Under the Influence

How a military tragedy led to the invention of GPS

The army has invented more products than any other agency, company or organization in history. You'd be astounded at how many products - invented by the military - that now sit in your home at his very moment.

The military has made a lasting impact on your everyday life.

Because the army has invented more products than any other agency, company or organization in history.

You'll be astounded at how many products - invented by the military - that now sit in your home at this very moment.

You use them when you wake up, when you shower, when you shave, when you dress, when you drive to work, when you cook and when you relax at the end of the day.

The military may be looking for a few good men, but it has created hundreds of everyday products…

Chances are you have some canned food in your cupboard. That was a Napoleon innovation.

An everyday military invention. (Matthew Garand/CBC)
Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant wartime strategist, and actually became a general at the age of 24.

He once famously said, "An army travels on its stomach." He realized he was losing more men to spoiled food and malnutrition than he was to muskets and cannon fire.

So in 1795, Napoleon offered a 12,000 Franc reward – which was a fortune in those days – to anyone who could figure out a way to preserve food.

Up stepped a French confectioner named Nicolas Appert, who developed a way of heating food in sealed glass jars. As long as the seal wasn't broken, the food would last a long time.

With that, the health of Napoleon's soldiers greatly improved. There were just two problems – glass was heavy to transport and it was fragile.

History gets a little murky here, but it seems another Frenchman invented the tin canning process, but had a British friend file the patent. Once food moved to tin cans, preservation took a huge leap forward that still echoes to this day.

So the next time you buy a can of soup, you can thank Napoleon.

In 1957, Russia did something that put the rest of the world on full alert: it launched Sputnik 1, the first-ever man-made satellite, into space.

As author Peter Nowak says in his excellent book Sex, Bombs and Burgers, Sputnik caught the U.S. with its scientific pants down.

Launching rockets into space in the 50s wasn't about who could venture farthest from Earth, but rather who could land nuclear weapons closest to their enemy. In other words, the space program was really about military superiority.

But while Sputnik seemed like a Cold War defeat, it actually led to one of the biggest technological breakthroughs of the 20th century.

A ubiquitous service inspired by the military. (David Gunn/CBC)
Scientists at MIT noticed the frequency of the radio signals transmitted by the Russian satellite increased as it approached and decreased as it moved away. They realized satellites could be tracked from the ground by measuring the frequency of the sounds they emitted, and conversely, the locations of receivers on the ground could be tracked based on their distance from the satellite.

Using that knowledge, the Navy built the first real satellite navigation system designed to locate submarines in 1959.

Later, in 1974, the military launched the first 24-hour navigation system called NAVSTAR. That technology would eventually lead to the GPS in your car and smartphone.

Access to GPS technology changed forever on September 1st, 1983.

The Korean airliner was en route from New York to Seoul when it apparently strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down. Not long after, President Ronald Reagan decided that GPS – which could have prevented that tragedy – would be made available for all civilian use.

But - the military worried hostile nations would use GPS technology against them - so they purposely degraded the precision of commercial GPS devices. And if you remember back to the early '90s, GPS seemed miraculous – but frustratingly inaccurate. That was the reason. Commercial GPS was purposely made to be less than perfect.

Then in the year 2000, the military ended the degradation of GPS signals and navigation became 10 times more accurate overnight. With that, all sorts of companies began manufacturing GPS devices.

The global GPS market generated over $26 billion last year.

From Sputnik to the Korean airline disaster – your GPS has taken a tumultuous journey to your smart phone.

Back in 1942, a group of scientists led by a man named Harry Coover was looking to create a clear plastic that could be used to manufacture precision gunsights for use in World War II.

During their experiments, they stumbled on a formulation that had potential, but the material had one big drawback. It stuck to everything.

An accidental military discovery. (Wikimedia Commons)
It was so sticky, it frustrated the scientists. This new formulation, called cyanoacrylate, stuck to everything it came into contact with. As a matter of fact, it was so annoyingly sticky it was rejected as a gunsight solution.

After the war in 1951, Harry Coover was heading up the research department at Eastman Kodak. He and another scientist rediscovered cyanoacrylate one day – and suddenly realized something.

It may not have had wartime applications, but its stickiness might just have some commercial applications. So – in 1958 – they began marketing it as Super Glue.

It became a commercial phenomenon. But eventually Super Glue would find itself back in the war with Vietnam.

Field medics discovered when they sprayed Super Glue over open wounds, the bleeding stopped instantly, allowing injured soldiers to be transported to the hospital for treatment.

Eventually, Kodak licensed the formulation to other companies and you can now find cyanoacrylate in all sorts of products in your home – from aquariums and electronics to fingernail cosmetics.

From gunsights to your fingernails, what a long, strange trip it's been.

For these stories and more from Under The Influence, click or tap on the "Listen" tab to hear the full episode.

You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search for the hashtag: #Terstream.

The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)