Top 10 Civil War Innovations: Slide Show

March 28, 2011 --

As the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War approaches, Discovery News thought it would be worthwhile to remember some of the inventions and innovations that arose out of the war between the Union and the Confederacy -- a conflict that killed more than 620,000 people or roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population. It was also a time of great industrial creativity. A record 5,000 patents were granted in 1864, and they weren't all war-related. Did you know that the Civil War was the first time that men carried pocket watches, canned milk and shoes in standard sizes into battle? Here's a list of the top 10 innovations of the Civil War. The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, two days after what is considered the start of the Civil War.

Paper Money

The Civil War transformed the U.S. banking system. Paper money became legal tender for the first time and "greenbacks" (named for the anti-counterfeit green ink used on the back of the notes) were issued by the federal government, replacing paper notes issued by local banks around the country. These local notes were not always honored in different regions and if they were, bank-issued notes only received 90 percent of face value. The new notes were backed by the federal government. In fact, some Confederate soldiers demanded to be paid with Union greenbacks.

Canned Food

Until the war, most food was prepared and eaten locally. Gail Borden patented condensed milk in 1854 and when the war started he sold the Navy condensed coffee and cider. By 1862, Borden found that tens of thousands of soldiers were eating his tinned goods -- meat biscuits, condensed coffee and condensed milk. But the war provided the market for this technology to take off. Entrepreneurs like Van Camps, Armour and Swift put the name on single-serving canned beans and meat, according to Scott R. Nelson, history professor at the College of William and Mary and author of "People at War: A Social History of the Civil War." The new availability of canned foods gave weary soldiers a taste of home and included things like lobster, blueberries, corned beef and ginger cakes. The new canned goods industry later allowed for the colonization of Australia and Argentina, where settlers could bring healthy food with them to begin their new life.

Pocket Watch

Until the war, portable timepieces were a luxury item for the ultra-rich. The Waltham Watch company in Massachusetts figured out how to make interchangeable pieces for their pocket watch, which made the watch affordable for the masses, according to Alexis McCrossen, history professor at Southern Methodist University. This manufacturing breakthrough coincided with the start of the war, and soldiers began taking watches into battle. For one, the personalized engravings on the cover reminded the men of loved ones back home. And they also allowed them to keep up with the regimented schedule of camp life. The personal effects of an African-American soldier appear in this photo.

Sewing Machines

The development of the sewing machine allowed for an enormous expansion in everything from sheltered tents to military uniforms and blankets, according to J. Ritchie Garrison, history professor at the University of Delaware. It also led to coated fabrics, canvas tents and rubberized tarpaulins. These portable devices were often carried by infantry regiments on campaigns.

Standard Sizes

If you wanted a new pair of shoes, chances are you would pay a visit to your local cobbler. But as the great armies geared up, that solution wasn't feasible. For the first time, standard shoe sizes were implemented, along with sizes for uniforms. General Ulysses S. Grant appears in full uniform in this photo.


In terms of destruction, nothing previous matched the firepower of the Civil War. Both sides used the newly-developed bored rifle that gave bullets a spinning motion and increased range from 100 yards to 500 yards. The minie ball was propelled and rotated through the bore. It flattened on impact, destroying bones and tissues where older-style musket balls had passed directly through the body. The six-shot revolver was invented and issued to officers. Also rifles and carbines could file multiple shots. Instead of getting off three or four shots a minute, the repeating guns could be fired as fast as soldiers could pump them, Garrison said.


The e-mail of the 19th century was a key tool for both the military and the press. Samuel Morse's invention had already made an impact in the years before the war, with 50,000 miles of telegraph wires strung by 1860. Another 15,000 miles were added by the Union and President Lincoln used the telegraph to get real-time info from his generals. By October 1861, the telegraph spanned coast to coast, eliminating the Pony Express. During the war, several important patents improved the distance and power of the original Morse telegraph. Soldiers set up telegraph lines in this photo.

Iron Gunships

The Confederate Navy couldn't match the Union ship for ship, so they needed a super-weapon to change the balance of power, according to Edward Sheehy, historian at LaSalle University. The confederates captured the Norfolk, Va., Navy Yard and salvaged a fairly new Union frigate Merrimac. Engineers stripped it down, put iron sidings on it and sunk two Union wooden warships in Hampton Roads. The Union's Monitor showed up the next day. Built in 90 days, and containing over 40 patentable inventions, John Ericsson, inventor, had devised a ship that looked like a "cheesebox on a raft." "The first battle between iron-clad ships resulted in a draw," Sheehy said by email. "But in fact it was a Union victory, since they could produce more monitors faster. These were not the first ironclads, but participated in the first battle involving only steel ships."


The expansion of the railroad allowed armies to move larger amount of materials and men than ever before possible, Garrison said. It was the first great European style war fought with steamships and railroad.

McCormick's Reaper

The labor-saving device allowed three farmhands to do the work of 10 or 12. When war broke out, farm owners in Northern wheat-growing states were able to leave their families and go off to war without losing their livelihood, according to Jeremy Atack, professor of history and economics at Vanderbilt University. Patented in 1834 by Virginian Cyrus McCormick, the device took off in the 1850s when McCormick built a factory in Chicago. Sales skyrocketed during the war years, and began a long march of automation on American farms. Sources: "America The Story of US: An Illustrated History" by Kevin Baker. "A People At War: A Social History of the Civil War" by Scott R. Nelson.