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Lecture: Into the Early 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, the processes of technological infrastructure, and the increased pace of patents and inventions, continued. With the adoption of electricity came conflicting technical standards and safety concerns, but also novel forms of entertainment and coding for war communications and espionage. Beginning with the machine gun, military technology will create a need for tactics for long-range weaponry and impersonal warfare. So at the same time as people are coming closer together through airplanes, radio and movies, they are distancing themselves when killing each other.

Household technologies

Sometimes the technologies that change everything are domestic. At the turn of the 20th century, in addition to lighting, electricity brought new implements for the home.

The idea of washing clothes automatically goes back to at least the 18th century, with simple cranks put on barrels to turn the clothes in soapy water. The first washing machines were patented in the 1840s, but they didn't become automatic (that is, powered by gasoline or electricity) until the first decade of the 20th century. In Europe these were used in commercial laundries, while in the U.S. the focus was more on home use.

By 1890, 24% of U.S. households had running water and 8% had electricity. Other innovations for the home included toasters, waffle-irons, non-electric vacuum cleaners, electric irons, even popcorn machines. Many of these were sold as time-savers for housewives, products which would make their lives easier.

But these products did not make women's work easier.

Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan's book More Work For Mother (NY: Basic Books, Inc. 1983) articulated the idea that the domestic technology revolution of the 1880s actually increased work, and she backed it up with historical research. It turns out that new technology not only caused changes in perceptions of housework, but also made housework exclusively a female task. washing machine ad 1900An example was rug-cleaning. Prior to the vacuum cleaner, rugs were dragged outside every few months, usually by a hearty male member of the household. They were beaten with carpet-beaters to get out the dirt, aired, and brought back inside. The vacuum cleaner made it possible to clean the carpet more frequently, which changed the standard of cleanliness. The expectation became that the carpet would be cleaned once a month, or once a week. And with the vacuum cleaner so easy to use, the woman became the only carpet cleaner.

The situation with laundry was similar. Prior to the washing machine, middle-class families sent laundry out to have it done. Lower-class and rural families sometimes made it an occasion, with many family members dragging out the tub or dragging the clothes down to the river. Early washing machines were hardly more than powered tubs which shook the clothes, water and soap. Sometimes they agitated so much they "walked" across the kitchen! iceboxWashing machines (even when the dryer consisted of a squeeze-roller wringer mounted on top and a clothesline outside in the sun) increased the expectation that clothes be washed more frequently. Instead of taking your clothes off and airing them for tomorrow, you expected "mom" to do laundry every day.

Food refrigeration, however, actually did save time and trouble. Keeping food fresh had always been a concern of human societies. Root crops were kept in root cellars, water was put on the roof at night to cool, meats were salted or smoked. Ice was cut from the lake and put in the ice house. Fresh milk was only available if you had a cow or goat. With improved transportation in the mid-19th century, ice could be delivered to people's homes, and used in railroad cars to keep food fresh. By then, industrialization was making it harder to find clean ice. Brewers were likely the first to use electricity to make ice. By 1880, refrigerators or "ice boxes" were produced with good insulation that made it possible to keep the ice frozen for longer periods. Electricity for home refrigerators wasn't invented till around 1915.


The first airplanes were fascinating, dangerous things.

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The trial and error shown in this footage was typical. The same methods had been used in early steam trains, where the boilers tended to explode. What's interesting here is the tinkering, the efforts of people (some scientifically trained but most not) to try new things, get investors, try more things. Although deriving from Victorian times, the "garage engineer" was most appreciated in the early 20th century. Mechanical tinkering was a hobby throughout Europe and the U.S. The popular film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the story of a crackpot inventor who creates a flying car, is set in the 1910s for a reason (even though the 1968 film was based on a 1964 book about the 1920s).

Wright aircraft
Wright aircraft design1903 (www.grc.nasa.gov)

The Wright Brothers get credit, of course, for the first manned, controlled, sustained, powered flight in 1903. They were true pilots, having flown gliders off cliffs for many hours to learn how to control a plane during flight.

Airplanes captured the imaginations of many people, and led not only to further developments in air travel, but in imagining what else humans could do.


Interestingly, in the year before the Wright Brothers flew their plane, motion pictures were becoming commercially viable, and one of the best early films was about going to the moon.

