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There’s so much uncertainty in periods of war. But at least one thing is true of practically every conflict in history: difficult times push people to think outside of the box. And that’s presumably why such clever inventions have come out of chaos and destruction. Take, for instance, these ingenious ideas, which were conceived during WWI and WWII and are still very much in use today.

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20. Trench coats

Wool jackets wouldn’t cut it for soldiers fighting on the front line during World War I. That material, though, is still used for its warmth – as well as for its natural water resistance. But the damp, freezing environment in the trenches needed an even more resilient fabric to protect fighters from the cold. And that’s precisely where these overcoats came in.

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That’s right: the trench coat derives its name from the tunnels in which it was first worn. Soldiers quickly came to prefer this type of garment to wool outerwear, you see, since it repels water and chills even more effectively. Plus, this kind of jacket has hoops and flaps – ideal for holding and concealing weapons. But civilians caught on to the functionality of these coats long before the war ended, when brands such as Burberry began manufacturing them for those on the home front. And they continue to be a wardrobe staple today.

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19. Ballpoint pen

On your desk, at the bottom of your purse or in your car’s visor – these are all places where you might find a ballpoint pen today. And interestingly, you have artist and journalist Laszlo Biro to thank for your go-to writing utensil. The inventor had grown tired of fountain pens, you see, because the ink would smudge so often. But a fateful trip to a print shop gave the Hungarian a novel idea.

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Biro noticed a printer using ink that dried almost immediately. Since his brother, George, happened to be a scientist, the pair collaborated to create a pen containing this fast-drying pigment. And one of the first in line to buy this invention was none other than the Royal Air Force, whose pilots had become frustrated with their writing implements leaking mid-flight. They subsequently used ballpoints throughout WWII – and now, they’re everywhere.

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18. Nylon and synthetic fibers

Remarkably, as much as 20 percent of all fibers manufactured on the planet today are nylon. And for a bit more perspective, this figure amounts to around eight billion pounds of this material making its way into the world each year. That’s the equivalent of 1.5 pounds for every human being on Earth thanks to the product’s mass production.

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However, we might not have nylon if it weren’t for WWII. That’s because the DuPont Company invented the material as an alternative to pricey silk, which was then used to make undergarments. But Nylon is far more than just a cheaper replacement. Its synthetic fibers were perfect for ropes, tents and other combat supplies. And now, it’s one of the most popular manufactured materials in the world.

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17. Microwaves

Just one mention of the word microwave, and you can already hear your leftovers sizzling and your popcorn exploding. However, you might not have your favorite kitchen appliance without WWII. It all started with RADAR, you see. As U.S. soldiers used it, they noticed something peculiar: their transmitters started to emit heat.

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Soon enough, the Americans realized that the thermal waves from the RADAR system were hot enough to cook food. And once the war effort ended, this same technology – and food-prep technique – became more than just the soldiers’ secret. The first domestic microwave oven hit shelves in 1967, costing almost $500. But if you think that’s expensive, the price increases to a whopping $4,000 when adjusted for today’s inflation.

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16. Sun lamps

Have you ever soaked up the artificial rays of a sun lamp? If so, you’ve unknowingly used a WWI-era invention. The ingenious idea came about after pediatrician Kurt Huldschinsky noticed an overwhelming number of children in post-conflict Berlin suffering from rickets. Said condition causes bones to become soft and weak as the result of a long-term vitamin D deficiency.

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And because these kids with rickets also had extremely pale skin, Huldschinsky came up with a novel treatment. The doctor gave a handful of minors welding goggles to protect their eyes and sat them under lamps with mercury-quartz bulbs. The U.V. light prompts the body to create vitamin D, you see, and the little ones’ conditions instantly improved. Since then, sun lamps have been used to treat everything from jaundice to sleep disorders and burns.

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15. Stainless steel

The British military had a problem at the outbreak of WWI: as they fired their guns over and over, the weapons became warped by the friction and heat that the action created. So, they enlisted the help of Harry Brearley – an English metal expert. And he discovered something truly spectacular when he added a particular element to a vat of molten iron.

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Brearley poured chromium into the hot iron and created a new type of steel – one that wouldn’t rust. And while the military didn’t ultimately use this rustless – or “stainless” – steel in its gun-making endeavors, it did rely on the durable material to make a number of products from airplane engines to medical supplies and even flatware for mess halls.

