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FreightWaves Classics: On Veterans Day, recognize sacrifices and also innovations

A Mack armored vehicle used in World War I. (Photo: Mack Trucks)

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. It ended at 11:00 p.m. on November 11, 1918.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 40 million; about 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The deaths included 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.

Like most wars, the casualties were a tragedy, whether they were on the “right” side or the “wrong” one… 

U.S. soldiers in World War I. (Photo: National Archives)
U.S. soldiers in World War I. (Photo: National Archives)

However, the focus of this article is the technological innovations that came, at least in part, because of the war. War spurs technological innovations that are first used in warfare and then often have civilian uses as well. 

The two primary innovations of World War I that had an impact on transportation after the war were in the air and on the ground.

The airplane

When World War I began in August 1914, it had only been a little over 10 years since the Wright Brothers flew over the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. During the war, airplanes were still rather primitive. They were made of canvas, wood and wire. 

A U.S. bi-plane armed with a machine gun in World War I. (Photo: National Park Service)
A U.S. bi-plane armed with a machine gun in World War I. (Photo: National Park Service)

In the beginning, airplanes were used to observe enemy troops. However, as airplanes’ effectiveness became apparent, both sides began to shoot airplanes down with artillery from the ground, as well as with rifles, pistols and machine guns from other airplanes. In 1916, the Germans began to arm its airplanes with machine guns that could fire forward without shooting off their own propellers. The Allies followed suit, and the air war became a deadly business. 

World War I was the first widespread use of aircraft, and after the war, former pilots and aircraft enthusiasts sought civilian uses for them. Moreover, many sought to improve airplanes – to make them bigger, faster, more durable, etc. During the 1920s, airplanes were the rage – there were air shows, air races, exhibitions across the United States and in Europe as well.

Contrast this B-32 bomber from World War II with the World War I aircraft above. (Photo:
Contrast this B-32 bomber from World War II with the World War I aircraft above. (Photo:

In part, what kept airplanes flying and aircraft companies in business in the United States was air mail. Contracts with the U.S. Post Office to fly mail from one end of the country to the other financed continued innovations.

A GMC truck used by the military in World War I. (Photo:
A GMC truck used by the military in World War I. (Photo:


An earlier FreightWaves Classics article profiled the history of Mack Trucks. As noted in that article, Mack built approximately 4,500 AC trucks (3.5-, 5.5- and 7.5-ton capacity) for the U.S. military. It also built over 2,000 of the ACs for the armed forces of the United Kingdom. According to Mack Truck historians, it is the English that gave the Mack Truck its famous nickname and symbol.

Early trucks (1900-14) were slow, underpowered and many had iron wheels without tires. However, World War I saw innovations from Mack and other truck manufacturers. During the 1920s, trucks evolved even more, becoming more powerful and able to carry increasingly heavier loads. For example, Mack made many mechanical and systems improvements to its trucks in the early 1920s. Mack introduced power brakes on its trucks in 1920. Then Mack engineers began to use rubber isolators to cushion mounting chassis components in 1921. This so improved shock resistance that the Rubber Shock Insulator Company was established to license the use of the technology by other automotive and truck manufacturers. In 1922 Mack was the first company to use a drive shaft instead of chain drive on a truck. Other manufacturers followed Mack’s lead and developed other technological innovations.

This trend continued in the 1930s and then was accelerated in the 1940s because of World War II. 

Contrast this U.S. Army truck from World War II with its counterpart from World War I above. (Photo:
Contrast this World War II U.S. Army truck with its counterpart from World War I above. (Photo:

There are no longer any U.S. veterans of World War I alive. However, FreightWaves salutes the memory of all those who fought, died or were injured during what was called “The War to End All Wars.” November 11 was first celebrated as “Armistice Day” and is now known as “Veterans Day.” FreightWaves also salutes all the men and women who have served or are serving in all branches of the U.S. military. Thank you for your service and sacrifices to keep us safe.

F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.