Throughout history, war has presented unique challenges that have spurred and inspired the development of new technologies – inventions that may have taken years, or even decades, to evolve in the civilian market. After more than five years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun to leave their footprint on science history, generating everything from thermal imaging devices to video-game-like training platforms that are already trickling into daily life.
The military has driven technology as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman road system, for example, was originally built for troop transport, but civilians were the ultimate beneficiaries. The same could be said about Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, designed during the cold war.
“As war became so technologically dependent, a whole range of technologies became important and many of them had civilian applications,” says Alex Roland, a history professor who focuses on the military and technology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Each particular conflict, if it goes on long enough, spurs its own special kinds of development.”
In America’s current conflicts, concerns about overstretching the military have allowed for significant investment in devices that allow fewer troops to do more.In years past, soldiers on guard duty watched their base’s perimeter through a pair of binoculars. Today, many rely on thermal imaging. A system created by FLIR, an imaging company in Wilsonville, Ore., can generate a clear picture of an area 20 kilometers away in total darkness and through smoke or fog.FLIR has worked with the military to provide these systems since the 1980s, seeing a boom in business during each conflict. But nothing has generated business like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Since 2000, the value of the company’s stock has increased by at least a hundredfold.