats when they broadcasted information via radio waves. The Germans did not know about the high-frequency radio direction finding devices developed by the British and as such developed techniques of avoiding older types of radio direction finder. This technology was the predecessor to GPS, and has largely been replaced by it, but still works due to the continued existence of radio stations, and is therefore often used as a backup navigational system on small boats. Most importantly, the successors to basic RDF ensured accurate navigation in the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean from the 1950s to the 1990s. This technology was vital to safety in the English Channel for decades.

8.      GPS.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based satellite navigation system. It is used to provide location as well as weather information to anywhere on Earth, and is integral to many of the things we take for granted today. This system was created and is maintained by the government of the USA, but is free to anyone with a GPS receiver. It was originally created by the United States military during the Cold War as a part of the arms race against the USSR. Although it was needed for various military reasons by the US, the only one that was considered serious enough was as a method of determining launch positions for their weapon systems, and to ensure that the weapons headed towards the intended targets. The first successful satellite navigation system was tested in 1960 by the US Navy. In time this led to GPS. Over the years many developments were made by the military, and gradually the public were allowed to use it. Originally, the public only got to use a degraded system that had been degraded on purpose, while the military used the highest quality frequency. However as of 2000 the same high quality frequency is available for use by all systems, both military and civilian. The technology is actually based upon time. Each satellite carries a highly precise and accurate atomic clock, which is synchronised with other satellites and the ground stations. The satellites constantly emit a signal with the time and their exact position. The GPS receiver uses the signals from multiple satellites in complex equations in order to work out the precise location of the bearer of the device. In order to calculate the location and time, a GPS receiver must have a clear line to at least four different satellites. Due to the accuracy of this information and the ability to receive it almost anywhere on Earth, GPS technology is the foundation of the vast majority of the world’s navigation and mobile communication. When GPS was first developed the designers realised that the vast distances between the satellites and the receivers meant that you would have to take account of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to ensure accuracy. The USAF originally refused to believe this - and so the first GPS satellites were fitted with two systems: one accounting for the time differences of relativity, the other not bothering. We now know “relative time” is real!

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