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Technology in World War I

Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

World War I shaped our world in many, many, many ways. And it's important to realize it wasn't that long ago. It was not even 100 years ago. But it was really the end of the more traditional empires. It was the end of kingdoms. It really reshaped much of the globe much more around states defined by nations rather than states defined by monarchies or states defined by empires. And it was also the first war where technology, or I would say modern technology-- technology has always played a major role in wars. In fact, wars have been a catalyst for technology often. But it was the first time that much of what we consider to be modern technology played a huge role in the actual carrying out of the war. And to a large degree, this is what made the war so much bloodier, and one could argue, even more protracted. So here I have a bunch of pictures of the various technologies used in World War I. Here in this picture you have a machine gun, which obviously allows you to indiscriminately mow down folks. These guys, it looks like they might be in some type of a trench. And so you could imagine that combination if viewed from above. So let's say that this is a trench. This is a trench right over here. We're looking from above. So there's some people sitting in the trench. A couple of these folks have machine guns. The rest of the guys just have rifles over here. If you wanted to storm this trench, you'd be in a bad situation. The guy with the machine gun essentially could just mow people down. They also tended to use barbed wire. Barbed wire wasn't invented in World War I. It was invented many decades before in the 1800s. But that would make it very hard for someone to cross this period. They would get stuck in it. At which point these guys in the trench could shoot him down. And it would be very hard to shoot the guys in the trench. So it also, other than making it very deadly, it gave all the advantages to the defense. So any time someone wanted to gain ground, especially in one of the fronts where trench warfare was being used, it was a hugely, hugely, hugely bloody affair. The other technology that came into mainstream use in World War I was the use of gas, and in particular poison gas. And as you see these gentleman right over here, they're wearing gas masks because they're afraid that their opponent is going to use poison gas. And the benefit of gas in particular is let's say you have an artillery shell that you throw over and it doesn't hit anybody. But then it starts releasing a canister of-- let me do that in a different color-- it starts releasing a canister of gas. So the gas I've drawn in this purplish color. And so it doesn't have to be a direct hit. It can just linger there and infect that trench. And it'll affect everyone there. And gas warfare was-- actually, the Germans weren't first to use just gas warfare. But they were the first to use very lethal, what we would call poison, gas. And in particular in 1915, they used chlorine gas. So let me write that down. Chlorine gas, which immediately attacks the respiratory system of the person who inhales it. And they essentially choke to death within seconds or minutes. They also used phosgene gas because this did not stimulate that choking. And in some ways it could infiltrate the respiratory system even more. It had a delayed effect. So it would linger around. And you have the use of mustard gas. Mustard gas was very hard to protect against. It wouldn't immediately have you choke to death like chlorine gas. It would be severe blistering. It would essentially take you out of the battle. It was very hard to protect against. And it would also linger around in the trench. So it made the trench a very toxic environment to work in. So these are very, very, very ugly weapons. I mean, war itself is ugly. Weapons themselves are ugly. I mean, the machine gun is not a pleasant weapon. It can mow people down. But even folks who view something like a machine gun as an acceptable thing tend to view these things as particularly ugly things to use. Other weapons that showed up in World War I, we talked about this in other videos, but the tank started to become a factor. This right over here is an American tank. Obviously, with these treads it can go in tough terrain. It's heavily, heavily armored. When you talk about this trench type of thing, well, if you've got a big hulking beast, maybe that could roll through the barbed wire and take some beating and maybe eventually-- so you could imagine a tank over here, it could eventually-- and actually the tanks at this time did not have these big turrets. So they might have looked something more like that. But this might be able to actually be part of an offensive against a trench like this. We've talked extensively about submarine warfare in World War I. The Germans especially used it, essentially to have a chance against the dominant British Navy. Unrestricted U-boat warfare was one of the primary reasons given by the Americans as to why they entered the war on the side of the entente. These are World War I era US submarines, just to give an idea of how they actually looked. And in some ways the best foreshadowing of what would play a major, major, major role in future wars it was the bringing of heavier than air craft into the war. So in particular, we're talking about airplanes. So before this, you had stuff like balloons and zeppelins used for reconnaissance, used to see where we should aim the artillery, things like that. But now you had the Wright brothers only, frankly, several years before inventing the engine powered heavier than air craft. And at first the airplane, in the beginning stages the war, was used for reconnaissance. But as the technology improved, as the engines improved, it started to be used for bombing. It started to actually used for air to air combat. And out of all of the folks involved in air to air combat, this gentleman right over here is probably the most famous. Although you might not recognize his name. He's been turned into a bit of a caricature in the modern world. But this is Manfred von Richthofen. And he was a pilot for the Germans. And he's more famously known as the Red Baron. And he was called the Red Baron because he was actually a Baron. It is a title of nobility in imperial Germany. And he painted his plane red. So this is a picture of his plane right over here. So if I were to color it in-- I guess this isn't quite red. I should actually probably try to get a more reddish color. So maybe this is more of a red. So this is obviously a black and white photograph, but maybe if I color it in for you, you'll get more of the feeling of what his plane might have looked like. And it was a triplane. It had these three wings right over here, or three levels of wings. So whatever, his plane was red. That's why he was called the Red Baron. And he was famous for being the most lethal pilot in all of the war. He has 80 confirmed kills. He was able to down 80 enemy aircraft. So 80 confirmed wins, I guess you can say in combat, which is more than any other folks in World War I. So very, very famous pilot. He himself-- when you're talking about any of the combatants in World War I did not have a long life expectancy. The pilots especially this was a dangerous game. And he also, despite being the top pilot, the top ace, amongst all the pilots in World War I, he also ended up getting shot in the air in 1918. He literally got shot through the lungs and the heart. He somehow managed to land his plane. And when the people ran up to him, the accounts say, that his famous last words as he died, right when they ran up to him, was "kaput". So interesting. And on top of that, he's now been turned into a bit of a caricature. I mean, us in the West, in the US, we recognize the brand Red Baron pizza. It is named for the Red Baron, for Manfred von Richthofen. Kind of a strange name, I think, for a pizza company. I mean, he's not even Italian. But that's, I guess, what we know him for. But you see, this guy right over here looks a lot more like Tom Selleck than look like the real Manfred von Richthofen.