top of page

The Big Advancement

One of the biggest drivers of scientific and technological advances in the United States in the 20th century was World War II. The global conflict that lasted from Sep 1, 1939, to Sep 2, 1945. It pitted two military alliances, the Allies (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China) and the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) against each other at a cost of more than 50 million lives. Advances in science and technology were necessary for the war effort. These changes ushered in the modern era of technology and irrevocably altered American culture.

The rush to get a competitive edge on the Axis and a response to the realities of war led to many military, medical, and technological innovations during and after WWII. These included microwaves, radar, trauma treatments, computers and aeronautics. This article will discuss the science and technology that developed during the war and how it contributed to society after the war.

Military Innovation

In the decades after World War II ended, technologies initially designed to win the war found new applications as commercial items and consequently became staples in the American household.

Cavity Magnetron

The cavity magnetron was developed in England in response to urgent needs during World War II. Scientists and engineers in Great Britain, the United States, and other nations used the cavity magnetron to develop small, robust radar systems to detect enemy aircraft, ships, and even submarine periscopes from miles away. Several conflicts' outcomes were altered when thousands of these sets were deployed on land, at sea, and in the air.

Two engineers at the University of Birmingham, Harry Boot and John Randall, merged many concepts from researchers in the United States, Denmark, France, and Japan under the supervision of Australian physicist Mark Oliphant. U.S. scientist A. W. Hull developed a magnetic field electron tube (magnetron) over twenty years before.

UK scientists tested the first operational cavity magnetron on February 21, 1940. Astonished, they measured an output of nearly 400 watts at a wavelength of just 9.8 cm (about 4 inches). This output was about a hundred times greater than anything else achieved at that wavelength. With a radar system that could see a submarine periscope from six miles away, another team of scientists had been employing the cavity magnetron since May.

In September of 1940, a British team led by Sir Henry Tizard smuggled a cavity magnetron over the Atlantic and successfully convinced the United States to begin developing and manufacturing the device commercially. Historians generally agree that the magnetron was a game-changer for the Allies of the United States over the course of World War II. After World War II, cavity magnetrons largely replaced other forms of magnetrons as the primary means of generating microwave power.

And yes, that includes the microwave oven likely sitting on your kitchen counter. With this military technology, commercial microwaves were widely accessible in the 1970s and 1980s, forever altering how Americans cooked their meals. Microwaves have become standard in 21st-century American kitchens due to how fast and convenient they make heating meals.


The acronym RADAR refers to a system that uses radio waves for detection and distance measurement. Like wireless computer networks and mobile phones, radars emit electromagnetic waves. Radar signals are sent as brief pulses that nearby objects might partially reflect. Some of the energy from these pulses is reflected back to the radar when they hit precipitation.

The use of radar quickly became fundamental to the study of weather. Soon after WWII ended, scientists started applying radar technology to meteorology. Meteorologists have improved their understanding of weather patterns and forecasting abilities thanks to radar technology. In the 1950s, radar became an essential tool for meteorologists to monitor precipitation and storm systems, improving how people in the United States monitored and prepared for everyday weather changes.

Atomic bombs

The atomic bomb is widely regarded as one of the most fearsome weapons of World War Two. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing an estimated 110,000 to 210,000 people.

While the morality of the atomic bomb's use on civilian populations is still hotly contested, the atomic age's impact on the 20th century and America's place in the world is without a doubt. The United States and the Soviet Union were motivated to produce and stockpile many nuclear weapons because of their rivalry for global preeminence. As a result of the Cold War arms race, scientific and technological advancements were made that altered the face of diplomacy, increased military might, and helped land US astronauts on the moon.

Undoubtedly, “mutually assured destruction” still sends a chill down every spine. However, nuclear development has led to some positive results. According to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, nuclear power, radioisotopes, and nuclear medicine are three innovations that resulted from the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb.

Advancements in Medicine

World War II and the development of the microwave and radar ushered in a period of profound upheaval in surgery and medicine. New medical procedures, such as blood transfusions and skin grafts, were developed and implemented in response to the massive casualties sustained in both world wars. Large-scale manufacture of antibiotic therapy, one of the most significant developments in medicine in the twentieth century, was necessary to treat millions of troops.

In 1928, scientist Alexander Fleming discovered that a mold called Penicillium notatum had antibacterial qualities, but it wasn't until after World War II that penicillin was mass-produced. Large-scale manufacture of penicillin became essential as American and British scientists collaborated to fulfill the requirements of the war. Both sexes contributed to developing the deep tank fermentation technique that allowed for the large-scale production of penicillin.

The public learned about the "wonder medication" penicillin in 1944 when scientists produced 2.3 million doses in anticipation of the Normandy assault. Throughout the course of the war, penicillin became known as a miracle medication thanks to propaganda campaigns that extolled its effectiveness. Penicillin has been an essential antibacterial medication since its discovery in the 1940s.

Computer Technology

Computer technology, like radar, had evolved for some time before WWII. Yet, the war necessitated the speedy development of such technology, creating groundbreaking new computers.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) is a pioneering example of a general-purpose digital computer. Built in 1945, ENIAC can have thousands of computations per second and was initially developed for military use. The United States government, capitalizing on advances in computer technology made during World War II, presented ENIAC to the public in early 1946 with the promise that it would forever change the discipline of mathematics.

ENIAC cost $400,000 and required 1,500 square feet of space, 40 cabinets, and a height of 9 feet. The introduction of ENIAC constituted a watershed point in computing history because it set it apart from previous computers. The ENIAC computer patent expired in the 1970s, making it possible for anybody to adapt to the system. Throughout the following decades, advancements led to smaller, more powerful, and cheaper computers.

The Space Race

Fears that one state will attain dominance not just on Earth but also in space were inspired by the arms race in nuclear weapons that followed World War II. In response to the Space Race, a new government-run aeronautics program was established in the mid-twentieth century.

When the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, the United States fired back four months later with the launch of its own satellite, Juno 1. The United States Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA) in 1958 to regulate the space program and bring people into orbit. When Apollo 11 touched the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, it marked the pinnacle of the United States' and Soviet Union's competition in the Space Race. Nuclear weapons and the Space Race are two vital scientific legacies of World War II that persisted during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.


While World War II had a devastating effect on the world, would we have advanced technology and science so quickly without the motivation of survival?












Featured Posts
Recent Posts
bottom of page