War Technology 4/4/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

One of my favorite topics is that of war technology.  No, I don’t mean guns and bombs and ways to kill each other, but rather of odd little advances that we might not attribute to military technology.  For example, I’m nibbling on some fresh Mozzarella as I write this, but cheese was developed to support Roman troops.  See, as the Roman army spread farther and farther from Rome, they had a problem of how to deliver milk to the front lines.  Without rapid transportation or refrigeration, of course it would always be bad by the time it arrived.  The answer?  Rotten milk.

But not just randomly rotten.  They treated milk with cultures to turn it solid and keep it from becoming toxic.  The result was cheese.  In my refrigerator I have truly disgusting old cheese that is all fuzz and a bluish mold right now.  I’ll probably throw it out, but I could, if I were desperate for cheese, just as easily cut off the mold and the cheese underneath would be fine, and rather tasty as I recall.


Spam, as it turns out, was developed during World War I for the same reason. Fresh meat was difficult to get to the American troops in the trenches. As such, Hormel developed a type of processed ham, high in salt as a preservative, to get meat to the troops.

Spam is still a favorite wartime meal in Hawaii, or so I am told.

The most fearsome army in the world in their day was the Scottish army.  In battle after battle, they defeated the English army for, well, decades.  The only reason England ever defeated them was simply attrition as they could replenish their soldiers and resources, while Scotland had limited supplies.  Among the war technology of the Scottish army was, in fact, the kilt.

See, one of the advantages that the Scottish army had over the English was that they were lighter and faster, and not burdened with backpacks weighing them down.  They would stay warm at night sleeping with a wool blanket, then, in the morning, they would fold pleats into it, wrap it around their waist, and secure it with a simple belt.  There were no backpacks, and they didn’t have changes of clothing to haul around.  And if the kilts fell off in battle?  That’s fine, they would just fight naked.  This practice of folding wool blankets into kilts continued on well into World War II, as I recall (you might want to check this), but it became annoying to the English command as they would have their English soldiers in formation while waiting on their Scottish comrades.  Eventually the kilt was banned from the British army in 1940.

So, think about that the next time you hear a joke about the kilt being a skirt.

As odd as it might sound, the width of our cars, trains and other vehicles is due to war technology as well.  In old Boston, there are roads just barely wide enough for one vehicle to drive through.  This is because of an arcane law that mandated that roads have a minimum width to allow two horses, traveling in opposite directions, to pass.  These roads are brick and mortar representations of the width of the Roman war wagons, drawn by two horses, and designed to be no wider. 

At one time, these wagons were so abundant that they would cross great distances so often as to wear wheel tracks into the terrain.  Travel was always much easier to stick to these tracks.  Subsequent wagons were then designed to fit into these grooves.  Then trains, and automobiles were designed to the same width. 

The width of your vehicle is, itself, war technology.

An experiment at MIT early in the years of World War II was set up to test radio waves across a channel.  The scientists noticed that they could not receive the signal when a ship passed between the emitter and detector, leading to an early, crude and very limited form of radar to protect narrow channels from enemy ships.  Before long, it was recognized that the signal could be picked up by reflected signals back to the source, leading to modern radar.  The US Army developed one of the first uneasy alliances with scientists, erecting buildings for the physicists at MIT to study radar, buildings that very much looked like barracks and, I believe, may still be there today.

One of the frequencies of energy tested for potential use in radars was in the microwave region.  A physicist had a candy bar in his lab coat that he accidentally left in the pathway of this beam.  He recognized that the bar had heated up far beyond what could have been accomplished with body heat.  He began bringing different foods in to test them with the microwave for heating.  Eventually, other scientists recognized that he was eating hot foods, rather than sandwiches, and started asking him to heat up their lunches for them as well.

A representative from General Electric heard of this magical heating trick and stopped by to check it out for himself.  The scientist that discovered the power of the microwave tested many different foods, and unfortunately, had brought an egg that day for the experiment.  While being witnessed by the representative, the egg, of course, exploded.  GE decided that the discovery was impractical, and it would take years before they went back to further examine the microwave heating technique.

Yes, your microwave oven is war technology.


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