War is hell. But for a few opportunistic and enterprising visionaries, it can also be a springboard to business success. Two of the biggest, bloodiest global conflicts in human history did more than rewrite maps and change the balance of international power — they provided the world with some of its most successful brands ever.
10. Instant Noodles
The journey of this inventor and businessman goes through not one, but two World War II occupations, and even into space. Born in Taiwan in 1910, Momofuku Ando was expatriated to Japan during their occupation of his island home. After the war in the Pacific came to a conclusion, Ando found himself under occupation by American troops and battling hunger alongside the newly-defeated Japanese.
It took Ando several years before his idea for cheap noodles went into mass-production, but after several attempts he finally found a formula that worked. College students in need of cheap sustenance can thank the endless food lines, desperation, and lack of surviving infrastructure in the wasted cities of Japan for giving Momofuku the inspiration and drive to develop his signature Cup of Noodles.
9. McDonald’s French Fries
Graduating from pigs to potatoes, high school dropout J.R. Simplot developed the first ever freeze-dried potatoes and vegetables for the U.S. Army, right when international logistics threatened to derail Allied efforts in Europe. The longer shelf-life and easy reconstitution of Simplot’s frozen veggies helped ensure troops overseas could be kept stocked with the food they needed to fuel their march through Europe.
When the end of the war dried up demand from his biggest customer, Simplot signed a contract with one Ray Kroc to provide frozen French fries. Fast-forward some 50 years, and Simplot’s potato empire has permanently forced the association of “Idaho” and “potato” by providing McDonald’s with more than 50% of its French fries worldwide.
8. Chemical Fertilizers
Back before the abundance of cheap food drove the world’s population to unsustainable levels, agriculture was limited by the amount of nitrogen found in soil. While scientists had already discovered the link between nitrogen levels and crop yields, the fertilizer industry didn’t really explode until it literally started making explosives.
Starting in World War I, the chemical research of Fritz Haber allowed the German army to douse its enemies in deadly chlorine. In World War II the Allied Powers took the Haber Process further by manufacturing copious amounts of munitions through nitrogen synthesis. At the end of the war, these industrial-scale efforts were re-purposed to produce chemical fertilizers.
The world’s favorite feminine hygiene brand didn’t start as a sponge for ambiguous blue water. The haphazard medical conditions of World War I did more to kill troops than the actual fighting. To improve the situation, manufacturing company Kimberly-Clark developed a lightweight, highly absorbent gauze known as Cellucotton to help American soldiers injured in combat.
In the post-war years, leftover Cellucotton bandages were re-purposed by menstruating Red Cross nurses. Kimberly-Clark took note, and after a little tinkering produced their first sanitary napkin expressly for women’s health. The Kotex model was replicated by Tampax in the midst of World War II, and over the following decades they refined their bandages-turned-pads into the cotton tubes we now know as tampons.
During World War II, Allied scientists were tasked with keeping military weaponry one step ahead of the fascists. The Manhattan Project commenced with the goal of making the biggest boom since the start of the universe. Teflon, accidentally discovered in 1938 by Roy J. Plunkett, came under intense demand almost immediately when it was found to withstand the volatile ingredients of the first atomic bombs. After the Project culminated with the destruction of two Japanese cities, Teflon would be repurposed most famously as a non-stick coating in pots and pans, as well as a stain-resistant coating for clothing.
This sugar substitute was discovered in 1879 by a chemist named Ira Remsen who couldn’t be bothered to wash his hands before eating. At that time, the national obsession with weight-loss schemes hadn’t started, and folks were happy to eat plain old sugar. Saccharin didn’t come into mainstream use until World War I imposed rations on consumer staples like sugar, and people began buying up alternatives in droves.
The same thing happened again in World War II, and when a father and son team combined saccharine with dextrose at their diner in the 1950s, their product was rebranded as Sweet’n’Low. Turning the leftovers from wartime rationing into a new weight-loss gimmick, saccharin survived the return of natural sugar and kept its place on restaurant tables across America.
4. Microwave Ovens
Before Hot Pockets and TV dinners made the nuclear option a staple of the American kitchen, microwaves were simply a side-effect of World War II radar emitters. Self-taught engineer Percy Spencer was conducting research on magnetrons — a key component of radar systems — when he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. He theorized that microwaves emitting from the magnetrons generated the heat responsible for ruining his snack. Naturally, he tested his theory by proceeding to blow eggs and popcorn up using microwave emissions.
He finally managed to pull himself away from his new toy long enough to let his employers know what he had found. His discovery was soon put to work, and the first commercial microwave ovens were produced in 1955.
3. Duct Tape
Quibbles over whether “duct” or “duck” came first aside, this ubiquitous, multi-functional tape first emerged during the Second World War. GIs needed a flexible, water-proof material they could use to repair everything from canteens to ammunition cases. When Johnson and Johnson came up with a combination medical tape and self-adhesive strip they could deliver in rolls to the troops, duct tape was born.
The versatility of the tape made it popular among troops long after the war ended. Consumer demand quickly turned the military tool into a household name — which is only fitting, considering it was a Navy mother who first conceived of the idea out of concern for her enlisted family.
2. Disposable Syringes
As anyone who lived through the ’80s most homophobic health scare can tell you, sharing needles is a quick way to spread diseases. But before America became obsessed with HIV/AIDs, the military was trying to balance the need for frontline painkillers with the risk of overdoses and morphine addiction.
During the American Civil War, as well as the First World War, wounded soldiers pretty much had to play through the pain until they were carted off to ad hoc medical tents and treated with morphine there. By World War II, the old glass and metal syringes were abandoned in favor of a new product, called the Syrette, which was compact (limiting the dosage it could administer), and expendable. Syrettes were distributed to troops pre-filled with single doses of morphine. This set the stage for later inventors who moved beyond distributing morphine to troops and reworked the product into a mass-produced medical device, now typically made of plastic.
No, Walt Disney didn’t start his namesake entertainment company in the midst of World War II. As the screaming voices of those within the Disney vault will tell you, his animation studio had been enjoying years of success with a string of animated shorts in the 1920s, as well as feature-length efforts like Snow White.
Walt proceeded to drive all that success straight into the ground, releasing a string of feature-length failures (we now call them “classics”) and then fumbling management of his striking animators who wanted Disney to unionize. By the time he capitulated, the company was facing bankruptcy.
Then the U.S. government, out of concern over fascist influence in South America, offered Disney an all-expenses paid trip down through Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The plan was for Disney to do a series of animated propaganda pieces celebrating Latin American culture, softening international relations and allowing the U.S. to focus on storming European beaches.
Disney’s deal with the military grew to include a series of propaganda cartoons, and resuscitated his collapsing brand so it could grow into the international entertainment superpower we all know and fear today. Without WWII, Disney would have gone whistling while he worked into the margins of history.