Science, Technology, and Warfare through the Ages

ONE WORD, “PLASTICS”

    A publicity postcard from Ford Motor Company
    during WWII

Chemical labs cooked up a host of new technologies, from new types of explosives to incendiary bombs (including napalm, a form of jellied gasoline heavily used in Vietnam, but first used on the Pacific island of Tinian against the Japanese), flame throwers, and smoke screens. New materials and new uses for old materials appeared as well. Companies manufacturing consumer goods (such as silverware) converted to manufacture military goods (such as surgical instruments). Automobile factories re-tooled to make tanks and airplanes. These industrial modifications required rapid and creative engineering, transportation, and communications solutions. Because of the need to put most resources into the war effort, consumers at home experienced shortages and rationing of many basic items such as rubber, gasoline, paper, and coffee (the country imposed a national “Victory” speed limit of 35 miles per hour to save wear on tires—natural rubber being in short supply since the Japanese had occupied much of Southeast Asia). Consumers had to conserve, or just do with out. Women’s skirts were made shorter to save material and bathing suits were made out of two pieces (these later became known as “bikinis,” named after an island in the Pacific where the army tested atomic weapons). The 3M company felt compelled to run advertisements apologizing to homemakers for the scarcity of Scotch tape in stores across the country; available supplies of the product had been diverted to the front for the war effort. 3M promised "when victory comes “Scotch” cellulose tape will be back again in your home and office."

New materials emerged to fill these voids; many had been invented just before the war but found wide use during World War II: plastic wrap (trademarked as Saran wrap) became a substitute for aluminum foil for covering food (and was used for covering guns during shipping); cardboard milk and juice containers replaced glass bottles; acrylic sheets were molded into bomber noses and fighter-plane canopies; plywood emerged as a substitute for scarce metals, for everything from the hulls of PT boats to aircraft wings. The look and feel of 1950s America – a “modern” world of molded plywood furniture, fiberglass, plastics, and polyester – had its roots in the materials innovations of World War II.

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