Tanks, Ecstasy and Relativity: the science, technology and inventions of the 1910s

Continuing our look at the major inventions in each decade for the last 150 years, in this article we investigate the scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs of the 1910s. This decade saw the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the start of World War One, the sinking of the Titanic, and the rise of prohibition in the USA.

Whilst this decade is most prominently remembered for the First World War, the first example of war on such a massive scale, it is also the decade that brought us a number of inventions and scientific breakthroughs. These breakthroughs would have a massive impact on the futures of science and technology, not to mention a number of inventions that would improve the quality of life for many people in the western world.

The tank

Three years prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the events that sparked the First World War, the first modern examples of the tank would be seen. In 1911 in Austria Gunther Burstyn, an officer in Austro-Hungarian army, designed the first cross country tank with a swivelling turret and named it Motorgeschütz (literal translation the motor gun). Based on the design of agricultural tractors it would prove to be a more advanced design than many of the tanks used during the First World War, but was rejected by both the Austro-Hungarian and German armies. In the same year an Australian inventor by the name of Lancelot de Mole submitted a tank design to the British authorities. Inspired by the discomfort of traveling over the rough terrain in Australia, de Mole’s "chain-rail vehicle" could be "easily steered and carry heavy loads over rough ground and trenches" but would also be rejected. De Mole would not receive formal recognition of his invention until 1919.

De Mole model tank

Cosmological constants and cosmic compounds

In 1905 Albert Einstein (who famously worked in a patent office) published his special theory of relativity but, shortly after, began work to incorporate gravity into his framework. Starting in 1907, and with a number of false starts, Einstein laboured over this work until 1915 when he would present his findings to the Prussian Academy of Science as the Einstein field equations.  In 1917 Einstein would apply his theories to the universe as a whole, creating the field of relativistic cosmology and, assuming that the universe was static, theorised the cosmological constant, but abandoned it, later citing it as the biggest blunder of his life. It would not be until the 1990s that his theory would be believed to be correct.

Albert Einstein

In 1912 on Christmas Eve a German chemist Anton Köllisch would file a patent application for a chemical substance that would change the culture of clubbing in the 1980s irrevocably; this substance was known as MDMA but would be later known more commonly as ecstasy. MDMA was never designed to be used for narcotic usage but was rather designed by Köllisch at the behest of his employer, pharmaceutical giant Merck, to be used to stop abnormal bleeding, evading a patent owned by rival company Bayer for the compound hydrastinine.

Elsewhere in the 1910s

As well as the developments in armaments, physics and chemistry there were a number of developments in the 1910s that would have more of an impact on society both in the home and in fashion. Whilst the concept of the brassiere had been around since the 1400s, and Germany began mass production of brassieres in 1912, it was not until 1914 that a patent for what could be considered the modern bra would be taken out in the USA by American patron of the arts Mary Phelps Jacob. A hundred years later we are still seeking protection for our clients for bra-related technology today!

In 1908 Corning Glass developed Nonex, a low expansion glass to reduce breakages in lantern globes and battery jars; this led to the removal of lead in 1915 to market it as a heat resistant cookware product that would be known as Pyrex. It was marketed during the First World War as a replacement product for a similar German made product called Duran.

In December 1913, Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, created what would be recognised as the first crossword puzzle, and Sunday mornings at the breakfast table would never be quite the same.


In April 1912 the Titanic infamously sunk after colliding with an iceberg on her maiden voyage, the whistles carried by the lifeboatmen who helped in the saving of many women and children were patented by offices of HN & WS Skerrett, the firm that would later become the Birmingham office of Wilson Gunn. You can read more about our history here.

Acme Whistle

Let us know your thoughts

Which of these inventions do you think was the most significant? Let us know your thoughts on our Twitter page @wilsongunn

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations we are giving away over £1000 worth of British inventions. You can find out full details and how to enter for free here.

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