Technological development

Technological development

This hook provides examples of technological development in the First World War and examines how the further development of these technologies has impacted life today.

Bristol M1.C 01 This fighter aircraft had a machine gun in front of the pilot.

Bristol M1.C 01 This fighter aircraft had a machine gun in front of the pilot. 33 M1.C aircraft were used in the Middle East and the Balkans in 1917–1918. Photograph by Andy Leonard, 2007,, Creative Commons (share, adapt, attribution, non-commercial).


War often stimulates technological developments. Some technologies, such as weaponry, are designed specifically for military purposes; others, such as aircraft, radio, and RADAR, were invented by civilians and then further developed by the military. The First World War provided many technological firsts. For example, the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was the first such declaration to be delivered by telegram. 

New Zealand ear, nose, and throat specialist Harold Gillies worked with dentist Henry Pickerill to develop plastic surgery techniques used during the First World War. In trench warfare, soldiers’ heads were often exposed, which led to significant facial injuries and burns. Gillies and Pickerill’s new technique involved reconstructing patients’ faces with skin grafts. After the war, Gillies applied the techniques he had learned to civilians and developed multidisciplinary teams in which many specialists would work on one patient together. Specialists came from around the world to train under him. His techniques were used in the Second World War and in civilian practices for many years. 

The First World War was the first in which aircraft played a significant role. At the start of the war, aircraft were mainly used for reconnaissance, for example, locating friendly and enemy forces. As the war progressed, however, aircraft began to be used in aerial warfare, with planes and German Zeppelins armed with machine guns and bombs. Combat aircraft played a vital role in the Second World War due to the introduction of long-range bombers, intercept and ground attack fighter planes, paratroopers and air raids that destroyed many European cities. In the two world wars combined, tens of thousands of airmen were killed. 

Today some military aircraft are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones). The benefits of drones include reduced cost, reduced flight times, and the absence of risks to flight crew. However, some people are concerned that the use of UAVs may make war more likely by removing their risk to the user’s own forces. UAVs have also been responsible for many civilian deaths, despite claims that they will reduce so-called “collateral damage” (unintentional destruction near military targets). 

Possible discussion questions 

What factors led to Gillies and Pickerill developing plastic surgery? 

What does plastic surgery imply for civilian life? 

How have aircraft changed between 1914 and now? What consequences for war have these changes had? How have these changes impacted civilian life? 

How do you predict that aircraft might change in the future? How might these changes impact on the way wars are fought? How might these changes impact civilian life? 

The development of UAVs has led to concerns about their use. Do you think these concerns are justified? Why or why not? 

What other technologies were developed by the military and are used today? 

What are the causes of technological development? How does conflict influence it? Could some areas of technological development be negatively impacted by war? 

What other functions and activities do civilian and military drones carry out?

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