Industrialists are honest about one benefit of war: it tends to drive innovation. But so does peace. The following ten inventions were all to that end, or at least to minimizing carnage.
It’s not their fault they tended to make things much worse.
10. The United Nations
Formed as the League of Nations after WWI, the UN was meant to end war. It formally began in 1945, just months after the end of WWII. By 1947, however, amid the East-West Conflict, it was clear it wasn’t up to the job. The “peace-loving major powers” of a supposedly united planet were now too busy arguing over who got what from the spoils of WWII. Constructive committee meetings were impossible and the UN’s growth, including that of its all-important Security Council, was stunted from the very beginning.
Nowadays, things are no better. Clearly. In fact, they’re arguably worse as corruption has become institutionalized. For one thing, Security Council members misuse foreign aid as a way to buy votes. Poor, nonpermanent member states receive as much as $45 million extra from the United States alone in important years. But this isn’t the only reason why most resolutions are unanimously passed. Another is that, where support is doubtful, invasions aren’t put to a vote. This was the case with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But it’s not just corruption that cripples the UN’s alleged intentions. It’s also impotence. There are generally no consequences whatsoever for violating Security Council resolutions.
9. International language
War is all God’s fault according to the Bible. Seeing us all working together on the Tower of Babel, he was appalled and came down to step in. “Look,” he said, “they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Henceforth (according to Christians and Jews, but not, interestingly, Muslims), humanity was at odds with each other. What if we could undo God’s mischief and restore some basic common ground? An international language may help to bring us together. After all, language is more than just a manner of speaking – it also guides our worldview.
Esperanto is one of the more prominent attempts at a “language of international peace”. Devised by the villainous-sounding Doktoro Esperanto (aka Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof) in 1887, it draws primarily on the Latin-based (i.e. Romance) languages of Europe – complete with a 28-letter Latin alphabet. As a result, it’s easy for many Westerners to learn. With its simple, intuitive grammar and cultural flexibility, it’s also straightforward for others to learn. And, as an added bonus, studying Esperanto before other languages helps to accelerate the process.
By 1915, following an uptake in the Russian Empire, then Europe, North and South America, China, and Japan, the Iranian delegate to the League of Nations proposed that Esperanto be adopted by the body. Everyone agreed too… except for France, whose snooty delegate single-handedly voted against. After that, Esperanto speakers (or Esperantists) drew persecution from the Nazis, Spanish fascists, and the Soviet Union – all of whom correctly saw the language as a threat to their nationalism. In Hitler’s case, it didn’t help that Esperanto’s inventor was Jewish; the paranoid Fuhrer imagined it must be part of a conspiracy.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was not called the “father of astronautics” for nothing. Not only is he credited with calculating escape velocity, he also invented multi-stage rockets to get there, as well as steerable rocket engines, airlocks, satellites, space stations, and closed-cycle biological systems to sustain human space colonies.
Without leaving the planet himself, Tsiolkovsky even anticipated the ‘overview effect’ whereby astronauts looking down on our lonely blue marble are struck by its beauty, fragility, and its absence of borders. This, he believed, would eliminate war. Immediately. Writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he thought 2017 would see the first human space flight as well as world peace. Life aboard satellites would, he thought, would be utopian: unlimited solar energy; artificial temperature regulation (so no need for clothing, beds, or quilts); no heavy labour thanks to zero gravity; no resource disparity (so no social classes), and so on.
What he didn’t foresee (apart from the decades-earlier first human space flight) was the utility of satellites for war. While they still haven’t been used as weapons per se – thanks to the increasingly precarious Outer Space Treaty – they’re routinely used for reconnaissance. And it’s really just a matter of time before they’re mounted with lasers and worse.
Speaking of which…
7. Laser weapons
Laser weapons weren’t meant to end war, but they were meant to make it less deadly by significantly cutting down on the human and environmental costs. Unlike conventional weapons, lasers are precisely accurate and minimize collateral damage. Traveling at the speed of light, they’re also capable of stopping incoming missiles no matter how fast they’re traveling – and lasers themselves can’t be intercepted.
However, they’re also much cheaper. Whereas defensive missiles cost $1-10 million each, lasers are $1-10 per shot. Hence they’re rapidly becoming widespread – in addition to conventional weapons. And, worryingly, they can reliably do something that other weapons cannot: blind soldiers. This was the reason they were originally banned by international treaty.
In a lengthy piece for Liberty magazine in February 1935 — “A Machine to End War” — Nikola Tesla said he once thought, “like other inventors,” that “war could be stopped by making it more destructive.” But he realized he was wrong. Also a eugenicist, he believed it would take more than a century to “breed out” man’s “combative instinct.” Instead, his solution was to level the battlefield and give each nation equal and insuperable defence. He called it the Teleforce.
Although it would take a lot of power, he said, it would form a protective field — destroying any approaching hostilities, “men or machines,” within a radius of 200 miles. He described it as “a wall of power … against any effective aggression,” and theorized that if no country could successfully attack another war would simply fizzle out. Although he was tight-lipped about how this invention worked, he said that it wasn’t by “death rays.” Instead, the Teleforce projected particles with “trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind.” He also imagined it would greatly improve television, removing all limits to the “intensity of illumination, the size of the picture, or distance of projection.
