Five Innovations from the Civil War


Great innovations often appear during times of hardship and stress. Constraints of time, money, and resources can be the catalyst for new inventions and expressions of creativity. Such constraints are often found in the midst of war.We recently took a look at Five Innovations from World War II wherein we saw the development of modern computing and advances in medicine and science. The technological achievements of World War II have shaped the world we live in today.

Let’s rewind the clock another four score to see how technology shaped “the first modern war”: the American Civil War of the 1860’s.  Like World War II, we will learn that many of the great inventions from the Civil War would impact American business.  Many of these inventions have been modernized, but they find their roots over 150 years ago.

1. Telegraph

Samuel Morse’s innovations in telegraphy were in widespread commercial use over a decade before the Civil War began. As soon as the fighting kicked off, the telegraph became the most important form of military communication. Intelligence reports and orders could be exchanged between the front lines and rear headquarters almost instantaneously, accelerating the pace of battle.

Army counter-operations tactics were adapted to interfere with the new technology. Units were deployed to intercept and replace telegraphic communications with misinformation, and sabotage lines.

Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart conducted a successful raid into Union-controlled territory shortly after Christmas, 1862. After seizing prisoners, supplies, and mules, Stuart used tapped lines to send a telegram to the Union Quartermaster General:

Morse code: .. -. – …. . ..-. ..- – ..- .-. . .–. .-.. . .- … . ..-. ..- .-. -. .. … …. -… . – – . .-. — ..- .-.. . … – …. — … . -.– — ..- …. .- …- . ..-. ..- .-. -. .. … …. . -.. .-. . -.-. . -. – .-.. -.– .- .-. . …- . .-. -.– .. -. ..-. . .-. .. — .-. .-.-.-

Translation:“…in the future please furnish better mules; those you have furnished recently are very inferior.”

In modern Web parlance, Stuart pretty much said this:

Morse code: …. ….- -..- —– .-. …– -..

Translation: h4x0r3d!

The telegraph signaled another change: for the first time in the history of warfare, the news media played a significant role. The American press had grown significantly prior to the war. Faster communications added fuel to the fire, and military leaders suddenly found themselves fighting on new battlefields of public relations and journalism.

Most of us can vividly remember watching U.S. bombers rain fire down on Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s. The immediate and devastating nature of warfare was live on CNN in our living rooms. Sure, the technology was different in the Civil War era. But one can easily imagine a similar kind of experience as ordinary American citizens read up-to-date news signaled to newspapers and local telegraph offices from the front lines.

Lessons from history for designers and innovators:

  • Innovation is not for the meek and mild General Stewart’s telegraph hacking exploits demonstrate what often happens after you deploy new technology to your advantage: someone tries to break, thwart, or steal it so they can beat you at your own game.This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to innovate. It does mean that you must prepare for tough competitors who will try to outsmart you.
  • News travels fast. And faster. And faster… We in the digital age have come to take speed of communication for granted. But while we gain speed, we sacrifice control. In the age of Twitter and all the rest, it’s harder than ever to control who knows what, who says what, or how quickly it gets around. Information just wants to go faster, faster, faster. Don’t even bother trying to slow it down or stop it. Much better to harness this speed and use it to your advantage.

2. Photography

Like the telegraph, photography was in use prior to the war. Mathew Brady (who incidentally was a student of telegraph inventor Morse) made a name for himself in the 1840’s shooting pics of celebs and US Presidents.

Brady pushed technology forward, fostering innovations in wet-plate photography that allowed an unlimited number of prints and brought about the ability to produce larger prints than before. More interesting than how he photographed, however, is what he photographed.

When the fighting started, Brady became obsessed with documenting the war. After trying in vain to secure funding from the Northern government, Brady took out loans in excess of $100,000 (about $2 million today.) He hired 300 photographers to shoot scenes of camps and battlefields, and take portraits of soldiers and officers.

The Brady bunch tried to shoot everything about the war, attempting to preserve a true record of the time and events. His 1862 gallery in New York titled “The Dead of Antietam” featured graphic photos of corpses. This was a shock to Americans who had previously only seen artistic renderings in newspapers that filtered out the grittier aspects of war.

Brady never recovered his wartime financial investment. He died penniless decades later in a New York City hospital charity ward. His legacy today is a historical record of incalculable value, including photos of 18 of the 19 Presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley, as well as thousands of snapshots from the war. Thousands of Brady’s photos are now in the National Archives and remain among the most important visual documentation of the era.

