Serving Our Country on the Battlefield and in the Lab

Military veterans’ scientific and technological contributions have also shaped our daily lives.

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, we have all at some point in our lives reaped the benefit of the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in the armed forces.

But these men and women didn’t just serve the country on the battlefield, fighting for freedom and safety. Back home, their work in science and technology changed the way we live, work, and heal. Over the years, more than three dozen military veterans also earned notoriety as scientists and innovators who have received the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Take, for example, Forrest Bird, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008. At a young age, Bird developed a love for aviation after taking flying lessons from his father, a former combat aviator during World War I. By age 16, Bird had become a certified pilot, and went on to fly with the Army, joining just one week after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Later in his life, he opened the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center, which showcases his personal collection of aircraft.

Forrest Bird receiving the NMTI from President Barack Obama

At the time, he used his experience to study problems with high-altitude respiration, in the hopes of developing a device that would allow pilots to safely fly at higher altitudes. He eventually modified breathing regulators that could boost the maximum altitude for safe flight from 28,000 feet to nearly 40,000 feet.

That experience proved invaluable when Bird returned home and continued his work to develop the first low-cost, mass-produced ventilator. He went on to create several variations of “the Bird,” including the “Babybird,” a smaller respirator that could be used on infants, and reduced infant mortality due to respiratory problems from 70 percent to less than ten percent, his wife Pamela wrote in his obituary.

Frank Salvatore, president of the American Association for Respiratory Care, called Bird a “pioneer” in pulmonary medicine, upon learning of his death in 2015.

“The respiratory therapy care community has been privileged to have known him as a fellow member and colleague,” Salvatore said.

Rini Paiva, vice president of selection and recognition of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which inducted Bird in 1995, says his inventions “had a huge impact on the medical field and sustaining people and in saving lives.

“He is someone who really never stopped innovating himself, even after he came up with his original medical respirator, he kept improving upon it,” Paiva says. “As the years went by … he was always looking to kind of create a new version that would combat a new or different problem. Clearly, that’s something most innovators will do – always look to see how they can advance innovation further and further.”

And Bird is one of about two dozen military veteran National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees who have also received the National Medal of Science or the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“It’s certainly true that some people take their experiences from the military and then take that into civilian life,” Paiva says. “[With these innovators,] it’s a great illustration of how they are people and American citizens who, like anyone else were, striving to serve their country, regardless of their careers. These are all people who have innovated in such remarkable ways.”

One of those innovators was Douglas Engelbart, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2000 for inventions that provided the foundation for the modern personal computer, including the computer mouse, the hyperlink, and video teleconferencing.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Engelbart began studying electrical engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, but enrolled in the Navy in 1944, during the height of World War II. He served in the Navy for two years as a radar technician. After returning home, finishing his degree, and becoming engaged, Engelbart experienced what many have described as an epiphany as he began thinking about the future of his career and how he could contribute to the world as an engineer.

Having read about computing – an industry still in its infancy in the 1950s – and seeing how information could be displayed through his work in the Navy, Engelbart believed computers could play a role in helping people collaborate to solve some of the world’s problems.

Dr. Engelbart receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation

“In his epiphany, he saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols — an image most likely derived from his work on radar consoles while in the Navy after World War II,” The New York Times wrote in an obituary for Engelbart in 2013. “The screen, he thought, would serve as a display for a workstation that would organize all the information and communications for a given project.”

Years later, in 1968, Engelbart unveiled the “mother of all demos” during a national computer conference and debuted the mouse, video conferencing, and hypermedia together – all ideas that he and his colleagues had developed at the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute.

“Doug was a giant who made the world a much better place and who deeply touched those of us who knew him,” said Curtis R. Carlson, president and CEO of the Stanford Research Institute, upon Engelbart’s death in 2013.

“SRI was very privileged and honored to have him as one of our ‘family.’ He brought tremendous value to society. We will miss his genius, warmth and charm. Doug’s legacy is immense—anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him.”

While some innovators such as Bird and Engelbart found a direct connection with their military service, for others, serving in the military was more of a natural progression of their lives.

John Goodenough, who received the National Medal of Science in 2011, still serves as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin today at age 94 – and he’s still working to improve upon the work he’s most well-known for: the lithium-ion battery.

“At the moment, I’m trying to go after the real problem – to go beyond the lithium ion battery so you can have electric cars and get rid of coal-fired power plants.”

Goodenough says his service in the military as a meteorologist was “fairly straightforward.” Before joining the Army, he says he was an undergraduate at Yale University, “thinking about what i was supposed to do with my life,” and came to the conclusion that he would study physics if he ever had the opportunity to go to graduate school.

After the war, his dream came true, and he completed a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago before joining the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, a federally-funded research and development center focused on national security. There, Goodenough says he spent almost 10 years bringing the fields of physics and chemistry together.

But it wasn’t until he was a professor at the University of Oxford in England that he developed what he is most well-known for: the lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Although lithium ion batteries had been invented before, Goodenough developed a new cathode to improve upon past models and allow the batteries to be recharged. Sony licensed and commercialized the battery, but Goodenough is still largely credited for its development.

Dr. Goodenough with his Lithium Ion battery.

“All I did was develop the battery that allowed them to power their little gadgets,” Goodenough says. “But I had no idea at the time of how it would be developed. I couldn’t envisage everything the engineers would do with it.”

Although his work in the military did not have a direct correlation to his later achievements, Goodenough says his experience helped shape his outlook toward innovation.

“I did understand from my military experience that one man doesn’t win the war,” Goodenough says. “What is important is that each person do his job to the best of his ability, and hope that all things work together to get to the conclusion that you want.”