“These pictures are six months old,” says a quote from an army officer to begin this 1918 article, “so the devices they show are, of course, perfectly obsolete.”
World War I sparked a massive technological boom, a silver lining to an otherwise horrific blemish on humanity’s history. That would come to be true of World War II a few decades later as well. As this 1918 article describes:
“It is probable we would have had to wait a generation or two, without the stimulus of war, for the development of the airplane into a safe and practical vehicle, or for a satisfactory method of utilizing the antiseptic properties of chlorine, or for a feasible process of fixing atmospheric nitrogen — to mention only a few outstanding advances in the fields, respectively, of physics, medicine and chemistry.”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a similar point at his eloquent Rice University commencement address in 2013, challenging the graduates to innovate without the impetus of war:
If you go to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, there is that section of his speech. ‘We’ll go to the moon before the decade is out.’ And it sends chills up your spine, because he galvanized an entire nation.
But what’s missing on the granite wall behind, where this is chiseled in, is the other part of the speech, where he introduces the war driver. No one ever spent big money just to explore. No, no one has ever done that. I wish they did, but they don’t. So we went to the moon on a war driver, but that’s conveniently left out in the granite wall behind Kennedy.
20 years after we landed on the moon, George Herbert Walker Bush wants to give a similar kind of rabble rousing speech that Kennedy did. July 20th, 1989, he goes to the steps of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, an auspicious day, commemorating the moon landing. An auspicious moment. And he puts a lot of the same language in his speech, reflecting on Columbus’ voyages, all the great explorers of the past, saying it’s our time. It’s time to go to Mars.
It got costed out at $500 billion. It was DOA in Congress at $500 billion. But wait a minute, that was going to be spent over about 30 years. You divide $500 billion by 30, that’s about $16 billion a year — that’s NASA’s annual budget. You could have just made that the trip to Mars.
But people got spooked by the money. Why? You know what else happened in 1989? Peace broke out in Europe, that’s what happened in 1989. The war driver evaporated. No, we didn’t go to Mars. And people are saying, ‘Oh, we lost our drive. We lost our will.’ No, it’s the same will we’ve ever had. We just weren’t threatened. That’s a sobering thought.
World’s Scientists in Life-and-Death Race: Allies Now Outstripping Teutons in Discovery and Invention, Which Have Been Speeded Up to Greater Progress in the Last Four Years Than in Previous Four Decades
Published: Sunday, April 21, 1918