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Pandemics, Tsunamis and Space Travel – The Surprising Catalysts of Innovation

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med-badr-chemmaoui-ZSPBhokqDMc-unsplashAs a trainee patent attorney, I have been curious about the inventions that may arise as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There have already been advances in healthcare directly related to the medical emergency, such as improved ventilators and face masks, and there will hopefully be a novel vaccine to end the calamity. However, with the majority of the population having spent the last few months stuck at home under UK lockdown, with little capacity to socialise and an uncertain future ahead, it would come as no surprise if some people have used the time to innovate.

Of course, the current pandemic is certainly not the first time that inventions have emerged from significant events in history.

Previous Epidemics and Pandemics

Black Death – The Black Death of 1331 to 1353 is thought to have killed 30 – 60 % of the population, resulting in the survivors needing to work harder and for longer. Wages increased, along with literacy, leading to more widespread freedom of thought. Clocks, hourglasses, and eyeglasses were introduced to monitor the hours people worked and improve productivity.

The Great Plague – In a similar experience to university students during this year’s pandemic, the Great Plague of London in 1665 and 1666 led Isaac Newton to return home from university in a form of social distancing. This time away became his “year of wonders” and enabled him to develop his theories on the laws of motion, calculus, optics and gravity, supposedly under that very famous apple tree.

SARS – Even the SARS outbreak of 2002 led to the success and expansion of eCommerce, with people wanting to shop online and stay connected with others while isolating at home.

World War II

One of the most notable innovations to emerge from World War II is of course the computer. Colossus is considered to be the world’s first programmable, digital computer and was used from 1944 to help decode Nazis messages. Information about Colossus was not publicly available until 1970 but it certainly inspired modern computers, with many of those who worked on the Colossus project playing a significant role in their development.

World War II is also responsible for an everyday appliance that most of us will have in our kitchens. The invention of the cavity magnetron in 1940 not only led to radars small enough to be installed in planes, helping to improve bombing accuracy and the detection of German U-Boats, but also the microwave oven. You may not be so grateful however, for the role it played in developing modern radar, which is currently used by the police to detect the speed of cars.

Natural Disasters

When a natural disaster hits, communicating urgent messages to help people reach safety is imperative. So what do you do if communication towers and cables are damaged by the disaster? Aerial 3D is a 3D display, developed by Japanese company Aerial Burton in response to the Japanese tsunami of 2011, which can project images in the air without using a screen. Laser light is focused into points which stimulate oxygen and nitrogen molecules to a plasma excitation level. By controlling the position of the focal point in the x, y and z axes, 3D images can be constructed in the air using laser dots. Although the technology stemmed from emergency warning displays, it is helping 3D holography to become a reality.

Space Travel

Of course, I could not write about catalysts of innovation without including space travel. Indeed, if it were not for space travel, we would not be taking selfies with our camera phones, wearing our wireless headphones and Nike® Air trainers.

The active pixel sensor, developed by NASA for interplanetary space travel, has led to camera phones, pill cameras that take pictures of a person’s intestines and automatic dimming headlights. It was also a NASA engineer who suggested a suitable shock absorber to Nike® after blow rubber moulding had been used to produce helmets for astronauts. The wireless headsets NASA created to allow astronauts to communicate without tangled wires are further said to have inspired the wireless headphones we wear today.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Already, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to hands-free door openers, anti-viral snoods and wrist-mounted disinfectant sprays, but if history is anything to go by, I look forward to seeing the wealth of innovation it is likely to bring.

Amelia Ross 28 July 2020


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