7 Incredible Wartime Advancements From World War I

World War I left its mark on history, including in the ways wartime ingenuity made an impact on its events and those of future warfare.

Mar 8, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
wartime advancements world war i

 

World War I, which consumed Europe from 1914-1918, left lasting results on the people of the world. Millions died, millions more were wounded, and lives around the globe were changed forever. As the world struggled to rebuild, it was left with more than just death and destruction. War requires quick battlefield thinking and innovation. The results of that contrivance persisted as the world moved forward. War would come again, and these advancements would come into play again, some in everyday life.

 

1. Blood Banks

wwi advancements blood bags
Today, blood banks are common in many areas of the world. Source: Stanford Blood Center

 

Prior to the Great War, blood transfusions had to be completed immediately from donor to patient. There was no way to store blood long-term. In 1914, Dr. Albert Hustin of Belgium discovered that adding sodium citrate to blood stopped it from clotting. This allowed for an extended time between blood donation and transfusion. The window of time was still narrow, as the blood cells would begin to deteriorate as minutes passed, but this method allowed for many more transfusions to happen than otherwise would have during the war.

 

In the years following, Dr. Francis Peyton Rous and his assistant Dr. James Turner experimented with varying animal bloods, hoping to use Hustin’s work to create a solution that would preserve blood for longer-term donation. They convinced Captain Oswald Robertson of the Army Medical Corps to put their test solution in a battlefield setting. It was successful, and Robertson’s ice chest of Rous-Turner preserved blood, though it only held 12 units, is considered the world’s first blood bank and, at the same time, the first mobile one. The first large-scale bank was created by the British in late 1917 in preparation for the Battle of Cambrai.

 

2. The Tank

mark 1 prototype
Mark I Prototype, 1916. Source: Militär Wissen

 

The trench warfare of World War I made typical vehicles of warfare practically useless. Trucks would get bogged down in the muddy areas between the trenches and could not cross the trenches themselves. Both sides of the war were in need of bigger, more capable vehicles, and tanks were the answer. The first tank that saw battle was the Mark I, released by the British in 1916 at the First Battle of the Somme. Five soldiers could ride inside the vehicle, with tracks running all the way around its body. It was able to move over trenches, and soldiers could use it as cover.

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The French began to produce tanks around the same time, debuting the Schneider tank and the Renault F.T., which was a lighter machine. The United States’ model was essentially the same as the Renault, as was Italy’s. Germany also produced tanks. The Mark VIII was the result of the US, France, and Britain working together and was the most efficient model. However, only a few were put into action before the end of the war. Tank technology was on its way to improving dramatically in the years after World War I, but the Great War era tanks had some major flaws.

 

One of the major problems was engine overheating, which could make the passenger compartment unbearably hot. Frequent breakdowns left soldiers sitting ducks in stranded tanks, sometimes in enemy territory. Guns weren’t added to tanks until near the end of the war, and armament was relatively light. These and other issues would be improved in the interwar years. By World War II, tanks would be heavier, with bigger guns and fewer mechanical issues.

 

3. Air Traffic Control

air traffic control tower
Air traffic control towers, such as this one in Brussels, are now commonplace throughout the world. Source: Skeyes

 

Though many inventions of World War I led to additional human destruction in the future, one that did the opposite was the introduction of air traffic control, which is used today to keep millions of air passengers safe daily. Radio technology had been available since 1907, but World War I was the first time it had been used in military air applications. By 1916, technology that allowed the US Army to send messages over a 140-mile distance had been developed.

 

Soon, messages were able to be exchanged between airborne planes. By the end of that year, flight helmets with built-in microphones had been created, and pilots could wear these as they flew military missions. The first in-flight message was sent from an in-flight plane to a controller on the ground in 1917, and the basis for modern air traffic control was laid.

 

At the end of the war in 1918, the development of air traffic control technology continued. In 1921, London’s Croydon Airport would become the first commercial airport to introduce air traffic control. The first airport in the United States to do so was in Cleveland, Ohio in 1930. The development of radar in the late 1930s would increase air traffic control capabilities and improve air safety.

