H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

The military effort spawned a bewildering array of products

After our previous articles on how major brands affected or were affected by World War II, today we’ll look at some products that were directly brought about by the war and found a new purpose in civilian life.

Walkie-talkie. A handheld, portable two-way radio system has obvious utility on the battlefield. Radio technology had advanced just enough to produce one by the beginning of the war. Based on the work of two Canadians, inventor Donald Hings and radio engineer Alfred J. Gross, the first such device to enter military service was the SCR-300, produced by the Motorola company. It was portable, but not very easily: it weighted 32 or 38 lbs depending on the battery version and was the size of a backpack. It was used by two-man teams: one man carrying it around on his back, the other using the attached phone, giving it the nickname “walkie-talkie.”

Image of an SCR-300 walkie-talkie from a U.S. Army Signal Corps manual
Soon after, the SCR-536 was developed. Small and light enough to be carried in hand and operated by a single person, it was called “handie-talkie,” though the nickname didn’t stick as well as the previous one. Though present-day hardware is much more advanced, the technology still sees widespread use for military, business and outdoor recreation purposes.
The SCR-536, the much less catchy-sounding “handie-talkie,” in use
Duct tape. Readers who struggle to pronounce it properly will be delighted to learn that duct tape was not only invented during the war, but was also originally called “duck tape” without that pesky “t.” It was first developed for infantrymen to seal their ammo cases with a waterproof tape that could also be ripped into strips easily by hand. It soon found uncountable other uses: it could fix boots, guns and vehicles. It was allegedly also used to cover the gun ports on fighter plane wings to reduce drag during takeoff. The name originates from cotton duck cloth, “duck” being an Anglicization of doek, the Dutch word for linen canvas. The military tape consisted of a strip of duck cloth covered in waterproof polyethylene plastic on one side and a strong, rubber-based adhesive on the other. The duck cloth was easy to rip into narrower strips along the fabric, but resistant to forces coming from other directions.
Modern-day picture of an ammo box getting taped (in this case to make an improvised Claymore mine)
The tape originally came in a green color. The modern grey, as well as the name “duct tape,” comes from after the war, when the popular adhesive was rapidly adopted by the civilian market, often to fix grey ductwork.
A more peaceful (though not very common) use of duct tape: a makeshift fender on the Lunar rover of Apollo 17
Superglue was born as a failed candidate for a material which could be used for clear plastic gunsights, found unusable due to its habit of sticking to everything. Its utility as a glue was only recognized after the war and it was first sold commercially in the late 1950s.
A convertible and its occupants hoisted into the air with superglue-bonded steel cables
Silly putty was another repurposed military failure. With Japan attacking rubber-producing countries in Asia, the U.S. military found itself suffering from a shortage of rubber, prompting research into synthetic replacements. In 1943, James Wright of General Electric tried mixing silicone oil with boric acid. The result was flexible, adhesive, bouncy and nothing like what the military needed for its tires, vehicle parts, gas masks and boots. It only became a smash hit novelty item and a children’s toy well after the war.
One of the numerous military uses silly putty, unlike actual rubber, does NOT have
For an example of an Axis military implement that took hold, one needs look no further than the ubiquitous jerrycan, which retains the slang name for Germans to this day. Created in the 1930s under the designation Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister (“Defense Force Unit Canister”), it could hold 20 liters (5.3 U.S. gallons) of fuel. Its design made it space-efficient, easy to stack, carry, open without a spanner and pour from without a funnel.
Standard issue British “flimsies” and a superior jerrycan on the right
The jerrycan made its way to America through an unlikely adventure. In 1939, American engineer Paul Pless organized a two-man expedition to India by car. Realizing that they had no storage for emergency water, his German colleague helped himself to three German military cans from a stockpile he had access to at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. The expedition crossed 11 country borders before it was stopped by German Aviation Minister Hermann Göring, who had sent and airplane to pick up the German engineer and take him home to Germany. Pless remained in possession of one of the jerrycans and the car, which he placed in storage in Calcutta before heading home. He told U.S. military officials about the excellent new German fuel can, but only managed to whip up some support for its introduction after he had his car and his remaining can shipped back to the United States.
Jerrycans in use
You can learn more about how World War II changed the world around us in everyday things on our various historical tours in 2018 and 2019.
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