Chemical Warfare

Chemical warfare refers to using chemicals as a weapon of mass destruction, killing many people at once. Fritz Haber, the inventor of the ammonia extraction process, is also the father of modern chemical warfare.

On Jan. 31, 1915, Germany used a type of tear gas on allied troops. Due to the temperature, the chemicals failed to vaporize.

On Apr. 22, 1915, Germans launched 168 tons of chlorine towards allied positions, killing about 6,000 people and blinding more. Fritz Haber, the scientist personally supervised the release of the chlorine.

Haber’s first wife committed suicide after realizing his role in the countless deaths in WWI.

Haber, who was Jewish but tried converting to Christianity, also invented Zyklon A. That is the poison that would evolve into Zyklon B, used during the Holocaust to murder Haber’s extended family.

Towards the end of his life, the Nazis turned on Haber due to his Jewish origin. After locking him out of his lab, Haber fled Germany and died, soon after, in 1934.

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Haber (pointing) instructing the use of chemical weapons

Gas Mask

Gas masks lower the risk of damage for firefighters and soldiers.

Garret Morgan, the son of freed slaves, developed an early gas mask for use in fires. Hoses dragged along the ground where air was cleaner, because smoke rises. There was also a 15-minute air supply for when air became hopelessly polluted. Patented in 1914, fire departments were the primary customers.

In sales demonstrations, white colleagues pretended to be the inventor to circumvent racial prejudice. His mother was half Native American and his father half white, the son of Confederate Col. John Hunt Morgan.

After the use of poison gas in WWI, Russian Nikolay Zelinsky developed the modern gas mask. Morgan’s mask worked well with fires but it was not designed for chemical warfare. Zelinsky’s mask used carbon filters protect lungs and eyes from chlorine, mustard, and other weaponized gasses.

Tractor Treads


Benjamin Holt

“In the Roberts Island tract, where a man could not walk without sinking to his knees, and where tule-shoed horses could not be used, the new traction engine was operated without a perceptible impression in the ground.”

Farm Implement News, May 18, 1905

“It looks like a caterpillar,” said a photographer observing Benjamin Holt’s new device, a machine that crawled on treads rather than moved along on wheels. Holt’s named his tractor, and later his company, after the term.

Tractor treads enabled tractors to move through uneven terrain, lowering the cost of farming. Eventually, the also treads enabled military tanks.

An “endless track steering specially adapted for vehicles having both steerable wheels and endless track” is how Holt’s patent described his invention.

Holt Tractor Patent

Holt and his brothers were in business building combine harvesters. Treads were an innovation to better move over rough terrain. Before Holt, over a hundred patents issued for various treads but none worked.

Holt traveled to England, where most research was done, to study the failed experiments. On Nov. 24, 1904, Holt demonstrated a working tractor tread.

Created and initially used for farm equipment, the tractor tread became vital during WWI for the ability to maneuver over barbed wire and through trenches. Great Britain, France, and Russia ordered Holt tractors but the Germans were not interested. After the outbreak of WWI, the Allies had over 1,000 tractors in Europe that could be converted to early tanks whereas the Germans had none. Throughout the war, Germany failed to develop more than a few dozen tractor tanks.

Eventually, the Holt Manufacturing Company evolved into Caterpillar. In 2018, Caterpillar had $54.7 million in revenue with an $81 billion market cap, a Fortune 100 company.

As oftentimes happens, Alvin Lombard allegedly first built a tractor but there were few witnesses. Lombard’s machine ran on treads and hauled logs. Patent litigation ensued which, as usual, eventually settled.


Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane with their first flight in 1903. Urban myth describes an easy story where the bicycle mechanic brothers built an airplane from spare parts. In reality, the innovation was a long, slow, methodical, and extremely dangerous project.


People had been building various forms of fixed-wing gliders for years. Many didn’t work. Those that managed to fly a short distance eventually crashed, often causing injuries or even death.

Inventing the airplane required 1) finding an aircraft form that would stay aloft, including wings, 2) figuring out mechanisms to control the aircraft, and 3) learning to fly it without killing oneself. IP theft was rampant: the brothers suffered relentlessly. Therefore, to protect IP, everything was secretive.

Wilbur & Orville Wright

The Wright Brothers spent years experimenting. First, they built a fixed-wing controllable glider. Once that worked, they spent more time working on building a much larger version that could produce more lift and was strong enough to carry an engine. Inventing a propeller, with nothing to test it on, also proved a challenge.