 

4. Mobile X-Ray Machines

marie little curie
Marie Curie drives one of her “Little Curies.” Source: Oxford Science Archive

 

Marie Curie is well-known for her work with radioactive particles, but believe it or not, she was also responsible for creating the first mobile X-ray machine during World War I. X-ray technology was essential on the battlefield to quickly diagnose injuries; however, it was nearly impossible to transport the contemporary machines to the sites where they were needed. Field surgeons had to rely on guesswork, or soldiers had to wait until they could be transported to a place with an appropriate unit, which could be life-threatening.

 

Curie created the mobile units by installing them in vehicles. They were called “Little Curies” and used the power of the vehicle’s engine to work. Curie trained about 150 nurses to work as radiologists and use these machines effectively. Unfortunately, many of these nurses would end up with radiation burns as a result of their overexposure to the X-rays, as the dangers of the rays were not yet known. Still, the mobile units allowed faster assessment of soldiers’ wounds and helped those needing more immediate treatment get it faster.

 

5. Improved Machine Guns

wwi advancements machine gunners
Two soldiers operate a Vickers machine gun while wearing gas masks during WWI. Source: National Interest

 

Machine guns were not new technology, as they were invented in the late 1800s. However, during World War I, they would become fully automatic. When the war first broke out, there were 12,000 machine guns in operation, and this number grew to 100,000 during the conflict. They went from hand-cranked to fully automatic, capable of firing 450-600 rounds a minute.

 

Machine guns changed battle tactics, largely eliminating the use of mounted cavalry, which was a fairly common division in many global forces. Machine guns increased the effectiveness of tanks and airplanes as mounting them on both became commonplace. Countries on both sides of the war began focusing on developing machine gun tactics as their importance became evident. Techniques such as sharpshooting, barrage fire (firing over the heads of one’s own troops), and improved mobility all became a focus of real-time battlefield innovation.

 

The importance of machine guns didn’t fade out with World War I but continued to grow. It has become the weapon “most characteristic of modern warfare,” concentrating firepower and giving smaller numbers of soldiers more strength against enemies.

 

6. Aircraft Synchronization Gear

wwi advancements synchronization gear
Design for aircraft synchronization gear featuring a Hotchkiss gun, 1916. Source: Academic Accelerator

 

Airplanes started making contributions to wartime endeavors in new ways with the onset of World War I. Initially, they were just used for reconnaissance missions, but soon, the military realized they had potential as mobile weapons. When lighter machine gun technology and bombs enabled planes to have a more devastating impact, new innovations were necessary to boost their effectiveness.

 

Aircraft synchronization gear was one of these improvements. A major challenge facing aircraft fighters and their success was the fact that their propellers were mounted on the front of the plane. It was nearly impossible to point their aircraft at a target and fire at it without hitting their own propeller and taking the plane down. Synchronization gear would solve this problem, allowing the plane’s guns to fire through the propeller as it spun, alternating bullets and blades. The first “synch gear” was released by the Germans in 1915. By 1930, it was standard on all military planes worldwide.

 

7. Tracer Bullets

wwi advancements tracer bullets
Modern US Marines using tracer rounds. Source: SOFREP

 

Fighting in wartime can happen at all hours of the day or night, sometimes in the dark. In the depths of night, it can be impossible to see if soldiers are hitting their targets or simply wasting ammunition. A solution to this problem that the British invented during World War I was the development of tracer ammunition.

 

Tracer bullets, which were first used in action by the Brits in 1915, left a phosphorescent glow behind them so that the shooter could follow their path to their target. They could then use this information to adjust their next shot. Tracer bullets would go on to be used in the decades after and are still used today in many calibers, colors, and strengths. Some are only visible with night vision or other visual technology. One drawback is that they can give away a shooter’s position, especially with repeated use.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”