There are many tangled causes for World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918. Historians cite the alliance system, imperialism, nationalism, and the social shifts caused by modernity and industrialization. Rival nations raced to build more efficient and effective weapons and ways to control sea, sky and land. Countries also raced to develop the military systems to wield these weapons and industrial capacity to supply them. There is something of a chess game in watching the buildup of Germany’s zeppelin fleet in an attempt to gain an advantage over Britain’s battleship fleet, or seeing French aircraft industry as it was built up to gain an advantage over the German land war capability. Perhaps one reason that the public and governments were keen to go to war was a severe underestimation of the damage and casualties that massive numbers of these weapons could cause.
Scientific American observed this race keenly in 1913, even though the United States was not drawn into the war until 1917. The images, mostly of weapons, in this photo album show some of the mistaken assumptions about how a war would be fought. Battleships were a main focus of war at sea, a traditional path to victory for many countries. But torpedo attacks by submarines against supplies and raw materials carried by merchant shipping could wreck a country’s war capabilities just as surely as large-caliber shells could. The idea of enemy airships and airplanes suddenly appearing in the skies to rain deadly bombs were a huge factor in the minds of the civilian population and military planners. But the psychological terror of these attacks far outweighed their actual results.
From the archives of Scientific American of 1913, here are some snapshots of military technology. In 1914 the rivals would become opponents in a war that was called “the Great War for Civilization.”