Once the brothers completed their plane it took years to obtain patents because the patent office believed that flight was impossible and their innovation a fraud. That’s because there were many false claims of flight and the Wright Brothers were secretive.

They also spent years commercializing their airplane, trying to find buyers, because the US war department refused to believe that it worked and the brothers – concerned about copycats – refused to give demonstrations. Eventually, patents issued and the brothers demonstrated their plane in France, to cheering crowds, and finally in the US.

They created a business, the Wright Company, to build and sell airplanes. Expensive patent wars ensued. Competitors were ruthless and dishonest but the brothers persevered. By 1912, they had a reasonable income from licensing and investors, but Wilbur died unexpectedly, leaving Orville moved forward with commercialization alone.

The business started to earn money but, with WWI on the horizon, the US government intervened and insisted on a patent cross-licensing agreement so that others could produce military aircraft.


Like many great innovators, the Wright Brothers earned enough money to live reasonably well, and became famous, but the overwhelming majority of wealth their innovation created flowed to others.

Specifically, Glenn Martin’s merged his first aircraft company with the Wright Brothers but left that business, after a year. His new company manufactured bombers. The Loughead company, later renamed Lockheed, built flying boats. Lockheed and Martin became industry giants and merged, in 1995, to become Lockheed-Martin.

William Boeing started his aircraft company in 1914, also producing flying boats, and also became a market leader.

In 1970, Airbus was formed after several European countries noted that all aircraft manufacturers were American.

Wireless Remote Control


Nikola Tesla

Only four years after the invention of radio and over a decade before voice was transmitted over radio, Nikola Tesla invented the remote control. In 1898, he demonstrated his remote control with a radio-controlled boat at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden.

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Tesla’s Remote Control

Realizing that people would not understand the idea of a radio-controlled device, Tesla yelled out commands to a battery-controlled toy boat causing it to sail right or left. “When first shown… it created a sensation such as no other invention of mine has ever produced,” said Tesla.

Tesla’s remote control could only transmit binary on-and-off signals but used those to control the sail, rudder, and lights of his boat. Not only did he sail the boat, but also used the lights to answer questions he’d shout to it.

Tesla invented and applied for a patent on the remote control. However, patent examiners rejected the application believing it impossible.

In hindsight, Tesla had simultaneously invented and demonstrated radio, remote controls, and the possibility of drones. And disguised the entire demo as a magic trick because nobody, including the highly trained patent examiners, understood his invention.

Tesla tried to sell his invention to the US Navy who rejected it as too flimsy for war. In many ways they were correct: Tesla’s technology was arguably too early. However, over a century later, drones became ubiquitous in war. Even as early as WWII, both the allies and axis used remote control steered, bombs, operating as early cruise missiles.

Like all his other innovations, Tesla never meaningfully profited. His invention was more of a novelty at the time because there were no appliances to control remotely. Much like pneumatic tires, the patent expired decades before there was any use for it.

Tesla Boat Patent

Zenith’s Eugene Polley eventually innovated the first mass-produced remote control, the Flash-Matic TV remote, in 1955. To this day, couch potatoes everywhere worship him.

Synthetic Ammonia

Fritz Haber arguably saved and killed more people than any other single person in history.

Synthetic ammonia vastly lowered the cost of making fertilizer, explosives, and other chemicals.

The process to create synthetic ammonia was a concurrent invention. That is, two scientists came up with it at the same time independently of one another.

Because it allows for inexpensive fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch is responsible for approximately half the food grown in the world today. Fritz Haber, who both invented and also commercialized the process, saved billions of lives.

However, there is a darker history. Haber was a German Jew, a key German chemist developing chemical weapons for Germany in WWI. He oversaw their first use at the Second Battle of Ypres, where approximately 67,000 allied troops were killed in one gassing. His first wife committed suicide after learning how many people he helped kill.

Later, the institute he founded invented Zyklon A. Nazis used a successor chemical, Zyklon B, to murder millions in death camps including many members of Haber’s family. This caused his second wife to leave him, with the marriage ending in divorce.

Both, like Haber, converted from Judaism to Christianity though the Nazis did not care and banned Haber from his lab. He escaped Nazi Germany but died soon after the Nazi’s ascent to power in Basel, Switzerland.

Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Chemistry but died a miserable man.

Machine Gun

Maxim is a colorful character who claims to have invented everything from the asthma inhaler to automated fire sprinklers and even the lightbulb, despite Edison’s well documented account. He also experimented with helicopters, airplanes, and amusement park rides.