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14. Wristwatches

Once upon a time, the wristwatch was an item reserved solely for women. Ladies sported them visibly as a fashionable accessory, while men tucked them away in pockets. But the latter method didn’t exactly gel well with trench warfare. And soldiers needed to be able to tell the time on the front lines without having to dig around for their timepieces.

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And so, military men decided that wristwatches shouldn’t just be for women – and their new timepieces followed them home. The National World War I Museum’s director of archives, Jonathan Casey, explained to History.com, “It was a lot easier to wear a wristwatch than use a pocket watch in the heat of battle, particularly for an officer who might have [had] a sidearm in one hand and a whistle in another.”

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13. Jerry can

Remarkably, you can trace the roots of that plastic jug of fuel at the back of your garage or in the trunk of your car all the way back to WWII. And the tool may have had a very unlikely inventor: Adolf Hitler reportedly requested the invention of a plastic container with handles in order to carry gas or cooking oil. Apparently, the German dictator felt that such a design would make moving fuel around much easier.

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To make Hitler’s jerry can vision into reality, then, the country’s brightest minds assembled to work on a design. And these experts came up with a truly innovative container that many people still use to this day. The Germans, however, gave their WWII-era invention a different name to the one we use today. There, it’s known as a Wehrmacht Kanister – or an “armed forces canister.”

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12. Aerosol cans

On the Pacific front of WWII, U.S. forces stepped in to help the Philippines as they battled invading Japanese forces in 1941 and later in 1944. But there was more than one hardship awaiting troops: an epidemic of malaria was plaguing both the islands and America 8,207 miles away.

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And so, two Americans named William Sullivan and Lyle Goodhue came up with a way to protect soldiers from mosquitoes, which spread malaria. They created a spray can nicknamed the bug bomb, and it kept military forces safe from insects at night. But someone eventually realized that aerosol containers could do more than just repel creepy-crawlies. Since then, almost everything from paint to deodorant and sunscreen is put into pressurized cans.

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11. Kleenex

The same year that WWI started, the heads of manufacturing giant Kimberly-Clark toured Europe and uncovered a valuable secret. They discovered that processed wood pulp absorbed 500 percent more liquid than cotton. And the company subsequently began to market its new product as Cellucotton – a crepe-style material that medics could use to dress wounds. Eventually, though, the brand found more than one use for it.

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The Kimberly-Clark team tried flattening Cellucotton and using it as a filter inside gas masks. But executives realized that the thin sheets could work better as makeup removal pads and re-branded the product as Kleenex. Then, when female customers’ husbands started blowing their noses into products, they were sold as alternatives to the handkerchief. And they continue to serve this purpose today.

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10. Zippers

A browse through WWI uniforms might leave you scratching your head. Why? Because you wouldn’t find many visible zippers on the garments. Buttons remained the fastener of choice throughout the war, after all. But Gideon Sundback’s practical invention subsequently usurped them, and he perfected his design as the battle raged on.

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Sundback called his handy creation the “hookless fastener,” but we know it today as the zipper. Soldiers did wear them during WWI, but mostly on their money belts, which they donned when their uniforms lacked pockets. Eventually, those familiar metal teeth began to appear on aviation suits and became hugely popular in the 1920s.

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9. Pressurized cabins

On July 25, 2019, aviation professionals logged their busiest day ever. Over 230,000 flights – from helicopters to hot air balloons – had whizzed across the world in 24 hours. And many of those traveling on commercial airplanes had unwittingly enjoyed a WWII-era invention: the pressurized cabin and the controlled atmosphere its existence creates.

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Interestingly, U.S. forces adopted this technology first. In 1944 a B-29 Superfortress took off and, for the first time, pilots could regulate the plane’s air pressure. You see, aviators realized that they could fly considerably higher without giving altitude sickness to themselves or passengers. And nowadays, the pressurized cabin also helps airlines control temperature and oxygen levels inside an aircraft.

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8. Tea bags

Technically, Thomas Sullivan invented teabags back in 1908. The New York-based merchant wanted to send tea samples to potential customers. And so, he poured his product into silk pouches in order to send them out safely. But the recipients didn’t understand that they were supposed to dump out the leaves before steeping them. Instead, they put the little parcels straight into the hot water.

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But the tea bag concept didn’t really take off until WWI, when another company called Teekanne sent its product to the front lines. The handy gauze containers filled with leaves became a hit with soldiers, who referred to the invention as “tea bombs.” Then, during the 1920s, a German company changed the outer material to paper – and the rest is history.

