Modern warfare, with all its high-tech gadgetry, would have seemed like black magic to the technologically inferior warmongers of only a century ago ... or at least that's what we assume. But it turns out that a lot of the stuff that defines the modern battlefield has been around in some form for a lot longer than we think, thanks to murderous geniuses who were decades or centuries ahead of their time.
In the last two decades, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) went from "those flying killbots in the Terminator movies" to "the USA's go-to solution for every international problem." These drones are literally the most futuristic thing in our arsenal, and if you saw some World War II movie that featured them, you'd think you were seeing the work of the laziest screenwriter in history.
But if so, you'd owe them an apology. This is the TDR-1, the Predator drone's badass grandpa:
"You kids today with your guided missiles and your geolocation ... in my day, blowing shit up was a craft."
Developed in the 1940s during a period when the entire world was seeing how much metal they could fling at high velocity toward one another, the TDR-1 was the world's first production UAV that was put into combat. Of course, rather than being flown by some guy on the other side of the world, the TDR-1 was flown by another pilot in a nearby bomber, due to the fact that satellites didn't exist yet. Still, the Navy was so impressed by the idea of a magical pilotless aircraft that they commissioned 5,000 of the things. However, delays led to only 195 being built and shipped off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese.
A typical mission for the TDR-1 consisted of takeoff, a flight to a target, and dropping a few bombs or a torpedo. Then the operator would take the aircraft and give it an ending the Japanese would be proud of: He'd steer it right into the target it was just bombing, because who wants to go through the trouble of landing that shit?
Greg Goebel, via Wikipedia
Besides, it's never too early to start teaching robots who's really in charge.
For several months, the U.S. Navy used these drones to attack various Japanese targets around the Pacific with a success rate of 21 targets destroyed in 37 missions. Although that 57 percent success rate sounds meager, that's a far cry from today's whopping 2 percent success rate. The TDR-1 was cancelled in October 1944 when the Navy decided that it preferred human pilots, or at least that they wanted expensive war machines that didn't get slammed into the side of a building after one use.
Night vision goggles are an iconic part of the modern military outfit, and any war movie or game with a modern setting must include a scene where everything is green and blurry. But although it's only just beginning to come into common use, night vision technology has been with us for a long time -- since World War II, in fact.
Which means that Hitler sex tape you "accidentally" downloaded may actually be legit.
In the early years of the war, it was rumored that Germany had successfully developed night vision technology to mount to their vehicles, a rumor that was probably true until Indiana Jones turned up and destroyed the biblical artifact powering it. Understandably worried by this idea, the United States set their best minds on the task. They then realized that they'd sent all of their best minds into the desert for some reason, and so they turned to their second brightest.
The result of their hard work was the Sniperscope, which consisted primarily of an infra-red "black" searchlight that mounted onto the barrels of the standard-issue rifles of the time.
Along with a battery that looks big enough to power a Terminator.
The light emitted by the spotlight wasn't visible to the naked eye; it worked in conjunction with the scope mounted at the top. During a nighttime firefight, instead of just firing randomly into the dark and hoping to hit something, a soldier could switch his Sniperscope on, peer through the lens, and fire away. It was a game-changing weapon, although you can already see the downside (you have to carry that heavy-ass power supply on your back like a Ghostbuster).
Which is why they were never deployed far from the 11th Chiropractic Division.
Luckily for the bad guys, the Sniperscope wasn't deployed on the battlefield until 1944, but that doesn't mean it didn't kick any ass: During the Okinawa campaign, it proved insanely useful in preventing Japanese saboteurs from infiltrating U.S. bases. Tellingly, although fewer than 500 Sniperscopes were deployed in the region, they accounted for 30 percent of all Japanese small-arms casualties during the first week of the campaign.
The Germans did eventually get a working night vision system on their weapons in 1945. Known as the Zielgerat 1229 but nicknamed Vampir (because the Nazis loved melodrama more than lederhosen and anti-Semitism), it worked in the exact same way as the Sniperscope. However, apart from scant anecdotes about it being used on the Eastern Front, we have no other information about it.
"Let's go with 'Vampir' instead. 'Back Spasm' might be bad for morale."
Austrian Lieutenant Franz von Uchatius had the kind of lofty, unrealistic pipe dream that other folks dismiss as mere fantasy: What if he could somehow rain death down upon his enemies from on high? The reason this was such a silly fantasy is that it was 1849 and planes hadn't been invented yet.
"Go get me some dynamite and a roll of tape; I've got an idea."
But this ambitious dreamer was not going to let that stop him. And so, during Austria's siege on Venice, Uchatius masterminded the first aerial bombing raid using hot air balloons. Positioning several key navy ships offshore, he organized two "aerial torpedo" squadrons. Each squadron consisted of 100 balloons, each armed with a single bomb with a timer. After figuring out the wind currents, Uchatius released these balloons to lazily float over Venice, an attack that must have been as slow as it was terrifying.
Not so nostalgically charming when they're loaded with explosives.
Meanwhile, in Venice, people were presumably going about their normal day when they gazed up at the baffling sight of several balloons blotting out the sky. They probably had a moment to think the whole siege had secretly been a setup for a surprise party before shit started exploding.
