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World War I Inventions & Innovations

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

World War I was one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In this lesson, we will learn how the violence also led to technological and medical innovations.

The 'War to End All Wars'

When European powers declared war on one another in 1914, no one could have predicted the ultimate cost when the guns finally fell silent in 1918. World War I, also known as the Great War, escalated to involve countries from across the globe, although the majority of the fighting took place in Europe. As the struggle became mired in a stalemate, the nations sought ways to not only win the war, but to also save lives.

In the midst of this onslaught of violence that was on a scale never before seen in human history, scientists and inventors made technological advances and medical innovations that would change the world.

Europe at the start of hostilities in 1914
WW1 Map

Innovations in Medicine

Although millions would die on the battlefield, millions more suffered permanent physical damage such as burns, gunshot wounds and even loss of limbs that they would carry the rest of their lives. This inspired doctors to begin searching for better ways to not only save lives, but to also help wounded veterans cope with life after the battlefield.

A WWI field hospital
field hospital

Cosmetic Surgery

Walter Yeo is believed to have been the first to benefit from revolutionary surgery techniques. As an English sailor in the Royal Navy, Yeo lost his eyelids in the Battle of Jutland. Doctor Sir Harold Gillies transferred undamaged skin from parts of Yeo's body to create a mask for Yeo and modern cosmetic surgery or reconstructive surgery was born.

Wounded in battle, Walter Yeo received revolutionary cosmetic surgery
Walter Yeo

Anesthesia and Antiseptics

While not all wounds were deadly, wounds that became infected could lead to the need for amputation and could even cause death. For centuries, doctors did not believe germs existed, and in 1914 the idea was still relatively new in medicine. However, the process of dressing wounds changed during World War I when sodium hypochlorite and boric acid were used to wash out the wounds of British soldiers fighting in France. As the use of antiseptics increased and wounds were properly cleaned and dressed, the survival rate for soldiers increased.

Of course, some wounds could not be fully healed without surgery. At the outbreak of war, operations were carried out without pain killers until the patient passed out. While the idea of anesthesia varied throughout Europe during the conflict, the British experimented with various forms of pain killers to help a patient cope with surgery and laid the groundwork for the neuromuscular blocking drugs of the 1940s.

Storing Blood

The Royal Army was quick to realize the benefits of blood transfusions to help save the lives of their wounded soldiers. However, the millions of casualties forced medical personnel to realize they needed blood on hand in case sufficient donors were unavailable during battle. In 1917, U.S. Army Captain Oswald Hope Robertson, pioneered the first blood banks, allowing blood donors to give blood before the major battles so that field hospitals could stockpile the blood and have it available when the wounded arrived.

In the years following World War I, stockpiling blood to aide the wounded became standard practice in all militaries.

Innovations in Technology

Millions died in this new era of industrialized warfare that saw the introduction of planes as weapons of war, as well as the extensive use of submarines, machine guns, poisonous gas, tanks, and more. As technology played a greater role in warfare, inventions were created to help gain the advantage.

Sonar

As German submarines or U-boats terrorized the Atlantic, the Allies searched for tactics to protect against submerged assaults. But how do you find ships that are literally out of sight?

The British forces were some of the first to utilize listening devices known as hydrophones to search for German submarines. Although they were primitive and did not see widespread use in World War I, these underwater microphones were the first steps on the path to the advancement of sonar and deep-sea exploration.

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