Scientific progress in times of war

Okay, I’m having a cool conversation in the linkedin Sci-Fi group about technology and colonizing other planets ‘n’ stuff.  I was stating my notion that space travel and weapons design and manufacture share many of the same skill sets and you could shift funding from the latter to the former with minimum dislocation of jobs. One person replied thus: Like it or not, humanity makes more scientific progress in times of war, not peace.

As those of you who know me even a little bit probably won’t be surprised in hearing, I took issue with this statement.  I looked up some stats from the U.S. patent office and this is what I found:

U. S. Design Patents (inventions) issued by year:
In the year 1916 – 43,892
In the year 1917 – 40,927 (America enters WW I)
In the year 1918 – 38,450 (the Allies win WW I)
In the year 1919 – 36,795

In the year 1939 – 43,073
In the year 1940 – 42,237
In the year 1941 – 41,108 (America enters WW II)
In the year 1942 – 38,449
In the year 1943 – 31,054
In the year 1944 – 28,053
In the year 1945 – 25,694 (the Allies win WW II)
IN the year 1946 – 21,805

As you can see, during both of the largest wars America was ever involved in the number of design patents awarded falls rather precipitously in every year of fighting and even falls in the year after each war is over.  In fact in WW II, which was disastrously larger and more destructive than WW I, the decline is much steeper.  If WW I or WW II drove scientific progress it certainly isn’t reflected in the number of design patents awarded.

Feel free to share this info with anyone who makes the argument that war propels us to greater scientific achievement.

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6 Responses to Scientific progress in times of war

  1. Sagramore says:

    Is the number of patents issued necessarily a good measure of wartime scientific progress? Do patents get filed for hydrogen bombs, or the super secret tech in unmanned fighter jets? I’m not being snarky; I really have no idea.

    It just seems a lot of the “technological progress” that would be taking place during a war might not really lend itself to getting a patent right at the moment.

    • john says:

      If you notice, the number of patents keeps decreasing the year after the war is over, too. I’m not saying that military research doesn’t increase in time of war. I’m sure it does, but there’s no evidence that scientific progress in general increases in time of war and the radical decrease in the number of patents issued would seem to suggest that overall research plummets, which would make sense if a large number of people were off fighting a war instead of in their labs doing research. While you might not file a patent for a hydrogen bomb, you would file lots of them for the various processes and devices you would need to make a hydrogen bomb. Boeing and Lockheed don’t make their money by giving away stuff to the government.

    • john says:

      In a related and interesting note: the hydrogen bomb was not invented during a time of war. It could be argued that trying to get ready to win a war just in case you have to fight one drives innovation just as much as actually fighting one, and when you’re actually fighting one a lot of your innovators are busy getting their heads blown off and their bowels scattered across battlefields instead of staying home and innovating.

  2. Sagramore says:

    Yea, I was going to say Atomic bomb, but “hydrogen” sounds more technologically advanced, so I went with that hoping you wouldn’t catch it and/or would recognize the Cold War as a war. I was mistaken.

  3. Sagramore says:

    P.S- I totally agree with you in principle; I was just saying. For some reason we tend to put war up on a pedestal as something that provides incalculable scientific and economic benefit. I guess to justify it or appease an entire generation of old people who fought it, referring specifically to Dubya Dubya Two. There’s the whole argument about the war being solely responsible for getting us out of the depression, which you could conceivably argue to be true, except it also cost tens of thousands of American lives, and all of Europe and Asia suffering until at least the late 1960’s…

    I think in general people like to try and justify wars as something that does somehow benefit society, since we’re always fighting it. So they say stuff like “well, it drives technological advancement!” or ‘it’s good for domestic industry,” when in reality it just causes a lot of harm all around.

    • john says:

      Yes. It’s just one of those sophistries that float around unchallenged: if we’re blowing stuff up we’ll have to make more stuff which will be good for the economy; weapons technology drives technological progress. It’s all anecdotal. Yes, there was a lot of technological progress in the Twentiesth Century. Yes, there were a couple of big wars in the Twentieth Century. But Ford developed the assembly line in peacetime. Goddard built the first liquid-fueled rocket in peacetime. Most of these technologies were developed when we weren’t fighting and then used a lot when we were so it seems like war created them.

      You could make the case that preparing for war drives technology, but fighting one simply showcases advances that have already been made.

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