Once upon a time, very substantial spinoffs from investments in military technology were fairly common. This trend is not new: for example, John Wilkinson developed a technique for boring iron guns from guns from a solid piece, which led directly to boring precision cylinders for James Watt’s steam engines.
In WWII and the Cold War generated many spinoffs. The cavity magnetron was developed for centimetric radar, but later made an even greater contribution by warming up pizza [microwave ovens]. The diesel-electric transmission used for US submarines also had an application in locomotives. The development of military rockery and ICBMs led to civilian applications such as comsats and weather satellites.
Work in military jet engine technology has often had civilian payoffs.
Integrated circuits were not at first cost-competitive in most commercial applications, but the Air Force wanted them, for Minuteman guidance systems, where reliability and miniaturization were of utmost value: that market helped them get started.
One of the more famous and lucrative spinoffs was the KC-135. The Air Force wanted long-range bombers, and the RAND corporation showed that this could be done more efficiently using aerial refueling [ saved something like $20 billion]. The 707 was a derivative of the KC-135 design, and made Boeing gobs and gobs of money.
Packet switching was developed by the USAF, in search of a system that might survive a nuclear attack.
In the past few decades such spinoffs have become less common. Around 1980, people began to notice that military semiconductor technology was slipping behind civilian semiconductor technology – in part because DOD is bureaucratic and slow, partly because of specialized miltech requirement [radhard] , but for other reasons as well. There were some effort to catch up [VHSIC, the NSA’s support of a superconducting-switch computer] but it didn’t happen. Although if someone gets a quantum computer working, the NSA will have come through.
Today, cutting edge computing technology builds on devices whose original purpose satisfied gamer lust for high-resolution depictions of exploding zombies [GPUs], people searching for porn, and viewing gossip. Nothing wrong with that. Still, it would be nice if we got more civ value out of military research, the way we once did, since we’re going to be doing a lot of military research in any event. Twofers like the KC-135 would be good for the US economy. And unless I’m mistaken, there was a certain tendency for the spinoffs of military R&D to be more ‘real’ than today’s porn&gaming spinoffs.
How can we produce more cool civilian spinoffs from military research?