Lessons from history for designers and innovators:

  • It’s not about the tools. It’s how you use them.Brady didn’t invent photography, but he showed the world a new way to capture wartime history as well as portraits of notable people in their element. Departing from stylized paintings and drawings, Brady pushed the perceived value of photo-reality to new heights.
  • Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Brady was nearly blind, which is one reason he hired other photographers to execute his war photography project. Regardless, he was only one man. By himself, he could have only taken so many photos in so many places. By enlisting the help of a team of professionals, Brady increased the scope of his legacy by orders of magnitude.
  • Sometimes the greatest innovators aren’t recognized by their peers.Being ahead of your time can mean you receive your greatest accolades posthumously. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but it might be the price you pay for leaving a lasting mark on history. See also: Vincent Van Gogh, Henry David Thoreau, and countless other innovators who went mostly unrewarded in their own day.
  • Innovation doesn’t automatically earn you loads of money.Like Mathew Brady, you can rack up quite a pile of debt leaving your legacy for the ages. It’s probably fair to say that most designers, artists, or inventors are not also brilliant business people or financial masterminds. That’s why it pays to hire someone to keep you in the black. While listening to the creative voices in your head, you might also want to keep an ear open to your accountant. That is, unless you want to join the ranks of those tragically unappreciated – and uncompensated – in their day.

3. Rifle musket and Minié ball

In previous wars, soldiers typically used line tactics on the battlefield. You’ve seen reenactments of this in movies, probably depicting the American Revolution. Rows of hundreds of soldiers, slowly marching forward and firing at a similar line of soldiers just a few hundred feet away. Units moved as one, with orders from commanders to “hold the line.”

Even without protective gear, a soldier receiving fire while standing in line had a reasonable chance of survival. Smoothbore musket rifles were hopelessly inaccurate beyond 80 yards or so. If you managed to actually hit an enemy soldier, he probably wasn’t the one you were aiming for. As crazy as it seems, line infantry formations kinda made sense when you look at the weapons they were using.

Soldiers in the Civil War were outfitted with the latest firearm innovations: muskets with “rifled” (grooved) barrels, and complementary minié ball munitions that provided greatly increased accuracy. Weapons analysts proved the rifle-musket to be three times more deadly than the best alternative weapons available.

Lessons from history for designers and innovators:

  • Increased accuracy can change everything.Where canons, swords, and bayonets decided battles in previous wars, their effectiveness fell precipitously during the Civil War. Artillery accounted for less than 9 percent, and swords and bayonets less than 1 percent of casualties. Frontal assaults in the open on a waiting enemy armed with rifles became suicidal. Units in a defensive posture found themselves in a new position of strength.

    Think about the effect of accuracy for users of your software application. What if your next design reduced the rate of user error? Could you revolutionize your industry by simply providing a better, more accurate tool?

  • You can lose a lot of blood figuring out how to adapt.Imagine being an infantry field officer at the start of the Civil War. Your training in traditional line tactics isn’t just useless, it’s a liability. Ordering your troops to stand in line waiting to be fired upon now seems pretty stupid.

    Rifles with minié bullets produced unprecedented casualty rates in the Civil War. More than 200,000 soldiers were killed in battle and 470,000 wounded. Rifle bullets caused 90 percent of these casualties. It took little time for troops to effectively use the new weapons. It took a lot longer for leaders to figure out how to avoid disaster on deadlier battlefields.

    When you think about innovation, think carefully about how the landscape of your industry will change. New tools often demand new techniques. Don’t get mowed down by your competition because you failed to adapt quickly.

4. Submarines

The Civil War doesn’t usually bring submarines top of mind. It might surprise you to know that a number of submarines were used by both sides. In fact, the Confederates carried out the first ever submarine to attack to successfully sink an enemy ship.

On February 17, 1864, the 40-foot long H.L. Hunley crept up on a union blockade in the outer harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Hunley’s 8-man crew crammed into the hull less than 4 feet wide and just over 4 feet tall. They manually cranked a propeller to sneak up on their target at night.

As the sub had repeatedly sunk during deadly trial runs, the crew was ordered not to fully submerge. Still, they kept a low enough profile to avoid detection until it was too late for the enemy. Their mission: stick a “spar torpedo” to the hull of the Union sloop USS Housatonic. They had no sonar and no self-propelled torpedoes. They simply had 90 pounds of black powder on the end of a 22-foot-long wooden stick.

After ramming the spar into their target, the submarine crew tried to get to a safe distance before detonation. Housatonic crew members spotted the sub and began shooting at it with rifles and pistols. The metal tube was just 100 feet away when the blast went off.

Exactly what happened next is unclear, but the Hunley sank yet again, taking all 8 submariners to the bottom of the harbor. Some historians speculate the submarine was damaged by the blast. Some say it was accidentally rammed by another Union vessel coming to rescue Housatonic sailors. Others contend that the Hunley crew simply ran out of oxygen.

