Human-powered vehicles these days might bring to mind recreational contraptions for garage tinkerers or the green-minded set. But rewind back to the American Revolutionary War, and you'll find a human-powered vehicle at the heart of a military attack. Well, an attempted attack, anyway.
Meet the American Turtle: the first combat submarine, designed in 1775 by a Yale College student in his 30s named David Bushnell. The oak and iron vessel measured 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) tall and 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide across its midsection. A solo pilot would crank two propellers and maneuver a rudder by hand. To attack, the operator was meant to drill a screw into a ship's hull and light a time fuse, which would be attached to a charge of gunpowder. Then he would crank like mad to get the heck out of Dodge.
As it turned out, the hull of the British warship selected as the Turtle's first target was plated in copper. That mission, and two later attacks, failed.
Bushnell's Turtle did not have much of a career in future military operations, let alone in civilian life. But roadways today are peppered with technology and designs initially developed for military applications. Chris Gerdes, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, pointed to the Jeep as the most prominent example of military vehicles influencing civilian mobility. "This really went from iconic military transport to iconic expression of freedom and mobility," he wrote in an email.
Even the Volkswagen Beetle has its roots in defense projects. "This chassis was used by the German military and production was restarted by the British army after the war to meet their needs," said Gerdes. "Some of these were exported by soldiers to the UK and the Beetle craze began."
Today, the U.S. military is investing in biofuels, solar, energy conservation, and other green technologies. "Today, one Marine has more technology than I had for 40,000 troops in 2000," Major General Anthony Jackson said during an event at Stanford University last month, just weeks before retiring. "When wars end," he added, "all that technology goes into the civilian sector."