Today, we ask how war influences technology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The common wisdom tells us
that war speeds up invention -- that airplane
performance, ship technology, and engine design all
raced ahead during WW-I and II -- that governments
can speed the creation of ideas. But there's good
reason to ask if this is really true.
I'll use airplane speeds to show why I have doubts,
but any other technology would show the same thing.
Airplane speeds are a good thing to look at because
we know how badly everybody wanted to speed up
their planes during WW-I and II.
The important airplanes of WW-II -- planes like the
B-17, the Messerschmitt 109, the Spitfire -- were
all around before the war. The Spitfire was adapted
from a peacetime racing plane and it, like most
fighters at the start of the war, flew about 350
mph. By the end of the war in 1945 the advanced
P-38s and P-47s reached 420 mph. The early German
jet -- the Messerschmitt 262 -- which was used in
the waning days of the war, reached 585 mph. But
even it was on the drawing boards before the war.
The remarkable fact is that throughout its history
the speed of flight has doubled every nine years.
The rate of increase has been dead steady from the
first primitive airships in the 1880s right up
until orbital flight made speed a non-issue. That
nine-year doubling has been absolutely untouched by
war, depression, or presidential proclamations.
The story also holds for WW-I. In 1914 the early
scouting planes flew around 80 mph. At the end of
the war, in 1918, the advanced SPADs could fly 134
mph. And that's consistent with a simple doubling
every nine years. In other words, once our creative
energies were turned loose on the airplane, those
energies went right on expressing themselves, war
What government commitment does increase during war
is production. And make no mistake, the increase of
production during WW-II was nothing short of
amazing. But human ingenuity is quite a different
creature. It's remarkably impervious to external
pressure. We're told that "necessity is the mother
of invention," but history doesn't really bear that
out. The true mother of invention is our powerful
driving internal need to invent. We invent because
we want to invent. It's freedom that's the real
mother of invention.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lienhard, J.H., Some Ideas about Growth and Quality
in Technology. Technological Forecasting and
Social Change, Vol. 27, 1985, pp. 265-281.
The converse to the argument that war drives
technology is built by Martin van Creveld. Van
Creveld argues that the form and shape of war is
strongly formed by the availability of technology.
(See Creveld, M., Technology and War: From 2000
BC to the Present. New York: The Free Press,
For quantitative evidence in support of the ideas
presented here, see Episode
This episode has been revised as Episode 1418.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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