The development of weapons has preoccupied man literally since he could walk upright. The Bronze Age saw a revolution not just in tools for everyday work, but in the construction of deadlier, more durable weapons, with the Iron Age similarly representing opportunities for ever-greater means by which to kill other human beings, as well as animals for food and clothing. Advances in science and technology have always provided mankind the opportunity to display his ability to advance the means of destruction, with the development of the hydrogen bomb, first by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, representing the ultimate culmination of our creativity. The decisions on whether to actually build weapons has generally, historically, been political; the scientific experimentation that leads to ever-newer weapons, however, is a product of the innate need of humans to explore and innovate. When Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1917, he opened up the door for the developments that followed. It was governments, however, that provided the funding and spurred those efforts toward fruition.
Military technologies, “from the crossbow to the H-bomb,” to paraphrase the late Bernard Brodie, have followed a constant evolution for thousands of years. As scientific discoveries are made, military applications are frequently sought; conversely, as military research and development programs progress, commercial applications for many of those technologies are similarly sought. So-called “dual-use” technologies, those with both military and civilian uses, present the U.S. Government with one of its most difficult political decisions: whether to allow American companies that develop these technologies to sell them to foreign governments that are more interested in the military than the civilian applications. Scientists around the world are hard at work every day, though, investigating new technologies to be used in weapon systems.
Military technologies from the 19th Century that found application in World War I include the machine gun, chemical weapons, and submarines. During the 1800s, individuals like Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim were actively developing the means to fire bullets at increasingly faster rates. The Gatling gun found wide use in conflicts of the late 19th Century, and would continue to be adapted for use in “the Great War.” Variations of the Gatling Gun continue to be used today. Maxim’s machine gun provided the foundation for the development of more advanced and reliable automatic weapons. These technological innovations from the 1800s proved unbelievably deadly in the 20th Century.
Chemical weapons, especially blister agents like Mustard gas, were developed during the 1800s and would be used to great, and horrific effect during World War I. So horrific were the results of these weapons in Europe that they’re use would be outlawed internationally in 1925.
Another weapon system developed during the 19th Century that found use during World War I was the submarine. The first steam-powered submarine was developed in 1867 in Spain, although experiments with early, primitive underwater vessels goes as far back as the early 1700s (and, of course, Leonardo Da Vinci famously envisioned submarines in 1515. The development of undersea warfare technologies would continue unabated, and submarines were used by several countries, including Germany, the United States, Italy, and Britain during World War I.