The attack itself was a hilarious disaster -- wind blew some of the balloons back toward the Austrians, and others detonated in midair. Curious Venetians came out of their homes, and some even applauded the show, because look at that shit! Still, they surrendered two days later, presumably because it became clear that they were facing an army that was willing to try fucking anything.
There's a reason allied countries were all fighting over Nazi scientists after World War II ended: They were really good at coming up with weapons systems that at the time seemed like goddamned science fiction. For instance, although the U.S. military didn't have stealth aircraft until the 1980s, the Nazis were actually developing the technology four decades earlier. This was the closing years of the war, when the Nazis came to realize that things weren't going their way and they started throwing money at any crazy-ass idea that might give them an advantage. The result was the Horten Ho 229 ...
...which looked remarkably similar to the state-of-the-art B2 stealth bomber:
U.S. Air Force
Half cutting-edge aeronautic technology, half Batarang.
Sadly for the Nazis (but happily for everyone else), the aircraft came too late into the action to make any difference at all. After a few test flights, it was captured by American troops and never used in combat ... which is probably a good thing, since tests done on it after the war showed that the Horten Ho 229 was in fact goddamned invisible to radar. It could have basically waltzed right up to London, kicked it in the face, and walked away before the RAF had even figured out what had happened.
If you've never had to wear bullet-stopping body armor, you should probably consider yourself fortunate. But if you ever put some on, you'll be surprised -- where you'd expect a heavy metal plate or something else that seems appropriate for the name "body armor" you'll instead find just a thick core of light fabric that doesn't seem capable of stopping anything more than a slingshot. That's Kevlar, a material invented in the 1960s that involves bundling tons of layers of thin fabric that, thanks to the miracle of science, dissipates the energy of projectiles wonderfully.
But while many a police officer and soldier has probably taken time to thank the technological wizards at DuPont for inventing the stuff, in reality the invention goes back way, way further than that. A material remarkably similar to Kevlar is known to have been used by Alexander the Great. And even before that, historians have found references to linen body armor going back around 3,000 years, as far back as the time of Homer's The Iliad.
Although modern depictions like 300 show the ancient Greeks marching into battle with nothing but their naked, rippling abs to protect them against a storm of arrows, the Greek soldiers were wearing a lightweight armor they called linothorax.
Via University of Wisconsin Green Bay
Whereas their necks were protected by beards that look capable of stopping a bazooka.
Nobody really knows exactly what linothorax was made from, because unlike metal armor such as bronze breastplates, the lightweight stuff rotted away over the millennia. Luckily, historians and/or LARPers with Ph.D.s at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay have found a way to recreate the ancient armor using methods and materials that would have been available at the time. Like Kevlar, it's a matter of taking a tough, thin material (linen) and fusing it together in layers. And it totally works (for the exact same reason as Kevlar) and was superior to bronze armor -- not only did it stop arrows, but it didn't need to be custom made for soldiers. How do we know that? Because they tested it by firing arrows at their graduate students.
University of Wisconsin Green Bay
Turnout spiked when the "puncture a lung: automatic A" policy was enacted.
By the time of Alexander the Great, linothorax was standard armor for Greek hoplites and worn all throughout the Mediterranean. The famous mosaic at Pompeii also shows Alexander wearing it as he suavely tramples the hopes of the Persian King Darius at the Battle of Issus.
Even his horse looks skeptical.
Linothorax gradually got phased out in the Roman Empire, but that didn't stop other fabric vests from coming into vogue. In the 19th century, a bunch of guys came up with the idea of layering silk to create body armor, which also totally worked as long as you were rich as hell and could afford it. If nothing else, when you died you'd look fancy as shit.
As soon as tanks began rolling onto the battlefield, warfare was changed forever. And we all know that was the First World War, right? You didn't see primitive tanks in, say, the Revolutionary War. What would that even look like? A cannon tied to a bear?
Actually, you can go back even further than that. A member of a Czech military faction named Jan Zizka beat everyone to the punch by 500 years. And yes, it looked ridiculous:
Ludek, via Wikipedia
But you can't argue with the unstoppable fury of horse-drawn plywood.
Sure, they were made out of wood instead of steel, but Zizka's war machines that rolled out in the 1400s were tanks in every other respect -- a box with wheels, an obnoxiously large cannon, and a bunch of guys in it. And they could do shit that modern tanks can't do today. For instance, they could link them all up to create an impenetrable wall of death and destruction.
Depicted here with complete historical accuracy.
With the ability to move up to 25 miles a day, Zizka's "battle wagons" were incredibly successful, leading to over 50 victories in a 14-year period. And during this whole time, no one even bothered to think to possibly build their own versions of these things. With enemies apparently content to throw up white flags, Zizka owned any battlefield he found himself fighting on.
Related Reading: Hey, and while we're nerding out over weapons why not check out these plasma technologies that put every video game Maguffin to shame. If you prefer your war machines with a side of "terrible idea", the Bob Semple tank may be right for you. Prefer to see the functioning real-world answers to sci-fi weapons? We can help with that, too.