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Lecture: The Modern Age

Humans, as we know, are intimately connected to their technologies. In 1967, John Culkin summed up the work of media critic Marshall McLuhan as "we shape our tools, and thereafter we shape us". That means that I too am shaped by the technologies I use, and those I've been exposed to, which will make this lecture a little more personal. Unlike the fulling mill, these technologies are those of my life! Existing with some of these, I still stand in wonder.


Television is one of the most controversial technologies of modern times, as much for its programming as its technology.

Although the technology itself was worked with in various ways during the 1920s, the birthplace of electronic broadcast television was Alexandra Palace in the United Kingdom. In 1935, the British Broadcasting Corporation made the first broadcasts.

In the U.S., the lead company from the 1930s was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In 1929 they had dominated the phonograph industry. They ran commercial radio stations during the 1930s, and created a turntable for flat records that could be plugged into a radio. In the 1939 New York World's Fair, RCA demonstrated the television.

Electrical engineer J. Campbell Swinton had envisioned a television that used a cathode ray tube and an electron gun in 1911, but no one had produced it. Californian Philo T. Farnsworth would get the credit, transmitting 60 lines electronically. RCA's engineers used a lot of his work, so patent lawsuits followed, with Farnsworth being awarded the huge sum of $1 million. The 1939 television that RCA demonstrated at the World's Fair was based on Farnsworth's technology.

The war interrupted television development, but it surged ahead in the late 1940s and 1950s. The most popular early television mechanical tvprograms in the United States were news broadcasts and children's shows.

Color television had been a concept since the beginning, and the first color TV broadcast actually dates back to 1928, based on the designs of John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer. Like the black and white versions, these early televisions were mechanical rather than electronic, relying on turning motors and discs (right). The maximum resolution was about 240 lines, a fairly fuzzy image.

As the technology of color TV developed, the story changes to one of marketing, at least in the United States. The Columbia Broadcasting Service had created a color broadcasting system, but it was not compatible with the black-and-white sets people had in the 1950s and early 1960s. At first the Federal Communications Commission approved CBS's system as the national standard because it produced a better picture, but then RCA started flooding the market with "compatible" televisions. Rose Parade 1954These were cheaper black-and-white sets that could receive color broadcasts, even though they showed them in black-and-white. CBS's system would have required a color television to see any show broadcast in color. RCA's marketing effort convinced consumers that they wanted to buy black-and-white TVs to see color shows until color TVs became less expensive, so in 1953 the FCC granted RCA permission to create a color compatible television system, which meant the end of CBS's system.

This is not only an example of a lost technology, but of a superior technology being run out by an inferior technology. The CBS system had extraordinary color fidelity, but the vagaries of consumer demand caused it to meet its end. By the time of color broadcasts, half of the 10 million RV sets in America were RCAs, which pushed the technology in that direction. On January 1, 1954, the National Broadcasting Company (an arm of RCA) showed the Rose Parade from Pasadena, in color.

Reproductive technologies

Birth control, or contraceptives, have been used since very ancient times. The ancient Egyptians soaked sea sponges in lactic acid from acacia trees, creating a highly effective spermicidal sponge. Knowledge of reproductive technologies, like knowledge of any other kind, comes and goes in societies - sometimes it is more evident in the culture (such as during the 1920s) and other times it is suppressed by social and political mores, as during the Victorian era.

Most birth control was either behavioral (abstinence, withdrawl before ejaculation, douching) or based on a barrier (like the sponge, or the cervical caps and pessaries available at the turn of the 20th century). Chemical contraceptives had been tried throughout history, but herbs (such as blue cohosh and pennyroyal) tended to be more effective as abortificants than as preventatives.

Interesting, all of these technologies were for the woman's use. Only the condom, which has an ancient history, was for use by men. It had become a commercial product in the 18th century, when it was made of sheepskin. Latex (rubber suspended in water) was first used for condoms in 1920. Since the 1850s, rubber condoms had been created using penis-shaped molds, wrapping strips of rubber around them, then curing them. They had a shelf life of just a few months. Latex rubber condoms had a longer shelf life and were easier to make; they were also cheaper.