The entire film is 15 minutes long, and worth watching for all sorts of reasons.

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Notice the way they get to the moon, with a cannon firing a capsule. Notice the arguments that precede the journey. Notice how the women are relegated to cheerleader status, and how the moon people are demonic and OK to kill. There's as much here about imperialism as about science.zoetrope

But it's mostly about the film itself. Moving images were possible as far back as the 11th century (remember Al-Hazen?) with the camera obscura able to project light through a pinhole onto a wall or screen. But the viewing was always real-time and real place: the camera was simply reflecting what was happening in its view. Again, the time of recording was the Victorian age. In the 1880s, revolving viewers like the zoetrope (right) made it possible to see animations by looking through the slits at the spinning image.

The hero here was Eadward Muybridge, a photographer who seemed to view the possibilities of the camera. He took pictures of the American West, but was always trying new things: multiple time-lapse photos to show a building going up, and a 360-degree panorama of San Francisco.

Muybridge panorama

This was made for the wife of Leland Stanford (yes, that Stanford), former California governor and horse fanatic. He asked Muybridge to help with the question of whether all four of a horse's feet leave the ground while galloping. While a single photo answered the question (yes they do), Stanford encouraged him to continue experimenting with recording motion on film. He set up series of cameras along the track, then used the zoetrope to play them back, so it looked like this:

horse in motion
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My thought is that if you combine the transparent negatives from a photograph with the twirling of a zoetrope and the light refraction of the camera obscura, you get motion pictures.Kinetoscope

CinématographeAnd the masters of the medium were in France. The Lumière brothers, sons of a portrait painter, were photographers who were both mechanically minded. They patented processes for color photography and for dry-plate negatives in the 1880s, but didn't get into motion pictures until the 1890s. In 1893 Louis Lumière saw a demonstration of Edison's Kinetoscope (left), which looped celluloid film (created by the Eastman company) in front of a lens for viewing. The brothers created the lightweight Cinématographe (right), which unlike the Kinetoscope could both film and project the movie. They opened the first motion picture houses to show the movies they created.

Georges Méliès, a stage magician, saw one of the Lumière movies in 1985, and was inspired. He tried to buy their camera but they wouldn't sell, so he looked around for other inventors working on similar ideas. He journeyed to London to buy an Animatograph projector and film, and tinkered with it until it worked as a camera. Between 1896 and 1913 he created 500 films, all branded with his particular creativity and magic.


The inventor of the radio is still in dispute. The ill-fated Nikola Tesla appears to have invented radio wireless communication about the same time as Guglielmo Marconi, but was subject to the same sort of bad luck and patent hounding that caused him to lose battles against Thomas Edison. Tesla discovered that his Tesla coils (resonant transformers that could store power and produce high voltage) could be tuned to particular frequencies, and send information through the air. By 1895 he was ready to test a 50-mile signal when his lab burned down, causing delays.

Guglielmo Marconi began tinkering with wireless communications as a young man, and by 1896 had transmitted wireless signals over several miles and received a British patent for wireless telegraphy. As his work continued, he applied for patents in the U.S. In 1897, Tesla was granted a US patent for basic radio, so the Patent Office turned downed Marconi's patents. But Marconi's business, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Ltd., began having great success on the British stock market, and by 1904 the Patent Office reversed its decision and gave Marconi the patent on radio instead of Tesla. (If you're unsure of Tesla's brilliance, see this list of the patents he did get.)

Olympic radio room
The Marconi radio room about the RSS Olympic, 1911

Marconi won the Nobel Prize for the invention of radio in 1911. With the advent of the Great War, radio telephony became a crucial component of battlefield communications. Improvements such as oscillators, amplifiers and the electron tube made it possible to report a gas attack in the trenches, and guide aircraft to drop bombs. It wasn't perfect - when battle began, phone lines were cut and transmitters blown up, and everyone went back to sending messages through runners, homing pigeons, and dogs. Plus the range of early radios in the field was only about 2,000 yards.

