Innovations of World War I: Uncovering the Impact on Modern Technology

World War 1 airplane in the sky sepia main

War has historically been fought with the latest technology. Weapons of war over time led to more deadly conflicts. The Industrial Revolution included the development of new weapons, including those used in the Civil War. New weapon technology used during World War I included: machine guns, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas. They all helped introduce the brutal mechanicalized warfare of the 20th Century.  

World War I 

The immediate spark that led to the outbreak of World World I was just the immediate cause.  Many causes can be cited.  We are not concerned, however, with the causes of the war here.  

The story of the causes and general events of the war, including the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram” that helped convince the U.S. to join the war can be found elsewhere.  Our focus in this entry will be the new weapons used during the war. 

War = Creative Ways To Kill and Maim

War has always been a matter of finding new means to fight.  The first humans learned about tools, including arrows, and soon used them against one another. Humans over the centuries developed such war technology as chariots, gunpowder, and forged iron weaponry.   

The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in the development of weaponry for war.  The developments in industry and technology were easily applied to warfare.  

The American Civil War was a lesson for the world about the potential to use science to fight wars in a more deadly fashion.  The Civil War brought such novels as Spencer repeating rifles, ironclad warships, and even the use of balloons for surveillance.  

One more thing that the Civil War had was trench warfare.  Trench warfare allowed each side to dig in and result in a stalemate.  Trench warfare would be a big part of World War I.  Like attackers of the city and castle walls of yore, new weapons were used to challenge it. 

The many forces that made a world conflict arise with shocking ease were ever more dangerous because the new tools of war would make the conflict so deadly.  

The Machine Gun 

A machine gun is a mechanical device used to rapidly fire a stream of bullets. 

The wars of the past had cannons, both on land and at sea. They were an important part of winning a war. For instance, Henry Knox played an important role in defeating the British in Boston during the Revolutionary War.  It involved dragging artillery a long distance. 

Guns originally were unwieldy affairs that were hard to load and required reloading each time you shot them.  In the 19th Century, guns became much easier to use and much more deadly in the process.  The number of amputations during the Civil War was one telling sign.  

A “machine” gun was developed that could fire over 500 rounds of ammunition per minute.   The result was much more deadly battles and a harder time gaining an advantage once each side had a similar supply of this deadly machine.  Deadly machines? Yes, it was an industrial age of war.  


Tanks are armored vehicles with the capability to move across difficult terrain and break through enemy lines.  

The ironclads naval warships during the Civil War showed the potential of armored vehicles in warfare. One Confederate ironclad outclassed multiple wooden ships with ease in an early battle.  Such ships also provided a means to carry men and supplies through hostile territory.

The British first developed “tanks,” so named at first as a code name that reflected their appearance as “water carriers,” which they were sometimes disguised as.  They also were first called “landships,” which is not a bad way to describe what they look like in action.  

Tanks were able to protect troops as they moved over difficult and hostile terrain.  Tanks were a means to defeat trenches and barbed wire.  They were deadly mobile weapons.  


Submarines are underwater vessels used by navies to target enemy ships.

A basic way to defeat a region was to attack its supply routes.  Germany during World War I was continuously concerned about being starved out of the war.  It was a landlocked country and the British commanded the seas.  The Germans did have a secret weapon: the U-Boat.

A “U-Boat” is an “undersea boat.”  Primitive submarines were developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Germany developed the first truly workable submarines at the beginning of the 20th Century.   Submarines continue to be used today, run by nuclear power.  

They were used to deadly effect to attack the Atlantic shipping lanes in World War I.  The United States demanded “freedom of the seas,” but Germany eventually risked unrestricted submarine warfare.  This ultimately led to the U.S. entry into the war.  


Airplanes are powered aircraft that could be used as bombers, scouts, and fighters.

From ancient times, people dreamed of flying through the air. The Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci imagined flying machines. Balloon flight developed in the 18th Century.  Mechanical-powered flying machines developed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  

The famous flight of the Wright Brothers did not lead to commercial airlines for some time; stewardesses and flight attendants came still later.  Airplanes were still light and small crafts when World War I began.  Their use for military purposes was still in its infancy.

Airplanes were not major threats to troops, vehicles, or ships.  They were first mainly used for observation of the enemy (reconnaissance) and limited “dogfights” with other aircraft.  The famous “Red Baron” (nemesis of Snoopy) was a famous German World War I fighter pilot.  

Poison Gas 

Poison gas is a chemical weapon designed to incapacitate or kill enemy soldiers.

The cry “I cannot breathe” was the mantra that led to a movement against police misconduct.  The basic inability to breathe was a powerful message.  

Veterans of World War I, including Adolf Hitler himself, often said that poison gas was the most horrible thing they had to experience.  

Chemicals such as chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas could be spread over miles, causing extremely painful irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs.  If you did not die, and most did not, the gas could still have long-lasting effects.   Gas masks were developed but were only so useful.  

Treaties already were in place to address the horrors of chemical warfare, but the insidious weapon continued to be used.  More treaties followed but chemical warfare continued, including the use of “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War.  

Final Thoughts 

General Sherman knew “war is hell.”  Sherman did not glorify war, even though he believed that the harsh tactics he used to fight the Civil War were necessary and just.

The new weapons of World War I, along with the use of trench warfare, brought in a new age of warfare.  The 20th-century flavor of war was a more total war, a war of the modern mechanical age.  The age that some felt (famously portrayed in Charlie Chaplin’s famous film) resulted in a loss of humanity.  Machine guns?  Soldiers themselves seemed to be but machines of war. 

Those who fought in World I did manage to retain their humanity but the new weapons foreshadowed even more deadly battles and weapons in the future.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.