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The Role of Technology
in World War I

By: Michael Cooper









Technology made a huge impact in the fighting of World War I. Blimps dropped bombs, airplanes with propellers in the back radioed gun positions, aces battled in their biplanes, ground troops threw and shot grenades at each other, and heavy machine guns snapped off bullets at each other making a big difference in the course of the war. These tools of war can be divided into two major categories: air advances and ground improvements.
Airplanes were first used in 1911 in a war in Libya, and also in the Mexican revolution. There wasn’t much air bombardment in these wars; the planes were used for reconnaissance missions.1 By 1914, however, this technology was being used in European countries. The importance placed on airplanes in the military can be measured by the amount of money each country spent on getting the technology, and building things using the knowledge. By this time France had spent about 22 million dollars on this new field of military technology. Germany had also spent 22 million. America, however, had only spent half a million dollars on its program.2
Another measure of the importance placed on planes by each country is the number of planes it had and when the actual branches of the militaries were formed. By 1912 France had formed its Royal Flying Corps and had 36 planes in it. Later in 1913 Germany formed its Imperial German Air Service. This air force was based on lighter than air vehicles and dirigibles; they had mostly hot air balloons and blimps. Britain, however, had beaten them all: they had not only formed an air force, but just before the war they divided it from just the British Royal Flying Corps into The Royal Naval Air Service and The British Royal Flying Corps.3
By 1915 airplanes were used for many things on the front. Planes often flew behind enemy lines, landed, let a spy get out, then took off again. The parachute had been invented, but military pilots weren’t using it.4 Troops were also often supplied by plane. Planes also told guns where to shoot using wing signals, and messages dropped to machine gun operators. Sometimes, but not often, they used radios. 5
At the beginning of the war slow, stable planes that provided a good lookout position was what the military wanted. These planes had seats for the pilot, and an observer. Sometimes a machine gun was mounted behind the seats so the observer could turn around and fire at other aircraft. Faster, smaller one-man fighters were soon developed to destroy the slower planes.6
Soon planes took on more tasks than just reporting army positions. By 1914 both British and German pilots started throwing grenades and gasoline bombs at opposing troops. These first attempts didn’t have significant results. Soon planes started attacking each other. The first recorded aerial battle was on August 26th 1914. 3 British planes forced a German plane to land, then burned the plane.7
German dirigibles, also known as Zeppelins, were a major force in the war because they often carried large bombs. They were hard to destroy while airborne, and were often destroyed while inside their sheds. British incendiary bullets were also able to destroy them. Churchill said, “I believed that this enormous bladder of combustible and explosive gas would prove to be easily destructible. ... our incendiary bullets would harry, rout, and burn these gaseous monsters.”8
At first pusher planes were considered the superior single man plane, with the engine and propeller mounted in the back providing the pilot with no risk of hitting the propeller and damaging his own plane.9 However, tractor planes soon outdated pusher planes. Although the propeller and engine were located at the front with the risk of the pilot hitting his own propeller the plane was much faster and more maneuverable.10
Engineers were faced with a problem regarding the machine gun. If the guns were mounted forward the plane would shoot off its own propellers. If mounted on the side of the typical biplane it would likely destroy the struts and braces that braced the wings. One solution was to mount the gun on the top wing of the plane, but this gun was difficult to aim and awkward.11
French, German, and English inventors had all actually solved this problem by synchronizing the gun's fire and the propeller, but these ideas were neglected by officials and never used. However, in early 1915, French pilot Roland Garros developed a crude, simple, but effective system of firing a machine gun through the propeller arc. He attached metal deflector plates to the propellers to deflect the fire. Though this made it possible for the bullets to ricochet back at the pilot or the plane it was a huge improvement. He proved its worth when he downed five German planes in a two-week period, setting the early French standard for being an ace. This did not give the French an edge in the war, however, because a month later Germans captured a plane and stole the technology as well as started using a synchronizing mechanism.12
Technology also had a large influence on land battles in World War I. Before World War I, practically all machine guns used the same caliber ammunition as infantry rifles. After being used in combat, they were divided into types, each especially suited for a particular use. The lighter-weight types were adapted to firing short, concentrated bursts of fire, and the heavier weapons were developed for shooting a continuous stream of machine-gun fire. Machine guns were also developed for mounting in airplanes, and special mounts were developed for employing machine guns in antiaircraft work. The Browning machine gun is a water cooled, tripod-mounted, belt fed machine gun developed by John M. Browning. In May 1917, the heavy Browning machine gun was tested and adopted as standard for the U.S. Army. With improved ammunition, this gun was a great weapon for delivering sustained fire. Browning machine guns were also used, on the ground and mounted on aircraft, during World War II and the Korean War.13 It fired at about 500 rounds a minute. Over 68,000 were made before the war ended. The original design was modified to an air-cooled version and extensively used as an aircraft and tank gun. Another version was also developed as an anti-aircraft weapon in 1919 14
The old fashioned bayonet was also used some during this war. The bayonet was a short sword attached to the muzzle of a rifle.

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