The 50 Biggest Changes In The Last 50 Years

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With American Heritage approaching its fiftieth birthday in December 2004, we asked five leading historians and cultural commentators to each pick 10 leading developments in American life in the last half-century. In this fifth installment, Phil Patton—whose books include Made in USA: The Secret History of the Things That Made America and Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World’s Most Famous Automobile —selects the 10 biggest changes in the realm of innovation and technology. In previous issues we presented our other authorities’ choices of the half-century’s biggest transformations in politics, business, home and the family, and entertainment and culture.

“I can’t imagine how we lived without it.” So we often say about an innovation that has changed our lives. But about the changes that have been most deeply absorbed into the pores of daily routine, we could also often say, “I can’t remember how we lived without it.”

My finger no longer retains the muscle memory of a rotary dial phone. I can no longer remember walking over to a television set to change the channel. When I think of slipping into the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile, I falsely remember fastening a seat belt. Old television shows are magically remembered in color, and when I recall typing college term papers in the early 1970s, I do so on a click-clacking plastic computer keyboard rather than a massive metal Royal.

Such distortions may be the very definition of what has changed the world most. The year 1954 saw the arrival of the first solar cells, developed at Bell Labs. Boeing was testing a prototype of the 707, the intercontinental jet airliner that would so change patterns of travel and consumption. Elvis was cutting his first records. And computers were just starting to be connected by telephone lines in the creation of the Cold War SAGE air defense system. The broader implications of that development were hardly imagined.

The impact of some innovations, such as jet planes, has been striking in its predictability. But small innovations have wrought surprisingly large and unexpected changes in daily life too. Here are enough innovations, large and small, to count on all 10 of what used to be called digits —your fingers.

1 Getting the Dish: The Power I of the Satellite

It was all there in Arthur C. Clarke’s famous article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays” in Wireless World magazine in October 1945. Inspired by the discovery of German V2 rockets, which he believed could serve as boosters, Clarke proposed launching earth satellites into geosynchronous orbit to handle radio, telephone, and television communications. By 1962 Telstar was beaming TV images between Europe and the United States.

Clarke understood that building ground networks no longer made economic sense, a truth realized as countries all over the Third World leap-frogged straight to wireless phones and satellite TV. The echoes of that article are still resonating in such events as Rupert Murdoch’s installation as the TV baron of China. Satellite phones remain challenged by cost and power demands, but their potential impact was illustrated a few years ago by the poignant final moments of a trapped Mount Everest climber phoning his wife with his last words and more recently by the pixelated pictures from the Iraqi war front generated by satellite phones.

In the western North Carolina valley where my ancestors lived for a century and a half, television reception was long limited by the mountains, and the population was too poor and too sparse to justify investment by cable companies. My cousins and neighbors could see only two fuzzy channels before the arrival of the TV satellite dish. But then this area of Appalachia quickly came to have a remarkably high number of the dishes. Now the mountaineers can keep up with gossip about Hollywood stars as easily as with that about their cousins in the valley.

2 The Silicon Frontier: Technology as Manifest Destiny

We’ve all heard by now of Moore’s Law, the dictum laid down by the Intel cofounder Gordon Moore in 1965 that holds that the number of transistors and therefore the capacity of a silicon chip must rise exponentially. The Intel 8088 processor in the first IBM PC had 29,000 transistors. Today’s Pentium 4 has up to 178 million.

The importance of Moore’s Law, however, lies not just in what chips have done better and better—like running automobile engines more efficiently, regulating the browning of toast, and printing professional-looking flyers for the high school dance —but also in the pace at which their power has advanced, as relentlessly as did the frontier in the nineteenth century. Because of this, marketing and sales staffs have been able to set up a steady pattern of declining prices and new fashions in technology. “Adoption curves” have shot upward on the chart of time. Today’s cutting-edge device for the “early adopter” is tomorrow’s, or even today’s, strip-mall commodity.

Technical advances just over the horizon are like the empty lands of the nineteenth century. Exploitation of the manifest destiny of silicon has reinforced all the patterns of the Old West: speculation, competition, shootouts, and boomtowns and ghost towns.