The mobilization of science for World War One


Shaul Katzir is a Marie Curie senior research fellow of the Gerda Henkel Foundation (M4HUMAN programme), at the Minerva Centre for Humanities – Tel Aviv University

The mobilization of science for World War One

World War One was the first military confrontation to which scientists and engineers were mobilized for research and development in a wide scale. Earlier, science and scientists were not considered relevant for the war effort. Various military arms showed much interest in technological developments in preparation for war, but not during fighting. Moreover, also when they prepared their forces for future wars they did not regard scientists (unlike engineers) as useful for developing war technologies. At least, that was the approach of most decision-makers. This was gradually changed in the first year of World War One, when all belligerents began mobilizing some of their scientific forces to answer technological problems raised by the war.

The change in the military policy followed a few reasons. Central among these reasons was the emerging view that much modern, i.e. late 19th century, technology is based on scientific research and that its further development would require knowledge in chemistry and physics. In the previous half-century, natural sciences became useful for a range of technologies in chemistry from the production of synthetic dyes, through early plastics to pharmaceutics, and also of explosives. Physics became valuable to the electric industry, both for the power network and for electric communication, and for high-end optics. Electronic technologies, based on new findings and ideas from electron physics, emerged during the decade that preceded the outbreak of the War. Consequently, influential individuals in science and industry, on both sides of the front, believed that further research into the phenomena related to the technologies in question was necessary for providing new instruments useful for the war.

Research and development seemed especially needed in answering new technological challenges posed by the industrial war. The strongest pressure on the military and the civil administrations originated in industrial rather than in science-based technologies. The machine gun and the barbed wire were the two notorious heroes of the bloody trenches warfare. While these technologies required advanced production facilities, they did not rely on science. Two other industrial technologies of much consequence for the war were the improved cannons, and the novel military submarines. New problems called for new solutions. Scientists developed some of these solutions, using their scientific knowledge and experience, and in some cases also novel research. Still, other solutions like an armoured vehicle that would be able to cross the trenches – the tank, originated in a traditional style of technological development with the involvement of neither science nor scientists.

The most famous science–based technologies of the War were also developed to answer these challenges1. The prominent German chemist, Fritz Haber, initiated the use of poison gas in the battlefield to overcome the stalemate at the trenches warfare. For the promoters of this new kind of weapon, gas promised a quick way to win the war and to end the mutual bloodshed carried by conventional weapons like the machine gun. Haber succeeded in pursuing the German military to let him developing a method for discharging chlorine, known to be poisoned gas, on the enemy troops from preloaded cylinders. Haber is notorious for promoting gas-warfare, but chemists on the other side of the front line also realized the highly destructive potential of their materials and tried to convince the authorities to use poison gas at the battlefront. Haber was unique in his success to convince the army to use gas. Immediately after the German had used chlorine in April 1915, the other belligerent countries began their own gas warfare programmes.

Chemists worked on a few subjects related to gas warfare. One was the development of more effective gases, i.e. those that would harm more soldiers, preventing them from fighting. Mustard gas was the most effective and famous among these. Two German chemists developed this new gas for use at the battlefield. Knowledge of chemistry was also needed for developing methods for keeping and transferring the gases from one place to the other and of discharging them. Not less significant was the research and development on protection methods against poison gases. As these means needed to block or neutralize the poison gases, scientists employed their knowledge of the gases used and experiments in finding durable and practical means gas masks, filters etc., and treatment to injured soldiers. Chemical research was very important also beyond gas warfare. Chemists, including those working in academic institutes, developed more efficient processes for the production of many materials that were scarce during the war, due to either high demands or to the blockage of import, or both. Among these materials were explosives, but also dyes, on some of which the Allied had relied on import from Germany, and rubber, for which the Germans began producing a synthetic substitute that had been developed on laboratory scale a few years earlier.

Among the contributions of physicists, methods of submarine detection provided the most innovative outcomes. To improve the use of underwater microphones, employed to detect the noise made by submarines, Allies’ scientists explored the hitherto understudied field of sound waves in seas and oceans. In other words they carried scientific research for improving the technology. Systems of underwater microphones that physicists developed proved themselves practical in detecting submarines, at least under the right conditions. Still, a more influential and revolutionary technology was that of detecting submarine objects by the echo of ultrasonic waves. The system required practical methods for producing the ultrasonic waves and receiving the feeble reflecting wave from the submarine. For this end, the French physicist Paul Langevin employed a phenomenon in quartz crystals2, which hitherto had not been applied beyond the scientific laboratory. With quartz crystals that converted electric oscillation to mechanical vibration and back Langevin made the new technology, later known as sonar, practical.

Methods for submarine detection, like new materials produced by chemists, the gas warfare, as well as other technologies developed during the war, showed for many that science and scientists are highly valuable for war related technologies. Moreover, if science is such a powerful force during the war, it can, many concluded, be also an eminent power in time of peace. Thus following the war, science emerged as both a threat and a promise for human welfare, depending on how society would use it.


  1. Guy Hartcup, The War of Invention: Scientific Developments, 1914-18 (London, 1988)
  2. Shaul Katzir, “Who knew Piezoelectricity? Rutherford and Langevin on submarine detection and the invention of sonar,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 66 (2012): 141-157. DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2011.0049

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1 comment

  • Great info, thanks for share. Also to add that the allies ripped off almost all german patents after the war, such the asprin and also dismantled Bayer.

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