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Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Ten Inventions That Inadvertently Transformed Warfare

Some of the most pivotal battlefield innovations throughout history began as peacetime inventions

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Bayonet: In the early 17th century, sportsmen in France and Spain adopted the practice of attaching knives to their muskets when hunting dangerous game, such as wild boar. The hunters particularly favored knives that were made in Bayonne—a small French town near the Spanish border long renowned for its quality cutlery.

The French were the first to adopt the “bayonet” for military use in 1671—and the weapon became standard issue for infantry throughout Europe by the turn of the 17th century. Previously, military units had relied on pikemen to defend musketeers from attack while they reloaded. With the introduction of the bayonet, each soldier could be both pikeman and musketeer.

Even as modern weaponry rendered bayonets increasingly obsolete, they endured into the 20th century—in part because they were deemed effective as psychological weapons. As one British officer noted, regiments “charging with the bayonet never meet and struggle hand to hand and foot to foot; and this for the best possible reason—that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief.”

Barbed Wire: Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications—notably during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in what is now South Africa. As the conflict escalated, the British Army adopted increasingly severe measures to suppress the insurgency led by Dutch settlers.

One such measure was constructing a network of fortified blockhouses connected by barbed wire, which limited the movement of the Boers in the veldt. When British forces initiated a scorched-earth campaign—destroying farms to deny the guerrillas a means of support—barbed wire facilitated the construction of what was then termed “concentration camps,” in which British forces confined women and children.

More than a decade later, barbed wire would span the battlefields of World War I as a countermeasure against advancing infantry. A U.S. Army College pamphlet published in 1917 succinctly summarized the advantages of a barbed-wire entanglement:

“1. It is easily and quickly made.
2. It is difficult to destroy.
3. It is difficult to get through.
4. It offers no obstruction to the view and fire of the defense.”

Steamship: “The employment of steam as a motive power in the warlike navies of all maritime nations, is a vast and sudden change in the means of engaging in action on the seas, which must produce an entire revolution in naval warfare,” wrote British Gen. Sir Howard Douglas in an 1858 military treatise.

He was correct, although this revolution in naval warfare was preceded by a gradual evolution. The early commercial steamships were propelled by paddle wheels mounted on both sides of the vessel—which reduced the number of cannons a warship could deploy and exposed the engine to enemy fire. And a steamship would need to pull into port every few hundred miles to replenish its supply of coal.

Still, steamships offered significant advantages: They were not dependent upon the wind for propulsion. They were fast. And they were more maneuverable than sailing ships, particularly along coastlines, where they could bombard forts and cities.

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