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7. Penicillin

Experts have known that the substance penicillin comes from a fungus called penicillium since 1869. But they didn’t prove that the compound had antibiotic properties until 1928. That’s when Australian doctor Howard Florey and British biologist Sir Alexander Fleming spearheaded the research and development required to make the medication that’s so widely used today.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, penicillin became a huge part of the WWII effort. Before then, soldiers had often died as a result of their wounds becoming infected. But the new medication’s antibiotic properties wiped out bacteria and gave troops much better shots at survival. And for harnessing the power of this drug, Florey and Fleming took home the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.

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6. Computing and artificial intelligence

During the Second World War, the Germans thought that they had outsmarted their enemies with the invention of the Enigma machine. Indeed, this communication device appeared indecipherable. It would come up with a new code every day, as well as changing its alphabet every 24 hours so that the Allies couldn’t understand the Nazi’s plans. At least, that’s what they thought.

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You see, English mathematician Alan Turing was leading a team of Britain’s brightest minds, and together they created the British Bombe. It worked around the clock to crack the German codes, which would be a huge boon to the Allied Forces. Plus, the race to understand the Enigma also revolutionized computing and artificial intelligence – areas in which we continue to make amazing strides.

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5. RADAR

It goes without saying that opposing sides in a conflict will strive to find an advantage. And during WWII, both the Allies and Axis Powers knew that in order to get the higher footing they needed to locate enemy aircraft and ships before an attack began. So, American and British minds worked together to come up with a technology to do just that.

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What the Allies came up with was the Radio Detection and Ranging system, which we now call RADAR. They used this invention to win the Battle of Britain – the first military conflict waged entirely in the air. And since then, the technology has been used in countless ways to pinpoint objects and measure their distance. Cops, for instance, use it to nab drivers for speeding, and it’s all thanks to WWII.

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4. Slinky

You’re probably wondering how a toy could have been a wartime invention. But the Slinky comes straight from a WWII idea room – albeit one that had nothing to do with children’s entertainment. Instead, Richard James, who was an engineer in the U.S. Navy, was hoping to figure out a new way to store military equipment when he accidentally devised this iconic gizmo.

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Specifically, James had honed in on the use of flexible springs to help safely stow items on ships. As he’d put this idea into practice, though, the servicemen had dropped one of the tightly coiled stands. The device had begun to bounce across the floor in a way that had mesmerized him. And it was then that he realized the coil would be perfect for kids. The Slinky went on to sell more than 250 million units, proving the engineer absolutely right.

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3. Superglue

Dr. Harry Coover had one job: the Kodak employee was supposed to be creating gun sights – the cross hairs atop weapons that help their users aim before firing. But the chemist didn’t mix the right chemical combination. And his concoction turned out to be much, much stronger than originally planned.

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Not only that, but Coover discovered that once applied the mixture was tough to separate. But in the midst of WWII, no one was looking for the next great adhesive. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1958 – long after the war had ended – that the world would see the fruits of his labor. That’s when Superglue finally hit the shelves, and it’s been a household staple ever since.

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2. Vegetarian sausages

Since WWI had depleted many of Germany’s resources, the civilians left on the home front were left to contend with a major food shortage. Luckily, though, the deputy mayor of French town Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, decided to take matters into his own hands. There was no meat with which to feed the locals, so he had to get creative.

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Resourcefully, Adenauer combined corn, flour, barley, rice and soy to create what he called the Cologne wurst. Later on, the meat substitute earned a new name – Friedenswurst, which means “peace sausage.” And the deputy mayor’s wartime ingenuity foreshadowed his incredible leadership skills, which he demonstrated as he helped rebuild Germany’s economy and government. But he couldn’t provide the same guidance during WWII: as a staunch Nazi opponent, he went into hiding.

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1. Drones

The Federal Aviation Administration’s website states that drones “are rapidly becoming a part of our everyday lives.” Indeed, the U.S. alone has registered over 1.5 million of the unmanned aircraft. And believe it or not, more than two-thirds of them are in recreational users’ hands. But as people play with drones or use them for commercial purposes, they might not realize that they’re operating WWI-era machinery.

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The history of flight really took off when Orville Wright and his brother, Wilbur, flew the world’s first motor-powered plane on December 17, 1903. During WWI, though, Orville took part in a different kind of research. The U.S. military wanted to experiment with unmanned aircraft, so they brought in aviation’s brightest minds. And the team created an aerial torpedo that could hit targets up to 75 miles away. Named the Kettering Bug, it never saw combat, but drones have become the norm in modern conflicts ever since.

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