Ten Inventions That Inadvertently Transformed Warfare

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

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

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Arguably the most important enabler of steam-powered warships was the 1836 invention of the screw propeller, which replaced the paddle wheel. The next major breakthrough was the invention of the modern steam turbine engine in 1884, which was smaller, more powerful and easier to maintain than the old piston-and-cylinder design.

Locomotive: Justus Scheibert, an officer in the Royal Prussian Engineers, spent seven months with the Confederate Army observing military campaigns during the Civil War. “Railroads counted in both sides’ strategies,” he quickly concluded. “Trains delivered provisions until the final moments. Therefore the Confederacy spared nothing to rebuild tracks as fast as the enemy destroyed them.”

Although railroads had been occasionally used during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Civil War was the first conflict where the locomotive demonstrated its pivotal role in rapidly deploying troops and material. Mules and horses could do the work, though far less efficiently; a contingent of 100,000 men would require 40,000 draft animals.

Civil War historians David and Jeanne Heidler write that, “Had the war broken out ten years before it did, the South’s chances of winning would have been markedly better because the inequality between its region’s railroads and those of the North would not have been as great.”

But, by the time war did break out, the North had laid more than 21,000 miles of railroad tracks—the South had only about a third of that amount.

Telegraph: The Civil War was the first conflict in which the telegraph played a major role. Private telegraph companies had been in operation since the 1840s—a network of more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire connected cities and towns across the United States when war erupted.

Although some 90 percent of telegraph services were located in the North, the Confederates were also able to put the device to good use. Field commanders issued orders to rapidly concentrate forces to confront Union advances—a tactic that led to victory in the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861.

Arguably the most revolutionary aspect of the device was how it transformed the relationship between the executive branch and the military. Before, important battlefield decisions were left to the discretion of field generals. Now, however, the president could fully exercise his prerogative as commander in chief.

“Lincoln used the telegraph to put starch in the spine of his often all too timid generals and to propel his leadership vision to the front,” writes historian Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails. “[He] applied its dots and dashes as an essential tool for winning the Civil War.”

Caterpillar tractor: During World War I, engineers sought to design a war machine robust enough to crush barbed wire and withstand enemy fire, yet agile enough to traverse the trench-filled terrain of no man’s land. The inspiration for this armored behemoth was the American tractor.

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