Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Shemar. Shemar Wonders, “Why did they collect spider webs during world war 2?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Shemar!
When it comes to worldwide conflicts, one war still stands alone in terms of its brutality, carnage, and lasting impact. World War II devastated large portions of the globe in the middle of the 20th century, forever changing the world in its aftermath.
At a cost of millions of human lives, the Allied forces were able to defeat the Axis countries after a prolonged, multiyear battle on multiple fronts around the world. Was it superior manpower or advanced technology that helped the Allies prevail?
That question will likely be debated as long as historians look back to examine the causes and effects of World War II. One thing historians have learned recently, though, is that one important contribution was made from a very unlikely source: the humble spider.
Did the Allies recruit and weaponize a venomous variant of mutant spider? Nope! You probably would've heard about something like that, since it sounds a bit like science fiction. Instead, people in both Great Britain and the United States carefully collected spiders in order to harvest the thin, silky threads they spin.
What good could spider thread do in the midst of a world war? Ingenious inventors used spider threads to make cross hairs for the gun sights of rifles and various other weapons and instruments of war.
Gun sights, as well as any other type of advanced optics equipment, can only function properly if they can be aligned with a true aim. In the past, cross hairs had been made using razor-thin pieces of metal. Unfortunately, those thin pieces of metal were extremely fragile and often broke under pressure from the jarring explosions and vibrations from firing a gun repeatedly.
Spider threads, on the other hand, have incredible durability. Despite being only one-fifth the diameter of a human hair, spider thread is virtually unbreakable. In fact, it's much more durable than either platinum or steel wire of similar thickness.
It's also elastic, so it can easily be stretched into straight lines necessary to make cross hairs. Under the pressure of repeated firing, spider thread can withstand extreme temperatures and pressures.
The people who collected the spider thread often used venomous black widow spiders. Although this made their job more dangerous, they preferred working with black widow spiders, because they moved more slowly than non-venomous garden spiders.
In the U.S., the Quartermaster Corps was in charge of this delicate operation. Black widow spiders were captured on base at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then shipped to Columbus, Ohio, for thread production.
Spiders were fed two flies each week and housed in glass jars. Thread collection was done by hand in a time-consuming process. Spiders were placed upon wire coat hangers shaped like spindles.
As the spiders produced thread and began to dangle from the coat hanger, the person holding the coat hanger would begin to rotate it steadily in order to collect the strands of thread. The threads would eventually be unwound, cleaned, and separated for use in optical devices.
After World War II, spider thread wasn't used very long for advanced optics. Instead, advanced technology was developed that allowed incredibly thin lines to be etched directly onto optical devices in lieu of using spider threads.