The Titanic, you may have heard, was an unsinkable, iceberg-proof ship that sunk when it hit an iceberg on its first voyage in 1912. It had Marconi radio equipment aboard, even though there had been improvements in radio developed by American inventors. Apparently this was because Marconi held the patent monopoly. And, according to the inquiry after the disaster, messages over wireless could easily jam each other on that kind of equipment. In addition, regulation of radio had not matured yet - while the U.S. required all big ships to have radios, for example, it did not require 24-hour monitoring or the setting of specific frequencies for communication. The Titanic disaster caused new laws to be implemented controlling this technology, creating an international distress signal and requiring all radio sets to interact with all other sets. Short waves and other more flexible systems would develop as a result. The disaster would also lead to the invention of echolocation "sonar" to use sound to find things in the water - it was patented within a month of the sinking.

In 1943, a few months after Tesla's death, the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla's radio patent, apparently because the Marconi company had sued the government for its use of his radio idea in World War I.

The Machine Gun and the Great War

Before we get into the technology of World War I, we have to talk politics. The foundations to the Great War lay in the Franco-Prussian War.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was fought as the final struggle in the unification of Germany. If you are counting, this is the Second Reich (the first one was when Charlemagne unified the Germanic tribes, and the third emerged later in the 1930s). The unification of Germany was primarily the work of Otto von Bismarck, who through genius and trickery had gotten all the competing powers (Austria, Russia, Italy) to lay off and let Germany unify into a state under the dominance of its biggest province, Prussia. He tricked France into declaring war on Prussia in 1870. Gatling Gun

A major factor in Prussia's victory was the use of the machine gun, but not by them. Modern machine gun designs go back to 1718, when James Puckle of Britain patented a large gun that could fire shots from a revolving cylinder. But, like Collier's revolver (remember that?) it was a flintlock, so it was cumbersome and unreliable. By the American Civil War, the Gatling Gun (right) became the first automatic weapon in widespread use. Invented in 1862, it used percussion caps inside a brass cartridge and fired when the crank was turned by hand. In 1865, an improved version, the Reffye mitrailleuse, became the secret weapon of France. It could fire 100 rounds per minute with a good operator.

In adopting the new super-weapon, France made huge mistakes. The French command gave the guns to the gunner corps, who worked with field artillery. They substituted some of the machine guns for some of the field artillery. This put the machine guns at the back of the infantry, and in the hands of specialists in big guns which shot artillery shells over their own troops at the enemy. In battle, Prussian Krupps cannons, breech-loading and with a range of 4500 meters, dispatched most of the French front line. The French rarely got to use their poorly located super-weapons. (It is ironic that the Krupps cannon won a prize at the 1867 Great Exhibition of -- wait for it -- Paris.)

The Great War (so called because it was huge, not fabulous) began in Bosnia in 1914. Bosnia, a Slavic region, wanted independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She had been agitating for some time, and had some support from Serbia. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, decided to take his summer vacation in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. It was a political move, to show that Bosnia was still part of the empire. He and his wife were assassinated by a Bosnian revolutionary teenager as they traveled down the street in their open car.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire held Serbia responsible for the assassination. The killer had been of Serbian ethnicity, and the Empire knew that Serbia was supporting Bosnian independence. The Empire demanded that Serbia take responsibility, or there would be war. Serbia dawdled, and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It should have been a little war; Serbia had a little army, the Empire's was huge. Instead it became a world war. Map of sides in the Great War

Why? Because of the secret alliances and treaties that had formed all over Europe during the 19th century. These alliances were designed to protect nations in an era of increasing nationalism, independence movements, and German and Italian unification. So Serbia had a big secret ally: Russia, protector of the Slavs. The agreement said that if anyone attacked Serbia, Russia would come to her defense. So Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary had a secret treaty with Germany, saying if any major power declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany would come to her defense. So Germany declared war on Russia. Russia had a secret treaty with France, saying if either one of them were attacked by Germany, the other would come to defend. So France declared war on Germany.

Germany, desperate now that she would have to fight on two fronts, planned to attack France first and beat her quickly (she knew how, from the Franco-Prussian War). It would take time for the industrially backward Russia to mobilize anyway. But the only way to take Paris quickly was to go through Belgium, because the French had fortified the area west of Alsace-Lorraine. Belgium was a neutral country, and said no to the Germans just marching through to take Paris. Germany marched through anyway. Belgium had a secret treaty with Great Britain to protect her. Britain entered the war in August 1914, only a few weeks after the assassination of the Archduke. The Ottoman Empire entered soon on the side of Germany.