But back to chemical contraceptives. "The Pill" has often been claimed as causing the liberation of Western women from the burdens of unwanted pregnancy. This view is, I'm afraid, based on lost knowledge that is the result of the Pill itself. The story is American.

In 1951, 72-year-old Margaret Sanger, who had campaigned (often illegally) for birth control knowledge for American women, had been imploring the scientific world to invent a birth control pill for women. Independent scientist Gregory Pincus met her at a party, and told her his own research into progesterone made such a pill possible, but he would need money. Sanger acquired a small grant for him from Planned Parenthood (which she had founded and was by then running 200 clinics). Pincus contacted Searle pharmaceutical company for support but they refused, so lack of funding stalled the invention. At the same time, an unknown doctor, Carl Djerassi, in Mexico had produced a synthetic progesterone pill. Dr John Rock, an infertility expert, had also been using progesterone on his patients, because when treatment was stopped they became more fertile. Ultimately Rock was able to provide the test patients Pincus needed to prove his pill worked.

Funding for the development of the pill was finally provided by a single wealthy person. Katharine McCormick. She had a degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was married to the heir of the McCormick Harvester fortune, who developed a form of schizophrenia that was understood to be hereditary. She decided never to have children, and interested herself in the birth control cause as well as women's right to vote, meeting Margaret Sanger in 1917. When her husband died in 1947, she inherited control of $15 million. She was 75 years old, and despite her university education did not want to waste money on university research. She gave Pincus $40,000 to start, and would fund the entire development of The Pill.

EnovidThe Pill first came on the market, by prescription, in 1960. By 1964, 25% of all couples in America were using the Pill to control pregnancies, and Searle pharmaceuticals was making a fortune. In addition to critics upset about the interference with "natural" processes, the early Pill subjected women to extremely high levels of hormones because of the fear that it might fail. And well into the 1970s, American and western European women had to pretend they were married to get a prescription. But at the time, the other methods available were seen as cumbersome. I don't think they were a problem themselves - rather the difficulty was caused by the lack of education about women's bodies. "Nice girls" didn't touch themselves "down there" or learn how their body worked, so putting in a diaphragm or a Dutch cap was difficult and messy. A diaphragm (unlike the cap which required better body knowledge) required a fitting with a gynecologist, and they were expensive. The Pill was easy - take it once a day and exercise more to help with hormonal weight gain.

For this reason, it was seen as encouraging the Sexual Revolution, a time during the 1970s when presumably women chose their bedmates at will, and didn't have to worry about getting pregnant. Although the reality wasn't that simple, the Pill put women more fully in control of their reproduction.

What was lost, of course, was the ability of women to understand their own bodies. Although women's activists in Europe and America tried to educate women on how their bodies worked, in reproductive issues the Pill made such knowledge unnecessary. There seemed to be no reason to reclaim knowledge of ones own natural cycles or processes.

Into space

Star TrekIn 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Its goal was to measure atmospheric conditions, including solar winds and magnetic fields. It was able to send radio signals back to earth, and set of the "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. The scientific focus (including expanding science education in schools) would lead to not only more satellites, but intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles, and studies in creating space armament systems.

Although scientific in its development and influence on education, Sputnik also led to a lot of people tinkering with radios to pick up the signal and become part of the space age experience. Space began to influence science fiction in stories about humanity, such as the American TV series Star Trek, the story of a space voyaging team encountering other species. Star Trek premiered in 1966, before the U.S. space program had created a successful launch to the moon. That was achieved in 1969, just barely in time to satisfy President Kennedy's prediction that it would happen before the end of the decade. Fans of the series often discussed its science and technology.

The focus on the combination of science with technology makes it seem as though no one was focused on pure technology. The success of do-it-yourself kits and stores like Radio Shack in the U.S. belie this. Electronics could be tinkered with -- I distinctly recall my dad removing the back of the TV, clipping the audio wires, and twisting in a two-wire setup with a switch, so that he could turn off the audio on TV commercials from across the room. Perhaps this is why I've always been dissatisfied with the state of technologies. I know they can all be improved!Margaret Hamilton

And in which category is programming - science or technology? In 1960, mathematician Margaret Hamilton (right) was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coding on punch cards for the space program. Integral to the Apollo program, Hamilton developed code that made it possible for the Apollo missions to work, and for the men who went to the moon to return to Earth. Mathematics was the foundation, but the result was eminently practical.

