Memorial Day is a holiday devoted to remembering lives lost in war. The soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect civilian freedoms deserve nothing less than respect. Often lost in the Memorial Day discussions are scientists and inventors who created machines and devices to prevent those lives from being lost in the first place. This Memorial Day we look back at six scientists who thought they’d found a way to do just that – only to see those inventions added to the war machine they wanted to stop.
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Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, inventor, and engineer who was fluent in 5 languages by the age of 17. He is best known today as the creator of the Nobel Peace Prize, the highest honor for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind” according to his will. But as dedicated a humanitarian as Nobel was, his devotion to the Prize was born from his most famous invention: dynamite. Patented in 1867, Nobel invented dynamite as a safer, more stable construction explosive to nitroglycerin, which killed his younger brother Emil. Nobel hoped that by adding stabilizers to the nitroglycerin, he would create an invention to end war, not create it: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” Sadly, that was not the case, as armies quickly realized the weaponized potential of dynamite explosions. Dynamite explosions caused many deaths, so much so that when a French newspaper accidentally published Nobel‘s obituary they celebrated. The headline crowed “Le marchand de la mort est mort (The merchant of death is dead).” They continued, writing, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel was upset by that, and didn’t want his legacy to be one of death. That’s why he devoted the bulk of his inheritance to establish the Peace Prize.
Invention: Agent Orange
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Arthur Galston was an American botanist who devoted his career to helping plants grow. He focused on synthesizing triiodobenzoic acid (TIBA), a hormone that sped up the flowering of soybeans, but would defoliate them in higher concentrations. What he didn’t expect was that biological warfare scientists would find his research on TIBA and use it to formulate a chemical weapon. What they created was Agent Orange, and it was used to destroy enemy crops in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It did. It also caused birth defects for hundreds of thousands of children, and lifelong health problems for an equal number of adults. Galston regretted that his research had been used that way and lobbied to end its use from 1965 until its ban in 1971. He felt guilty about how his research was used for the rest of his life, even though he knew he wasn’t to blame for its misuse. As he told The New York Times, “You know, nothing that you do in science is guaranteed to result in benefits for mankind. Any discovery, I believe, is morally neutral and it can be turned either to constructive ends or destructive ends. That’s not the fault of science.”
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All Mikhail Kalashnikov wanted to do was defend his country. To that end he enlisted in the army and, when he heard his comrades complaining about the ineffective and dangerous rifles they were forced to use, he combined his interest in weaponry with his skill in machinery to design a better one. The fruit of that labor was the Avtomat Kalashnikova Model 1947 – what we know as the AK-47. It is “the world’s most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken,” as the Washington Post summarizes. The guns were cheap, lightweight, and durable in the most extreme climates, earning Kalashnikov hero status in Russia and becoming a source of pride for most of his life. Unfortunately, when terrorist groups and other violent factions found ways to bootleg production of the AK-47, Kalashnikov wished he would have made something more helpful, telling The Guardian “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists … I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower.” As 100 million of them were produced by 2009, half of which were counterfeit, Kalashnikov became so concerned by the bloodshed that he wrote the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to beg forgiveness:
My spiritual pain is unbearable. My heartache unbearable. I keep having the same insoluble question: if my rifle deprive people of life, and therefore I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, ninety-three years old, the son of a peasant, and Orthodox Christian according to his faith, [am] responsible for the death of people, even an enemy?
The church absolved him and thanked him for his service. He died 6 months later.
Invention: Weapons-grade pepper spray
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Pepper spray began with noble intentions. First developed in 1960, it was created as a dog deterrent for the US Postal service to keep its carriers from being bitten on their routes. After seeing its success with that agency, the FBI pushed to develop a weapons-grade version of in the 1980s. Kamran Loghman invented oleoresin capsicum (OC), a non-lethal agent derived from the same compound that provides the burn in chili peppers. It delivers a highly concentrated heat of 5.3 million Scoville units, five times the intensity of the hottest natural pepper in the world. Loghman considered OC a safe deterrent for police to use against violent offenders, as its effects — temporary blindness, breathing difficulties, a long-lasting burning sensation and severe coughing — were effective and temporary. He advocated for safe use, and when the product was picked up by police precincts around the country he helped write guidelines and train officers to use OC to that end. And it worked; by Loghman’s admission, it saved hundreds of lives over 20 years. But when he saw OC being used against peaceful protesters in 2011, he was shocked. Speaking to Democracy Now!, Loghman cited the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and said:
The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t police or students, [it] was my own children sitting down, having an opinion, and their being shot and forced by chemical agents. The use was just absolutely out of ordinary, and it was not in accordance with any training or policy of any department that I know of. I personally certified 4,000 police officers in the early ’80s and ’90s, and I’ve never seen this before…I feel it’s my civic duty to explain to the public that this is not what pepper spray was developed for.
Loghman now spends a lot of his time advocating for his invention – even as he continues to defend it. He continued to tell Democracy Now! that “It is becoming more and more fashionable right now… to use chemicals on people who have an opinion… [pepper spray]’s really not supposed to be that. It’s not a thing that solves any problem, nor is it something that quiets people down. It’s just a temporary tool.” It is also not “basically a food idea.” Do not eat it.
Invention: The Airplane
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Everyone knows the story of how Orville and Wilbur Wright invented, built, and flew the first airplane. While both brothers spent the rest of their lives devoted to and advocating for safe practices in aviation, neither expected to see their invention used for war. They sold planes to the US Army in 1909, intending them to be used for observation. Yet Orville lived through WWI and saw the destruction it could do. “The aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war,” he wrote afterward in a letter to the Aircraft Ideaion Board. Five years later he spoke on a radio broadcast, stating “the aeroplane, in forcing upon governments a realization of the possibilities for destruction, has actually become a powerful instrument for peace.” After seeing the destruction wrought by bombers in World War II, he realized the inevitability of the invention’s use and lamented its creation. As he told the press before his death, “We [he and Wilbur] dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Invention: The Atomic Bomb
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Einstein’s regret about the atomic bomb is well-known. But he wasn’t actually involved in the creation of it. Julius Robert Oppenheimer was. A gifted physicist with an interest in nuclear motion and Hindu spirituality, he helped begin an American pursuit of theoretical physics in disciplines such as astrophysics, nuclear physics, and quantum field theory. His research laid the groundwork for what we now know as black holes, but when World War II broke out he eagerly turned his attention to creating an atomic bomb as a way to end it. As the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he recruited top physicists to work on the project while he focused on creating fast neutron chain reactions to fuel the bomb. The result was Trinity, the very first hydrogen bomb test. It exploded with the force of 18,000 tons of TNT. Oppenheimer never forgot that test, nor its magnitude, as he explained in a special TV broadcast:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another… In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
After seeing that power, Oppenheimer pushed for international control of atomic energy, and was ultimately appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. While he voiced strong opposition to the development of the atomic bomb, his communist political ties prompted the government to revoke his security clearance. That ended his advocacy and forced him to refocus his research. He never forgot that outcome, though, and remained disappointed by it for the rest of his days.