Prosthetic Arm



Prosthetic Arm
Prosthetic Arm

As we prepare to launch our WW1 commemorative programme, we are taking a break this post from our regular series’ to highlight some everyday inventions that came about due to the conflict; some directly due to the war and some further developed because of it. Many of these were in response to casualty levels never witnessed before, offering lifelines to people at the time and since.

Fall back, Spring forward

Although the notion of changing the clocks forward in spring and back in autumn had been suggested as early as 1784, it was WW1 that meant the change officially occurred. First instigated by Germany due to shortages of coal, from the 30th Apr 1916 the clocks went forward an hour (from 11pm to 12am) to give extra daylight in the mornings. Britain followed suit on the 21st May, in America time zones were established from 19th Mar 1918. After the war the change was dropped but its benefits had been felt and it was reintroduced.

Plastic surgery

The devastating and shape altering injuries caused by shrapnel and the mass use of weapons (on a scale never seen before) caused thousands upon thousands of disfigurements. In response to this Sir Harold Gillies was drafted in to help diminish the visual damage. He requested a specialist plastic surgery unit be established, he was duly given space in Queen Mary’s Hospital. Here over 2,000 soldiers from the Battle of the Somme alone were treated. Plastic surgery, or facial reconstruction as it was more commonly called, was possible before the war but it had been viewed with suspicion, some even considering it ‘quack’ medicine. During the war, it became a recognised and vital part of wartime treatment. It wasn’t without dangers of course, antibiotics were not common until c1940s and people did suffer serious illness or death due to post-surgical infections.

Helping men walk again

Another area of medicine greatly advanced by the effects of the conflict was the treatment of amputees. In the British Armed forces alone, over 41,000 men lost at least one limb as a result of the conflict. They were entitled to free artificial limbs but by 1915 stocks were dangerously low. Queen Mary’s Hospital provided space for the fitting of limbs but the training in using them was often rushed due to demand and space/time pressures. To speed-up delivery times, limbs were made on site: mass production of this vital piece of kit was therefore invented (even if conflict conditions did mean that demand always out stripped production time).

And for women…

The war called for a great deal of surgical dressing. The entrance of the Americans in the conflict in 1917 brought with it a new wadding, five times more absorbent than cotton and half the price (when mass produced) Cellucotton had been trademarked after its discovery in 1914 by US firm Kimberly-Clark. Nurses in field hospitals quickly realised in had a secondary, unofficial, function as the material made excellent sanitary pads/towels. After the war Kimberly-Clark developed this use and re-launched it as a sanitary product (with the addition of gauze) in 1920 under the brand name Kotex.

“After two years of intensive study, experimentation and market testing, the K-C team created a sanitary napkin made from Cellucotton and fine gauze, and in 1920, in a little wooden shed in Neenah, Wisconsin, female employees began turning out the product by hand,” the company says.

Blood banks

Transfusion device
Transfusion device

The British Army began the routine use of blood transfusion in treating wounded soldiers; blood was transferred directly from one person to another. Captain Oswald Robertson, an American doctor, realised it would be better to stockpile blood before casualties arrived so to have it immediately and reliably available. The first blood bank was established in 1917 on the Western Front, Robertson used sodium citrate to prevent the blood from coagulating. Blood was kept on ice for up to 28 days and then transported to casualty clearing stations for use in life-saving surgery. After the war, procedures for storing and using blood were developed into the blood banks we now take for granted.

Zip it

People had been trying to come up with a way of securing clothes better for about 50 years at the start of the war. It was Gideon Sundback who designed the solution: the “Hookless Fastener”, it had a slider which locked the two sets of teeth together. The US military used them in its uniforms. After the war they spread to civilian clothes and can today be found on everything from designer bags to home-sewn skirts.

Veggie sausages

Vegetarian sausages were invented in Germany due to meat and wheat shortages caused, largely, by the British blockade. In Cologne starvation began to set in and in response to this its Mayor, Konrad Adenauer, began researching how to create food without meat and wheat. Initially, he developed a mixture of rice-flour, barley and Romanian corn-flour with which to make bread but when Romania entered the war in 1916 he could no longer obtain corn-flour. He then turned to sausages, using soy instead of meat. He was denied an Imperial Patent on the grounds sausages had to contain meat! Somewhat bizarrely however, the British did patent it (26th Jun 1918). It was dubbed the Friedenswurst (peace sausage).

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers












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