The Hunley was pulled up from the bottom of the sea in the year 2000. It is currently being studied and renovated by a conservation team in a custom-built freshwater tank. If you happen to be in North Charleston, South Carolina, on a weekend you can take a tour of the conservation laboratory and see the sub for yourself.

Lessons from history for designers and innovators:

  • R&D can be costly up front, but perseverance pays offIt’s debatable whether the Union or Confederates gained enough advantage from submarines to offset their cost. 13 men died developing and deploying the Hunley. Eight more died during its first and only mission.Subs played a small role in the war, but their place in the long history of naval warfare is significant. These daring innovators demonstrated that the idea of an “attack submarine” was viable.
  • Lo-fi can be a good starting pointToday’s military submarines are incredibly complex, powerful vessels. If Civil War innovators had waited to perfect oxygen extraction systems or nuclear power plants, they never would have put anything out to sea. They went with what they had, which wasn’t much more than scrap iron and elbow grease.

    Designers know that producing high-fidelity mockups and fully-functional prototypes can take a lot of time. We can better serve project teams with quick sketches or wireframes and close collaboration with developers. Sure, if you “design in code” your first few product versions might take on water. But you’ll miss opportunities if you delay launch to get the design just right.

5. Railroads

No army had ever used railroads in support of war efforts. But President Abraham Lincoln understood railroads. As an Illinois lawyer Lincoln had defended the interests of railroad companies, and as a politician he promoted the expansion of railroads as vital to national infrastructure. Thus, as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, he directed his Generals to exploit the Northern advantage of a superior rail system.

Despite Lincoln’s understanding of the usefulness of rail transportation, it wasn’t easy going in the early stages of the war. Despite the South’s rail system being considerably smaller and weaker, the Rebels at first used trains more effectively to move supplies and troops.

The hang-ups in the North were railroad owners who were more interested in turning a profit than in supporting the war effort. Worse, Lincoln’s own Secretary of War Simon Cameron (an old railroad businessman himself) lost his post in a corruption scandal. Cameron was found trying to profit from War Department contracts with his railroad buddies. In 1862, Congress passed a law giving the government authority to take possession of railroads for wartime use. This got the rail companies in line with the war effort, and set precedent for the use of the domestic rail system during the two World Wars of the 20th century.

Eventually, the South’s severe disadvantages in manpower, material, and rail manufacturing abilities prevented it from defending against the Northern campaigns. Prior to General Sherman’s infamous “march to the sea” across Georgia, he trained ten thousand of his troops in railroad repair. The Union army was then able to fix sabotaged rail lines ahead for their own use, and destroy them behind as they wrecked Southern infrastructure.

Sherman’s troops would burn tracks and twist the heated metal rails so they were unusable, knowing that the South had only one operational plant capable of repairing or producing rails. Without working rail lines, the Southern military couldn’t move quickly enough to counter their enemy. This logistical imbalance sped the end of the war and ultimately prevented even more loss of life.

Lessons from history for designers and innovators:

  • Use new tools to gain an advantage.Imagine if Lincoln and Congress had not recognized the opportunity of using railways to move and supply the army. What if they had stuck to more established, but slower methods of battlefield transportation? The war would have lasted longer and many more troops and civilians would have died.

    Think about your projects. Are you tapping in to new resources as they become available? Are you utilizing “supplies” such as design patterns and code snippets to maximum advantage? Are your designs starved for fresh ideas, when a virtual “depot” of inspiration lies just up the tracks? Are you using “mules” (slow, out-dated Web frameworks – or no framework) when maybe you need to put your code “on Rails”?

  • Give yourself what you need for long-term success. During the war, armies placed ammunition, food, and other supplies along rail lines so they could be rapidly deployed as needed to the front lines. Historians agree that the tactical advantages of Northern rail logistics allowed the Union army to outlast Southern brigades, who were often low on supplies.

    Hungry, tired soldiers without bullets can’t win battles. Likewise, burned-out, ill-equipped, and late-to-the-party designers and developers can drag a project to a screeching halt. Sometimes planning ahead and building internal infrastructure seem like luxuries – especially in Agile environments where management wants to see increased “velocity.” But these aren’t luxuries if they help you produce better work and deliver more efficiently in the long run.

    We all fight wearying battles against time and budget constraints. A little bit of pre-positioning and deployment of necessities can help sustain your creative drive, prepare you to deliver when called upon, and win the war.

Illustrations for this article crafted by Josh Adam Boyd.

Contributed by Ben Judy (4 Posts)



  1. Dawn Sellers says

    Excellent article and easy to understand information. I enjoy the modern day application and comparisons. My husband and I are Civil War reenactors and this will be very helpful in our presentations.