History Stories

Publish date:

WWI Inventions, From Pilates to Zippers, That We Still Use Today

Small inventions made life easier during—and after—the war.

While World War I redrew political borders and introduced modern weaponry such as poison gas, machine guns and tanks, it also spurred the development of practical innovations. From Pilates to Kleenex to drones, these World War I innovations now permeate everyday life.

WWI Trenchcoats

Winston Churchill (right), as 1st Colonel commanding the Royal Scots Fusiliers, seen wearing a trench coat, 1916. 

1. Trench Coats

Now a fashion icon, the trench coat first gained popularity among British officers during World War I because of its functionality. “They were different in cut and weight than the heavy overcoats worn by enlisted men,” says Jonathan Casey, director of the archives and Edward Jones Research Center at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The water-resistant overcoats proved superior to the standard wool coats in repelling the rain and chill of the trenches—from which the garment gained its name. They also featured flaps and rings for securing weapons and map cases. Within months of the war’s start, London retailers such as Burberry and Aquascutum were advertising trench coats to the British public.

1918 Daylight Savings Bill Poster

Government poster from 1918 showing Uncle Sam turning clock to daylight saving time. 

2. Daylight Saving Time

Come November, most Americans gain an extra hour—and then lose it again the following March. Although the idea of shifting time dated back centuries, Daylight Saving Time was first implemented in Germany in April 1916 as a wartime measure to conserve coal by having an extra hour of daylight in the evenings. Weeks later, the United Kingdom and other European countries followed suit. The United States implemented Daylight Saving Time in 1918.

WWI Blood Transfusion Kit

A World War I blood transfusion kit including connecting tubes, needles and a glass storage jar.

3. Blood Banks

Doctors rarely performed blood transfusions prior to World War I. However, following the discovery of different blood types and the ability of refrigeration to extend shelf life, Captain Oswald Robertson, a U.S. Army doctor consulting with the British Army, established the first blood bank in 1917 on the Western Front. “The point was to have a blood supply as close to the front as possible for wounded patients,” Casey says. To facilitate storage, blood was kept on ice for up to 28 days and sodium citrate was added to prevent clotting.

WWI Red Cross

French World War I postcard, circa 1914.

4. Sanitary Pads

During a European tour in 1914, Kimberly-Clark executives discovered a material made from processed wood pulp that was five times more absorbent than cotton and cost half as much to produce. With cotton in short supply during World War I, the company trademarked the creped wadding as Cellucotton and sold it to the American military for surgical dressing. Red Cross nurses, however, found another use for the cotton substitute as makeshift sanitary pads.

After the war’s conclusion, Kimberly-Clark repurchased Cellucotton surplus from the military and, in 1920, launched its first commercial product—Kotex (short for “cotton texture”) sanitary pads—made from 40 plies of Cellucotton hand-wrapped in fine gauze. The company initially struggled to get drug and departments stores to stock the product and magazines refused to accept advertising until the Ladies Home Journal finally agreed. “It’s an example of a product intended for one purpose ending up with a practical application for a second use,” Casey says.

Kleenex

Assorted skin and health care products, including Kleenex tissue, circa 1930. 

5. Kleenex

Kotex was not the only iconic product that Kimberly-Clark developed from Cellucotton. After experimenting with a thin, flattened version of Cellucotton for possible use as gas mask filters, the company launched it in 1924 as a disposable makeup and cold-cream remover under the brand-name “Kleenex.” (Using “clean” as a base word, Kimberly-Clark employed the “K” and “ex” from Kotex.) When women started complaining about their husbands blowing their noses in their Kleenex, Kimberly-Clark repositioned the tissues as handkerchief alternatives that prevented the spread of germs.

Joseph Pilates

Trainer Joseph Pilates (left) overseeing work outs focused on the pilates method, then known as "contrology," in New York City, 1951.

6. Pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates, a German bodybuilder who worked as a circus performer and boxer in Great Britain, was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man after the outbreak of World War I. Frail as a child, Pilates had taken up bodybuilding, martial arts and yoga to build his strength. During his more than three years at the internment camp, Pilates developed a regimen of muscle strengthening through slow and precise stretching and physical movements, which he called “Contrology.” He further aided rehabilitation of bed-ridden internees by rigging springs and straps to their headboards and footboards for resistance training. In 1925, he opened an exercise studio in New York City that taught the fitness techniques that would eventually bear his last name.

Harry Brearly Stainless Steal

An early stainless steel tea knife by Harry Brearley, circa 1915.

7. Stainless Steel

During the war, the British military was in search of harder alloys for their guns so they would be less susceptible to distortion from the heat and friction of firing. English metallurgist Harry Brearley discovered that adding chromium to molten iron produced steel that wouldn’t rust. Although stainless steel was not used for guns, its use during World War I to manufacture aircraft engines, mess kit silverware and medical instruments launched its popularity.

Zipper patent

Gideon Sunbacks 1917 patent for the zipper.

8. Zippers

Although not called the zipper until the B.F. Goodrich Company coined the term in 1923, the “hookless fastener” was perfected by Gideon Sundback during World War I. The first major order of zippers came for money belts worn by soldiers and sailors who lacked uniform pockets. While buttons remained the convention on military uniforms during the war, zippers began to be sewn into the flying suits of aviators and took off in popularity in the 1920s.

WWI Watch

A wristwatch from a World War I officer, circa 1916.

9. Wristwatches

Prior to World War I, wristwatches were worn almost exclusively by women as fashion accessories. Most men used pocket watches on chains as their time keepers, but they proved impractical in trench warfare. “It was a lot easier to wear a wristwatch than use a pocket watch in the heat of battle particularly for an officer who might have a sidearm in one hand and a whistle in another,” Casey says. Wristwatches also proved necessary for aviators who needed both hands at all times. After proving their utility in warfare, wristwatches gained acceptance as a men’s fashion accessory.

Kettering Bug

The first drone, the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, later known as the "Kettering Bug."

10. Drones

Fewer than 15 years after Orville Wright soared over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, he participated in the American military’s first experiments with unmanned aircraft. Charles Kettering supervised the experiments and, in 1918, successfully tested an unmanned aerial torpedo that could strike a target at a distance of 75 miles. Launched by a dolly-and-track system, the “Kettering Bug” consisted of a papier-mâché fuselage and cardboard wings. It relied on a barometer and gyroscope for guidance. The war ended, however, before it could be ready for combat.

RELATED CONTENT