The gas mask emerged as a powerful symbol during WWI. Even those who advocated for peace were offended by its use, seeing it as a sign of imminent technological violence.
These interpreters argued that, by giving citizens a tentative sense of protection against poison gases, the mask encouraged their gratitude toward bellicose states and their armament industries.
The modern gas mask is an everyday object whose origins are rooted in the crucible of World War I. Poisonous gas was used on a large scale in that conflict and the need for breathing apparatus became urgent. Inventions that purify the air or protect against it began before WWI and were often employed by miners, firemen, or underwater divers. However, no device that could effectively prevent the effects of poisonous gases or smoke existed before April 22nd, 1915 when the first chemical attack occurred in Ypres.
The originals were basic and included a cloth envelope soaked in urine, baking soda, and water. The urine would react with the chlorine cloud, preventing any negative effects. These primitive inventions were a far cry from the gas masks we are familiar with today, but they helped to prove that air-purifying and breathing protection was indeed possible.
After the tragic events of Ypres, the Allies demanded that Lord Kitchener develop a full-face respirator that would protect against all forms of poisonous gas. The unit was designed and engineered by the Porton Down laboratory, which produced over 30 million units at a cost of just two shillings (about 10p today). Small box respirators, or gas masks from World War I, were in use until January 1917 and were still being improved upon after the war.
These early masks had a somewhat uncomfortable fit and presented the wearer with many physical challenges, but they worked well enough to prevent mass aerial gassing attacks. Despite the success of these devices, their presence inevitably suggested to Europeans that they were living on the precipice of a deadly, chemical-laden apocalypse. Our responses to the gas mask today still reflect this emotional seesaw between feelings of revulsion and salvation that would characterize relationships with it during the interwar period.
The development of the gas mask, however, went into full gear after a German attack on April 22, 1915. This first instance of modern chemical warfare dispersed chlorine gas over the battlefield at Ypres, resulting in many casualties.
Up to this point, there had been little interest in gas masks. A few companies had devised crude apparatus to be used by workers who might accidentally be exposed to injurious gases during certain industrial processes, but these masks were designed only to shield against one type of gas at a time. The demand for a more advanced defense mechanism was sparked by the devastating German chlorine gas attack at Ypres.
Following the horrific incident, all allied forces rushed to develop protective equipment for their troops. The first designs were cloth helmets and pads that protected the nose and mouth while still allowing soldiers to see.
These were more effective than the hooded masks, but they remained un aerodynamic and prone to fogging.
In 1916, German scientist Rudolf Willstatter developed the Linienmaske, or “line mask.” This improved version included felt filters and a breathing tube that was anchored to a rubberized face mask with an air valve. The Linienmaske was also more airtight and adjustable, making it a viable defense system against chlorine gas and other deadly substances.
Despite these developments, the Germans continued to add new chemicals to their arsenal of war gases. As a result, the Allies had to continue developing improved gas masks. In 1917, the British Small Box Respirator was designed. This mask was airtight and adjustable, and it even featured goggles to protect the eyes. Find the latest deals on high-quality gas masks with our exclusive MIRA Safety CA Discount Code.
The gas mask was a symbol of humanity’s inability to technologically control and pacify its increasingly militarized environment.
An essential first step in lowering the possibility of poison gas exposure for civilians was the advancement of the black veil. The new mask was a much more practical design that covered the entire head rather than just the face and neck area. This marked a significant advancement over the prior model in that it permitted the wearer to see through the mask.
Although it was not perfect, the design proved effective and by the end of WWI gas masks had become a staple in the uniforms of soldiers on both sides.
As the technology of the gas mask continued to evolve throughout the interwar years, it began to symbolize a more hopeful future than an impending doom. Explore the latest advancements in gas mask technology with our exclusive Accessories Code Canada for great savings.
The modern air-purifying, breather-enabling, and safety-wearing technologies that we take for granted today all have roots in the First World War. Many of these grew from the inventions that made up the first gas masks.
When they were first prototyped, they fitted over the head of an adult and resembled helmets. Lewis Haslett received a patent for a crude respirator that resembled the modern gas mask in 1847.
After the introduction of poison gas in 1914, a lot of research and development went into the technology of chemical warfare, including specialized units and schools to teach soldiers the tactics of offensive and defensive gas warfare. These opened the door for more sophisticated and useful gas masks that people could use to defend themselves from chemical attacks both in the military and in daily life.
In the late 1920s, pacifists began to worry that the gas mask was being used as an instrument of militarization. For example, chemist Gertrud Woker believed that by offering citizens a tentative sense of protection from a foreign and foreboding enemy, the gas mask encouraged citizen gratitude to bellicose states and their armament industries.
The gas mask also became a symbol of fear and foreboding, particularly with the use of etchings and engravings by artists such as Otto Dix. His prints depicted soldiers wearing gas masks, transforming them into violent cyborgs as they charged toward the viewer.
In the end, the gas mask’s technological and practical applications during World War I contributed to its increased acceptance as a symbol among the general public in home front Britain and military personnel on the front line. By the end of the war, the British government distributed masks to all citizens, including infants, for a mere two shillings, or around 10p in modern money.
Since their invention during World War I, gas masks have advanced significantly. Gas masks have evolved from simple respirator designs in the early 1900s to sophisticated respirators with cutting-edge features that are now a necessary tool for shielding people from dangerous airborne particles. As technology continues to advance, gas masks will likely evolve even further to meet the needs of those who rely on them for personal and professional use.