I spoke earlier how government spending on public works, military equipment, etc spurred the US economy during the 20th century. What are some of the things that came out of this free spending that could not have been foreseen before hand?
The Internet: it is well known that the basis for the Internet or at least the underlying technologies TCP/IP, were developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). They were working on a robust communications method to ensure that communication lines remained open in the event of a nuclear exchange. It could not have been foreseen at the time that the biggest user of this technology would be the public and private industry. This underlying protocol along with HTML and the world wide web, developed by scientists at CERN to share research, paved the way for huge industry at the end of the 20th century and on into the 21st.
Batteries for everything: the Apollo program, another huge government spending program, resulted in a lot of technologies but I want to stick to portable battery solutions. Our current battery technology for hand tools, cell phones, laptops, cars, etc. started with Apollo. They had a need for small, portable batteries for tools in space. This was funded by the public and exploited by industry to give us the world we have today. How long would we have needed to wait if we hadn’t had this program?
GPS: its easy to forget that at one time if you wanted to know where you were on Earth you needed to know how to use a map, a compass and maybe an astrolabe. Now we carry around maps and automatic directions in our pockets. This was developed, not by private industry, but by a military need for accurate navigation for soldiers and vehicles. Without recognizing the need, from a military standpoint, the expense would have been too great for private industry to develop and deploy because of the huge infrastructure needs. The availability of this technology has helped businesses by improving logistics among other uses.
Ready to eat foods: The need for portable, edible foods for soldiers created a need for packaged, shelf stable foods that could be transported and eaten anywhere. This helped the packaged food industry and gave us better food options across the board.
Big data innovations: The work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) created a need for a means to process large amounts of data quickly and cheaply. A lot of the work on big data platforms stemmed from needs at CERN.
Modern electronics: the research into quantum physics and elementary particles resulted in the knowledge necessary to build our current technological base. Modern microchips and integrated circuits would not have been possible without this basic research. If you asked the scientists working on the explanation for the building blocks of the universe what would come of it, I doubt any of them would have foreseen the application in everything that makes the modern world possible. There would be no microwaves, cell phones, computers, etc.
Digital Cameras: spy satellites and space telescopes innovated and created the modern digital sensor for all of the cameras in use today. It was much better to be able to send a digital file down from orbit instead of getting film back.
tampons and pads: women should be happy that the military was looking for a better bandage for field dressings for injured soldiers. As a result of this research they developed and were able to market the modern feminine hygiene product by as a follow-on once the factories were created to make the basic components.
EpiPens: this delivery technology was originally developed to help soldiers administer antidotes for nerve agents/chemical warfare agents in a battlefield environment. This is a good thing for everyone that counts on it for allergic reactions.
more NASA spin-off technologies can be found here
How many of these technologies would have been developed without a military or basic science need? How much later would they have been created? What would things look like today without them?
We drive so much of our modern lives with government funded/developed technology yet we think that its private industry that comes up with the innovation. The innovation by private industry is driven by the enabling technologies from military and scientific research/needs. Cutting funding to basic science will stop a vital input into our economy. This is often lost on those wanting to cut basic science funding which is a tiny part of our government funding.