InVEntions of WWII

VE day on Friday 8 May 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe. In 1945 the day was met with jubilation in streets across Europe and North America.  In London, thousands flocked to Trafalgar Square and lined the Mall to see King George IV accompanied by Queen Elizabeth and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.  The future queen and her sister (princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) purportedly slipped out of the palace to enjoy the festivities from amongst the crowds. 

Owing to the Coronavirus pandemic this year, there will be no celebrations in the streets. Nonetheless, around the globe personal tributes are being planned to coincide with national and regional holidays with many planning to raise a glass of refreshment from the safety of our own homes to mark the occasion.

In commemoration of this anniversary, at Mewburn Ellis we are taking a look back at some of the inventions which came to prominence during WWII and continue to influence our lives today. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and, through adversity and strife, some exceptional innovation arose during the deadliest conflict in human history.

Computing – The Colossus Machines

Colossus was the name given to a set of computers developed by codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the UK. The computers ultimately helped to analyse and decode the Lorenz Cipher, an alternative cipher used by the Nazis to send encrypted strategic messages. The contribution of Colossus to the success of the Allies was likely to have been similar in size to that of Turing’s Bombe Machine and the decoding of Enigma messages. Colossus and its creators have not received nearly as much acclaim – this is at least in part due to the project being kept a state secret until the 1970s.

Colossus machines relied on thermionic valves to perform Boolean and counting operations and, as such, are regarded as the world’s first programmable electronic computers. That said, there were many differences between the Colossus machines and modern computers, not least the size of the machines themselves and the fact that they were encoded using switches and plugs rather than a stored program.

While the influence of the Colossus machines was limited by their secrecy, as the first ever programmable computer, Colossus is nevertheless the long-lost great grandmother of the current “age of information”.

Engineering – Jet Powered Flight

Long before WWII, engineers recognized that propeller driven aircraft were approaching their limits owing to a decline in propeller efficiency as the blade tips of the propeller approached the speed of sound. The earliest patent for a gas turbine (the forefather of a jet engine) was granted in 1791 to the British inventor John Barber. However, it was not until 1921 that Frenchman Maxime Guillaume patented the idea of using a gas turbine to power an aircraft.

Ultimately, it was the need for faster fighter jets which led to the first operational jet-engine powered aircraft. In 1939, Hans von Ohain and Frank Whittle both independently invented the turbojet. Their efforts respectively led to the first operational jet fighter, the German Messerschmitt Me 262 which entered service in April 1944, shortly followed by the British Gloster Meteor, which began operations in July 1944.

Jet planes have both saved and taken lives in warfare, but without the impetus to develop jet powered flight we would not have the ability to travel the world with the relative ease that we have today (at least, usually!).

Pharmaceuticals – Widespread Use Of Penicillin

Penicillin was famously discovered by accident after the summer recess of Alexander Fleming’s lab in 1928. However until the 1940s the bactericidal action of penicillin remained an academic curiosity. Early uses of penicillin required its isolation from flora of penicillium mould. The compound itself was difficult to purify and yields were both low and unpredictable.

At the Sir William Dunn School for Pathology at Oxford University in the 1930s and early 1940s a team led by Howard Florey was pioneering the study of penicillin. The best process developed for the production of penicillin at the Dunn School could produce about 1.2 micrograms of penicillin per milliliter of fermentation broth. This was enough to be able to trial the compound in humans but barely enough to treat single patients. Reportedly, the treatment of one patient for streptococcal sepsis in March 1942 required half the world’s supply of penicillin.

By 1943, the US war production board had caught wind of the efficacy of penicillin and drew up plans for its mass distribution to Allied troops in fighting in Europe. With the backing of a US department of Agriculture fermentation lab, and later the pharmaceutical companies Merck & Co and Pfizer, the production process was massively scaled to produce 2.3 million doses of penicillin in time for the D-day landings of spring 1944.

The use of penicillin during WWII had a huge impact; it is thought that at least 100,000 men benefitted from penicillin treatment in Europe, from the D-day landings up until VE day. Thousands more would have been saved by the drug in the final year of the bloody conflict in the Pacific too. Penicillin is thought to have brought about up to a 20-fold reduction in gangrene rates compared with the sulphonamide antiseptics of the day.

These days, widespread use of antibiotics is essential to the functioning of health systems across the globe. The efficacy of antibiotics was really brought to the fore during WWII. That said, it is important to bear in mind that we now face an impending crisis as increasingly we see resistance developing to the arsenal of antibiotics that is available to us.

Industrial Chemistry – Synthetic Oils

Prior to WWII Germany had little access to natural resources for the production of fuels and oils:  reportedly up to 85% of finished petroleum products in pre-war Germany were imported. However, the war required huge amounts of lubricants and fuel and German reliance on imports in this area prompted the Allied Powers’ Oil Campaign of WWII, which sought to disrupt production, refinement and supply of petroleum fuels and oil to the Axis Powers in Europe.

The synthetic production of liquid fuels was developed in the early 20th Century, patents for the direct (Bergius) and indirect (Fischer-Tropsch) coal conversion processes being filed in 1913 and 1923 respectively. Having extensive coal reserves, Germany focused on use of the direct conversion process to produce synthetic fuels and lubricants during the war. This use highlighted several of the advantageous properties of synthetic lubricants including better performance at temperature extremes (important for use in jet engines), higher resistance to oxidation, and improved fuel economy compared with refined lubricants. 

Synthetic lubricants are now typically recommended over refined lubricants for use in engines owing to their superior properties. Furthermore, synthetic fuels can be derived from biomass and water with the conversion process powered by renewable sources of electricity. A recent policy paper from the Royal Society pins synthetic biofuels as a medium to long term strategy for the decarbonisation of liquid fuels used for transport. This wartime technological advance may play a role in arriving at a greener future.

Confectionary – M&M’s

Forrest Mars, the son of the founder of the Mars Company, first came across the idea of chocolate in a hard sugar coating when he saw British soldiers eating chocolate dragées during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.  The hard sugar coating prevented the chocolate inside from melting, allowing soldiers to carry chocolate in warm climates.

Mars took the idea to the US where he patented his process for making the sweets and subsequently went into business with Bruce Murrie, the son of the then president of Hershey’s Chocolate. The two M’s of M&M’s represent the names of these two confectionary heirs, Mars and Murrie. 

Production began in 1941. At that time Hershey’s controlled rationed chocolate in the US giving them access to the necessary chocolate for the centre. The first big (and exclusive) customer of M&M’s was the US Army, which appreciated the same advantages that Mars has originally observed during the Spanish Civil War – providing soldiers with a source of chocolate which is resistant to melting. Indeed for many years, the brand hinged on the slogan “melt in your mouth, not in your hand”.

M&M’s represents a rare example of a culinary treat introduced during rationing in WWII which has prospered, perhaps more for its desirability than its long shelf life. Canned meats, like SPAM, never enjoyed such success!