From Wristwatches To Radio, How World War I Ushered In The Modern World : Parallels The war is remembered for trench warfare, millions of deaths and the failure to bring lasting peace. But it also brought together emerging technologies, remaking life on and off the battlefield.

From Wristwatches To Radio, How World War I Ushered In The Modern World

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The United States entered World War I a hundred years ago this week on April 6, 1917. The war is remembered mostly for its brutality. But as NPR's Greg Myre explains, it was also a moment when emerging technologies converged, remaking life on and off the battlefield.


NORA BAYES: Over there, over there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Imagine you're a military officer in World War I. Armies have grown so large you can no longer communicate just by the sound of your voice or the wave of your hand. You need to synchronize movements of troops and artillery far and wide. You need a wristwatch.


CARLENE STEPHENS: The entire process of using artillery to protect folks in the trenches as they advanced was an elaborately timed, choreographed forward motion.

MYRE: That's Carlene Stephens of the Smithsonian's American History Museum. And she's showing me a 1917 Elgin watch, the kind worn by many soldiers. Before the war, wristwatches were worn mostly as jewelry by upper-class women. But they became essential gear for frontline officers. This one has white numbers tipped with radium so they glow in the dark, and a metal grill partly covers the watch face.

STEPHENS: This guard is often referred to as shrapnel guard so that if a soldier is out in the field, the guard protects the tender dial of the watch.

MYRE: This is one small example of the way the war sped up technology at a rapid-fire pace. Speaking of rapid fire, machine guns were introduced in the war as were tanks, radios and military aircraft. This was the first real technology war. The examples are endless. So we'll let historian Libby O'Connell sum it up.

LIBBY O'CONNELL: The soldiers rode in on horseback and flew out on airplanes.

MYRE: O'Connell is part of the World War I Centennial Commission created by Congress to mark the anniversary. Like many historians, she feels Americans don't appreciate the ways the war and its technology transformed this country and the world. The day after Congress declared war, the government banned private radio in the country fearing it might be misused. Here's O'Connell again.

O'CONNELL: What the government does by taking over the radio industry - they were able to really fund technological advances that would have otherwise taken years to do.

MYRE: These advances merged in ways no one had imagined before the war. Radio and phone communications were vital to orchestrating troop movements along a front line that stretched hundreds of miles. As Carlene Stephens explains, wristwatches also proved critical for pilots serving as a backup fuel gauge.

STEPHENS: If you were out too long as a pilot, you didn't make it back because you ran out of fuel.

MYRE: Of course, warfare and technology also collided in nefarious ways that produced mass death, most notably with chemical weapons. But when the war ended, the U.S. emerged as a true military power with the world's largest economy, a more global mindset and a new appreciation for technology. Here's Libby O'Connell.

O'CONNELL: World War I will change everything. It turns it into the modern world. This will be the beginning of the truly modern era.

MYRE: And even then, Americans could feel that something had changed.


BING CROSBY AND LINDSAY CROSBY: (Singing) How you going to keep them down on the bar after they've seen Harry (ph).

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.


BING CROSBY AND LINDSAY CROSBY: (Singing) How you going to keep them away from Broadway jazzing alone and painting details (ph).

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