While on vacation in Vienna he claims another American told him “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.”

He went on to do exactly that, with the first truly portable machine gun.

Before Maxim’s machine gun the hand-cranked Gatling gun rapidly fired bullets. But, due to its size and weight, it was not especially portable.

Maxim’s gun used recoil motion to advance bullets. It was responsible for countless deaths, especially in WW1 trench warfare.


Submarines changed naval warfare, increasing the risk of maritime travel from hostile countries.

Underwater ships have existed in various forms for ages. There was a semi-underwater boat built for Tsar Peter the Great in 1720, and also one allegedly built during the US revolution in 1776.

Steamboat baron Robert Fulton built one for the French in 1800 and another for the British in 1804. However, neither country commissioned a ship.

During the US Civil War, a Confederate (Southern) submarine, Hunley, sunk a ship. During testing, the Hunley killed two of her test crews. But, on Feb. 17, 1864, she sank killing her third crew.

The first submarine that seemed to consistently work was built in 1878 by George Garrett and John Holland, financed by Thorsten Nordenfelt. By 1885 they had refined their design into a fully functional submarine, the Nordenfelt I.

Multi-Shot Revolver

“God created men equal, Sam Colt made them equal.”

Samuel Colt


Colt’s revolver reduced the cost and risk of settling the US. Before the revolver, Native Americans could shoot arrows faster than pioneers could reload muskets, making westward travel and settlement dangerous. The Colt revolver reversed the dynamics and is widely credited with winning “the Indian wars.” Colt extensively relied on standardized parts ー especially modern bullets ー to make reloading his guns faster and less expensive.


Colt had many false starts. Besides the weapon itself, historians argue it is a leap in standardized manufacturing, especially in the use of easy to load, inexpensive bullets. Collier had built and patented a multi-shot musket in 1813, that Colt likely saw while in the army. But the user was required to turn the barrel by hand to load the next bullet. Colt’s barrel automatically switched and locked into the next position (hence the name, revolver).

Colt’s gun wasn’t seen as especially useful until used, by the army, in a fight where they were vastly outnumbered by Native Americans. Whereas single-shot muskets were slow to reload, Colt revolvers ー quickly firing shot after shot ー decimated Indian tribes. A June 1844 battle led by Capt. Hayes where a small group of rangers killed a much larger group of Comanches. Colt’s weapon decisively won the battle and changed the opinion for Colt’s gun.

Colt was a strong marketer, creating popular slogans to build mythology about his guns that exists until today: “God created men equal, Col. Colt made them equal.”[1] “There is more law in a Colt six-gun than in all the law books.”


Parachutes lowered the risk of flight, encouraging innovation in flying.

In 1782, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon from the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette — the last of the French aristocracy who would be beheaded during the revolution — watched as the balloon lifted in the air. In the basket was a sheep, duck, and rooster but no people.

The balloon ride lasted about eight minutes and landed not far away, the sheep, duck, and rooster no worse for the wear.

While the balloon ride seemed like great fun, the royals quickly realized there were military advantages being able to float above a battleground. At the very least, reconnaissance would be revolutionalized but — assuming the winds drifted in the correct direction — bombs could also be dropped.

There was one major problem. Whereas the sheep, duck, and rooster had no say about their flight, people were not as enthusiastic. The idea of a person flying like a bird was entirely alien. People at the time didn’t even understand how the balloons remained aloft, believing they remained aloft due to the air being expelled.

A solution was needed to create confidence so people would be willing to climb into the newfound contraption.

In response, on Dec. 26, 1783, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand jumped from Montpellier observatory to demonstrate the first successful parachute. It worked and he lived to talk about it.

In 1797, balloonist Andre-Jacques Garnerin jumped from a hot air balloon, demonstrating the first use of a high-altitude parachute jump. Garnerin was the Official Aeronaut of France, a military title despite that is sounds like a dessert.

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Besides being the first to jump from a balloon with a parachute, he was also the first person to bring a woman, Citoyenne Henri, on an untethered balloon flight. French officials banned the flight due to concerns about the two being the first to join the Mile High club. Garnerin ignored the ban and the flight was uneventful. “There was no more scandal in seeing two people of different sexes ascend in a balloon than it is to see them jump into a carriage,” he later said.

Later, in 1815, Garnerin’s niece Élisa made a business charging people to watch her parachute out of balloons. Altogether, she parachuted out of balloons 39 times, never hurting herself.

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