Technology’s Holy Trinity: Sex, bombs and burgers

My former New Zealand Herald colleague, Peter Nowak, now firmly ensconced back in Toronto at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has just published his first book and its based on an intriguing premise.

burgers coverNowak has been poring over the annals of 20th century innovation and come to the conclusion that war, porn and fast food created a good deal of technology as we know it.

Chapter 1 of the book Sex, Bombs and Burgers is free to download and sets the scene well outlining how the humble kitchen microwave has its origins in the technology invented by the Britsh and developed by the Americans to create radar for military use. That application of technology changed the course of the war, but in the post-war world, spawned a consumer cooking revolution still going strong:

The age of cooking convenience had finally arrived in the home. The microwave oven was the perfect invention for a postwar society that put a premium on speed. With an increasing number of families seeing both parents going off to work, spare time was becoming more and more precious. The microwave helped facilitate those busy lives.

Chapter 1 also looks at the development of Teflon, which was discovered by accident in the 1930s and developed by chemical giant Du Pont as a sealant in its plutonium plants – Du Pont was a major player in creating the US military’s nuclear capability during the war.

We also learn that in the run up to World War I, Germany, forbidden from stockpiling materials that could contribute towards military applications, came up with synthetic materials that would become crucial to the war effort in Nazi Germany as Hilter’s supplies of oil and rubber were cut off. German industrial giant Farben was key in this synthetic materials development, which extended to manufacturing the deadly Zkylon B gas used to kill thousands of concentration camp prisoners.

Several of today’s largest multinational firms owe part of their post-war successes to the often ill-gotten intellectual property inherited from Farben, including film manufacturer Agfa-Gevaert, chemical maker BASF and pharmaceutical companies Sanofi-Aventis (derived from a merger of Farben spin-off Hoechst and France’s Rhône-Poulenc Rorer) and Bayer.

And a, in hindsight, fairly creepy comment from Adolf Hitler:

’It is the task of science to give us those materials nature has cruelly denied us. Science is only free if she can sovereignly master those problems posed to her by life.’

We haven’t got to the porn and fast food yet, but there are plenty of hints on the internet as to the ground Nowak is likely to cover. Check out this PC World article – 12 ways the sex trade has changed the web. Online payment systems and web video streaming are just two innovations with their roots in porn.

Ironically, we are also seeing consumer technologies, such as video games becoming the tools of innovation for the military as games are used to sharpen the skills of soldiers.

Nowak’s book is in bookstores here next month. In the meantime you can check out his blog, where he has a running commentary on the link between technology and boobs, bombs and burgers.

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