Despite the reverence netizens have for him nowadays, Tesla was often mistaken. He believed, for example, that by 2035 the Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture would be more important in Washington than the Secretary of War. And while he’s yet to be proven wrong, with 12 years to go it’s looking unlikely. Even if his Teleforce was actually built, it’s obvious how it would have been abused — to kill immigrants, for example (which, to be honest, Tesla probably would have supported, hoping as he did for global eugenics by 2100 to sterilize “the criminal and the insane.”)
5. Gay bomb
Surprisingly, the Pentagon had a plan to make the least deadly, most peace-loving bomb in the world. As recently as 1994, under Bill Clinton, the Department of Defense thought about deploying aphrodisiacs on the battlefield to make enemy troops drop their weapons, then their pants, and start banging. According to declassified documents, the sudden and widespread homosexual behavior would cause a “distasteful but completely non-lethal” drop in enemy morale.
If this relatively benign weapon seems out of character for the US, remember that its enemies were the fairly orthodox Muslims whose oil they wanted. So, with its “gay bomb,” the sadism was very much there; it was just psycho-spiritual instead of physical.
Still, had they actually followed through with the Sunshine Project, war might have been different today. Another plan was to release the smells of farts or bad breath among enemy troops. But this “Who? Me?” bomb as it was called had been considered since 1945. And it wouldn’t be suitable for many invasions, as, according to the researchers, “people in many areas of the world do not find faecal odor offensive, since they smell it on a regular basis.”
Telechirics (from the Greek words for ‘distance’, tele, and ‘hand’, kheir) are remote technologies allowing manipulation from a distance while providing a safety buffer between operators and dangerous jobs. Applications include space and ocean exploration, exposure to nuclear radiation, firefighting, mining, and war. Writing in New Scientist in 1964, engineer John W. Clark, apparently pre-empting Avatar, described consciousness being “transferred to an invulnerable mechanical body.”
Although that’s not so much a way to end war, it does represent a way to minimize its cost in human life. Unfortunately, however, it’s not that simple in practice. Because of the economic disparity in most international conflicts, drones are only used by one side, and therefore not against drones but people. The result is a less dignified, more shameful, but much easier way to wage war — exclusively available to wealthy invaders. In fact, ever since their first deployment in Afghanistan just after 9/11, drone attacks have become so routine they’re hardly even reported on any more.
3. Nuclear weapons
In the past it was thought that bigger, more destructive weapons would ultimately discourage warfare. Clearly they were wrong. But it didn’t stop them building what remains the most destructive to date. The Nazis came up with the plan, but the US liked it so much they brought the scientists to work in America. A little while later, President Truman became the first (and hopefully last) to drop it on civilians.
Of course, the flaw in the nukes-for-peace idea was putting them in the hands of the least peaceful people on the planet. The bloodthirsty Truman hopped straight from nuking Japan to waging war against communists. The rest is history. Nuclear warheads proliferated in Russia to balance the threat of the US, and neither side has ever stopped since – which in turn has forced other states to follow.
Has this led to a more peaceful world? Well, no. It’s true there hasn’t been a World War III yet, but the nuclear powers themselves continue to invade other countries.
Narcis Monturiol, the Spanish inventor of the modern submarine, thought it would put an end to war. A feminist, communist, and utopian revolutionary, he was hiding from authorities at the time — holed up in a village on the coast. There, he was enchanted by the coral people dove for, which were sold as decorations for the home. He thought of the divers as being on a quest for the magical “new continent” beneath the waves — and was therefore deeply troubled when one of his new heroes drowned.
So he got to work inventing something to make their lives easier. With the help of a master shipwright, as well as a designer, his submarine resembled a wine barrel (which happened to be his father’s trade) with its double olive wood and copper hulls tapered at the ends. 23 feet long, the pedal-powered craft was also equipped with “appendages for gathering coral.” He called it Ictíneo, a word he made up from the Greek for ‘fish’ (icthyus) and ‘boat’ (neus).
Dives up to 60 feet deep lasting several hours were successful and Monturiol was awed by the experience, writing: “The silence that accompanies the dive…; the gradual absence of sunlight; the great mass of water, which sight pierces with difficulty; the pallor that light gives to the faces; the lessening movement in the Ictíneo; the fish that pass before the portholes—all this contributes to the excitement of the imaginative faculties.”
He wasn’t even put off when a freighter crashed into the sub while it was docked in Barcelona, destroying it. Immediately, he set to work on Ictíneo II — which was larger and powered by steam engine. Unfortunately, in his pursuit of investment (which he needed just to feed himself, let alone build more submarines), the pacifist Monturiol courted the interest of military powers and even offered to install cannons on the subs. But nobody was interested — at least until the Nazis.
1. Manned aircraft
The first manned flight was not by the Wright brothers but a “Brazilian homosexual dandy” called Alberto Santos Dumont (who was, incidentally, also the first to fly a balloon around the Eiffel Tower in a set time and to wear a Cartier watch). Whereas the Wright brothers’ secretive “flight” was just catapulted gliding, Dumont’s 220-meter journey was verified by a panel of judges.
Already despondent after the Wright brothers stole his glory, Dumont was further pushed into despair by the military use of manned flight. He’d imagined the prospect of aircraft dropping bombs would discourage nations from fighting. But he was wrong.
In 1932, wracked with guilt after seeing them in action, he returned to his hotel room in Brazil and, having told the elevator man he’d “made a big mistake”, unceremoniously hanged himself. And that was long before the nuking of Japan.