War: What Is It Good For?
January 8, 2012
Susannah Cahalan / The New York Post
From bombs to bombshells, what unlikely links between military technology and mainstream culture began in war? The military radar gave us the kitchen microwave. The expertise gained in building miniaturized moving parts for Raytheon's missile projects made it possible to create the Barbie Doll. And without a military-designed tripod camera and night-vision capabilities, there would have been no Paris Hilton sex tape.
Sex, Bombs and Burgers:
How War, Pornography and Fast Food Have Shaped Modern Technology
By Peter Nowak (Lyons Press)
Reviewed by Susannah Cahalan / The New York Post
NEW YORK (December 31, 2011) -- Thanks to the military, we'll always have Paris.
Yes, our troops are responsible for the rise of the reality television star, a new book claims. It all stems back to that green-washed 2004 home video, which featured hotel heiress Paris Hilton and then-boyfriend Rick Salomon in flagrante delicto. Without the sex tape, Paris would likely have remained in the society pages.
But, because of the military-designed tripod camera with its night-vision capabilities, Hilton became a household name.
When tech journalist Peter Nowak saw the infamous video, the first thing he thought about was the Gulf War. "While most viewers marveled at Paris', er, skills, I was interested in the technology being used behind the scenes. Welcome to the life of a nerd," Nowak writes.
This eureka moment -- from bombs to bombshells -- prompted Nowak to start digging further: What other unlikely creations began in war? Through his research, he found more bizarre links between military technology and mainstream items:
Dirty movies and new technologies have worked hand-in-hand for the last century, Nowak says. And most of these advances came out of military funding.
Paris Hilton's sex tape crystallizes the link between the sex industry and the military with two key devices: the hand-held camera and night vision.
Hand-held cameras were developed before World War II but weren't implemented until the war, when officers used video to record enemy forces, help train soldiers and offer morale-boosting propaganda.
After the war, when many of the directors were out of a gig, the independent-movie industry flourished -- including sex films.
In fact, Russ Meyer, credited as the father of the modern day porn industry and director of the sexploitation film "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" was originally a videographer for Gen. George S. Patton.
Though not as groundbreaking as handheld cameras, the use of night vision, too, shows how important military technology is in pornography. Night vision, too, goes back to World War II, but it wasn't cheap and efficient enough to use on the ground until the Gulf War in 1990.
"A few years after that, it's even cheaper and now we have Paris Hilton using it in her sex video," Nowak writes.
The microwave began as a happy accident and an outgrowth of the unsung hero of World War II: radar.
After the blitzing of Britain by German planes, the UK made it a priority to develop some kind of detection system that could counteract the attacks. With the help of the US, they developed radar.
"It forced the Germans to cancel their invasion of the UK," Nowak tells The Post. "Some give more credit to radar than the atomic bomb as the war's most important invention."
But radar had little use in peacetime, until American engineer Percy Spencer found a melted bar of chocolate in his pocket while he was experimented with radar in his lab. Curious about its heating effects, he popped popcorn kernels and exploded an egg. He knew then that he had a hit on his hands, though it would take several years to perfect.
The first microwave oven, which was 600 pounds, 6 feet tall and cost around $34,000, was not feasible for mainstream cooking. But as developers made it smaller and more affordable (and when, in 1975, it finally could fit on a kitchen counter and cost under $500), it became as ubiquitous as the oven. Now 96% of American homes have one.
Mattel's Barbie was a direct result of "space-age military thinking."
Elliot Handler, Mattel owner, wanted to capitalize on the popularity of plastics during and after World War II and hoped to find someone with some engineering background to make his plastic toys sing. That person was war engineer Jack Ryan, who spent his career designing missiles for Raytheon, a defense contractor.
Ryan developed Barbie using new plastic molds that created a softer but more resilient doll. He also designed and patented new arms and legs that gave the doll greater flexibility.
"The expertise he had gained in building miniaturized moving parts for Raytheon's missile projects came in handy when designing the joints," Nowak writes.
It also worked to help make the doll better capable of dealing with rough play that "the forces of gravity, velocity and drag that missiles had to deal with," Nowak writes.
But Ryan's widely successful toy experiments didn't end with the best-selling doll of all time. Ryan also used his transistor experience to create a talking version of Barbie, called Chatty Cathy, which operated via a mini-phonograph in her stomach.
He also had a hand in creating Hot Wheels, the second-most successful toy ever, which was based on engineering principles of a real car with suspension systems, inner-wheel bearings and conical-shaped tires that reduced friction.
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