Surprising Innovations from World War I
1 Daylight Saving Time
The idea of fiddling with the clock has been around since antiquity, but it was not until World War I that governments around the globe officially adopted daylight saving time. Why? To conserve resources such as fuel and extend the workday for the war effort. The Germans and Austrohungarians did it first, in 1916, and the Allies followed shortly after. To clear up confusion about the concept, the Washington Times used a comic strip to explain the first “spring forward” in the United States in 1918.
Timepieces known as wristlets were sold during the 19th century. However, they failed to take off with men until World War I demonstrated their superiority to pocket watches in battle— particularly for military leaders who were coordinating precision attacks. By the war’s end, an entire generation of young men either had a wristwatch or wanted one for Christmas.
3 Blood Banks
Blood transfusions date back to the 1600s, but doctors rarely performed them before World War I, when they were accomplished by transfusing blood directly from one person to another. Capt. Oswald Robertson, a U.S. Army Reserve doctor consulting with the British army, recognized the need to stockpile blood before casualties occurred. In 1917, he helped establish the first blood bank on the western front.
With so much of Europe in the line of fire, the European film industry had to scale back dramatically. That opened the door for the Americans. Hollywood was still in its infancy, but its studios soon made fortunes producing wartime propaganda. The war itself provided material for countless movies in the 1920s and ’30s, including Wings, the winner of the first Academy
Award for Best Picture.
5 Trench Coats
While Charles Macintosh invented weatherproof outerwear about a century before World War I, Burberry and Aquascutum modernized the design to keep British officers warm and dry. Today, many trench coats (yes, that’s why they’re called that) come with flaps and rings that were originally created for securing pistols, map cases, and even swords.
Originally known as a slide fastener, the zipper wasn’t massproduced until World War I, when the U.S. military requested them for flight suits and money belts, which were a necessity for
U.S. sailors because their uniforms didn't have pockets.
7 Women’s Suffrage
Suffragists had won victories throughout the western United States by 1917, but their support for and involvement in the war effort advanced their cause considerably. With the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920.
8 Disposable Sanitary Pads
Made from wood pulp, the Kimberly-clark company’s “cellucotton” became a staple in military hospitals as a more absorbent and
less expensive alternative to cotton bandages. When the war ended, the company’s executives learned that Army nurses had used cellucotton as sanitary napkins, and an affordable new product was born.
9 Plastic Surgery
World War I left thousands of men scarred and maimed. British army surgeon Harold Gillies and his colleagues performed more than 11,000 operations, mostly on soldiers suffering from facial wounds from gunshots. Gillies was knighted for his efforts and ultimately became known as the father of modern plastic surgery.
It’s hard to imagine drones in the skies just 15 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Nevertheless, when the U.S. Navy tested the first Curtis N-9 Aerial Torpedo on March 6, 1918, unmanned aircraft became a reality. (Alas, the nation would have to wait almost a century for drones that could deliver pizza.)
11 Soy Dogs
In 1918, in Cologne, Germany, Mayor Konrad Adenauer applied for a patent for his novel way of preserving meat: mixing sausage with soy flour. Although not strictly vegetarian, the method had staying power. Soy products are now a multibilliondollar industry in the United States alone.
After World War I broke out, circus performer Joseph Hubertus Pilates was interned for being a German national. He used the time to perfect an exercise routine he’d developed that involved rigging springs to hospital beds, according to the Pilates Foundation. Today, millions of people practice Pilates in studios around the world.
13 Modern Passports
In hopes of restoring tourism throughout Europe, the League of Nations issued guidelines for uniform passports in 1920. The standard documents were to include a cover embossed with the issuing country’s name and coat of arms—the same basic look they have today in most every country, including the United States.
illustration by Serge Bloch