Trench warfare

British and French troops would fight the Germans on this "Western Front" in Belgium and northern France for the entire war. One reason was, again, the machine gun. When troops with machine guns at the front (everyone had the right idea by now) faced off, the only way to hold position was to dig a trench so you could keep your head below fire. Your machine gun could then be mounted above the trench, to kill anyone trying to take your trench. Since both sides had machine guns, and had studied since the Franco-Prussian war on how to use them effectively, taking ground involved shelling the enemy trench until you thought everyone was dead, then jumping out of your trench and running across "no man's land" to the enemy's trench, hoping to hell there wasn't a single person left in the enemy trench to man the machine gun. The casualties were unbelievable. Hundreds were mowed down in a single charge. At Passchendaele in 1917, an advance of five miles cost 400,000 British casualties. Cavalry quickly became useless: what good was a horse in this situation?

WWI sniperThe leadership was stunned. The British leadership handled things badly, according to numerous sources such as John Ellis' Social History of the Machine Gun (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975) and, frankly, pretty much every book I've ever read on the Great War. British officers had a long tradition of nobility (both literal and in a moral sense). They continued to believe that the will and courage of the individual soldier was more important than the technology. It took several years of war to convince them that machine guns, gas masks, and airplanes could win the war. In many instances, the leadership blundered and cost the lives of many men. In one case, infantry were sent "over the top" of their trench to attack the enemy after only a half hour of shelling because the British were short of ammunition. In another, senior officers were forbidden from accompanying the first charge, leaving their men (shown in the photo here) sitting around after taking a trench, waiting for orders while the Germans recovered and prepared to counterattack. At Gallipoli, pocket watches were not synchronized properly and men were ordered to wait to attack until five full minutes after artillery shelling stopped, giving the Turks plenty of time to re-man their trenches and their machine guns.

The average soldier was very likely to die in this war, by machine gun fire, disease in the trenches, or cold on the Eastern Front. If he survived, he would likely be subject to the newest illness, shell shock, where the mind went numb from the continual night shelling and the sight of total carnage. To what extent did one technology, the machine gun, contribute to all this?

The Automobile

The first true automobiles (i.e. they "drove themselves") were created in the 1880s using small steam engines. Modeled on carriages, they are a great example of how new technologies take on the form and shape of the technology they're trying to replace. Even the word "car" is telling - it derives from carriage. Trains have carriages, too, and early train carriages looked like the ones pulled by horses.

early train  
steam car  

electric car adThe internal combustion engine, used in automobiles from about the 1880s, made things easier. Steam cars were hard to warm up on cold mornings. But the first gasoline cars required a crank, and they were (and are) stinky. Electric cars were very popular at the turn of the century, and looked to become the common mode of transport.

Henry Ford's production line utilized an assembly process similar to that in Colt's factory a generation before, allowing the Ford Motor Company to mass produce automobiles. The cost of the Ford automobiles got low enough that middle class people could buy them. Electric vehicles were produced much less efficiently, so costs stayed hired. Then finds of petroleum in Texas and elsewhere made gas very cheap. Faced with a smelly, cheap product or a clean, expensive product, the public chose the Ford.

The automobile, of course, changed society in both Europe and America. It allowed for individual transport at the convenience of the owner, a mobile status symbol to show off, tinkering at home for the mechanically minded, and privacy for the young going out on dates. Ultimately it would necessitate improvements to the road systems, and regulation of traffic using stoplights and signs.

Just for Fun

Here's an animated video tribute to Nikola Tesla:


The age of mechanized weaponry was also the age of mechanized entertainment and the beginning of mechanized domestic work. You know I'll tell you that much was lost because of this, and I don't just mean men doing chores around the house. Instead of firing when you saw the whites of their eyes, you could kill the enemy from far away. Instead of going to a concert to hear music, you could listen to the phonograph or the radio. Instead of lighting a lamp, you could press a switch. But this is also an age where technologies were deployed before their time, such as the machine guns by the French in the Franco-Prussian War, and those crazy plane designs. Despite the advancement of science, most the those influencing technology during this time were not scientists. They were tinkerers using trial and error to create useful, and in some cases deadly, tools. The development of the automobile had the potential to change the entire landscape - for awhile they were deadly too, as urban areas became crowded with horse-drawn vehicles and cars at the same time. Kind of like what will happen soon when we have driverless cars and driven cars on the road together!