In 1981, NASA created the first reusable space vehicle, the Space Shuttle. It never occurred to me that I'd have to teach about the Shuttle in the past tense - it's another technology, like the Concorde (below) that is now lost. I never got to see it take off in person, though I did see it land, but I watched the launches on TV. The sense of technological triumph is still amazing, even on video:

International Space Station

With the fall of the Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe in 1989, the need to "beat the Russians" became less of a motivation for space technology. Although science and exploration had been touted as the goals of national space programs around the globe, the fact was that most were motivated by, inspired by, and funded because of, military aspirations. One notable exception was the International Space Station, launched in 1988. Although it was not the first space station, it has lasted the longest and hosted the most astronauts. It's a science lab in the sky.

Aircraft technology

But what about good, old (well, not that old) suborbital airplanes? After the Wright Brothers, flight had developed incrementally, with changes in propulsion constituting the main transitions. The evolution of designs in propellers enabled more efficient use of power by the 1940s, and within a decade turboprops were being challenged by the new jet engines, whose development was typically pushed by military needs during World War II. Unfortunately, metal fatigue plagued the first jet airplanes, pioneered by Geoffrey de Havilland in England, and there were crashes. Disasters tend to stall technological advancement - death and public discussion result in a questioning of the wisdom of new technologies (that's a theme). In this case, it was mostly a matter of figuring out what technological changes were needed to an airplane to make jet engines viable. They were simpler technologies, yet more expensive, than previous engines. This meant that the plane itself needed to be bigger to ensure enough passengers to make money - justifying the commercial cost of jet airplanes pushed the technology, making this an unusual case of civilian use becoming more significant than military use. They also needed to have a stronger fuselage to withstand the pressurization required in the cabin. Planes started getting huge and heavy.

Boosted by the energy crisis of the 1970s, jet technology advanced in efficiency due to carbon fiber technology. When gas became cheap again, the technology couldn't be marketed, but it appeared again in modern engines.

 Resistance to modern technologies

Silent RunningWe have seen some resistance to every change in technology since the beginning of the class, and with good reason. Technologies are not morally neutral, though we would very much like them to be. Every new technology carries with it the assumptions of the time it was built, the people who built it, and the social environment in which it was created. The social impact of television was immediately obvious, but so were the physical impacts of many new products. Jumbo jet airliners cause noise and pollution (a word not in common use until 1955). And the new chemicals of the post-World War II era were also polluting and dangerous. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was used as an insecticide in World War II to protect troops in the South Pacific from malaria, and it came into common agricultural use shortly after. Biologist Rachel Carson studied the effects of DDT and published them in her book Silent Spring in 1962. Her documentation of the persistence, cancer-causing properties, and bird-killing effects of the pesticide led to its being banned in the 1970s in the United States.

Although first coined in the 1920s, and there had been "back to nature" movements since the early 19th century, the word "environmentalism" took on a new urgency in the post-war era. Films like Silent Running (1972), featuring a spaceship full of plants and animals trying to save them from a polluted earth, and the China Syndrome (1979), based on the idea of a nuclear power plant melting down due to power company cheating on inspections, were popular. Political action was important - the Green Parties of the various nations of Europe formed a coalition in 1979, merging into the European Greens in the early 21st century.

It influenced education, too. I took Ecology class in high school instead of Biology.


ConcordeOne of the interesting lost technologies of this era was the supersonic airplane, the Concorde. It was introduced as a marvel in 1976, and was retired 27 years later.  It went twice as fast as conventional airplanes - it took only 3.5 hours from New York to Paris. It had a maximum cruising altitude of 60,000 feet, almost twice as high as regular planes. The plane had a number of technological problems related to its speed and altitude, including overheating and exposure to radiation, but it was a fatal crash in 2000, followed by the decline in air traffic following the September 11, 2001 attacks, that caused its demise. There simply weren't enough paying customers.

Silliness from Time Bandits

Just for fun.