The 50 Biggest Changes In The Last 50 Years

PrintPrintEmailEmail 3 Laser “Lite”

For those of us who grew up on the promise of the laser as a powerful ray gun, slicing up steel plate and boring holes through stone, the unexpected turn has been instead the spread of the low-power, low-cost laser.

It comes as no surprise that Boeing wants to mount anti-missile lasers on jets, but it’s astonishing that the soldier in the field can pick out targets with his red laser pointer —and the regional sales manager can target data on his PowerPoint presentation with a pocket-size version of the same thing. We might have guessed that lasers would reshape the corneas of the myopic, but who would have anticipated the laser in a $30 device at the local Wal-Mart playing music or movies from discs?

4 Pumping Calories: The Heat Pump

At Seaside, the planned town in the Florida Panhandle built in the 1970s to elaborate the ideas of the New Urbanism, the architecture melds old Charleston galleries with bungalows and farmhouses in an American village so archetypical it was used as the backdrop for the film The Truman Show . Picket fences are required by town ordinance. But look behind the fence of the majority of houses in Seaside, and you’ll encounter the jarring sight of a mechanical minitower —a heat pump.


The heat pump changed Everytown, U.S.A., and helped create what we began in the early 1970s to call the Sunbelt. The device was developed just after World War II by Professor Carl Nielsen of Ohio State University and an engineer named J. Donald Kroeker, whose engineering firm installed the first commercial unit in the Equitable Building in Portland, Oregon, in 1948. Heat pumps were soon to be found in motels across America.

Basically air conditioners that can be reversed to provide low-demand heating systems, they made life tolerable in the Sunbelt, and at low cost. The heat pump removed the need for radiators or vented-air heat in much of the southern half of the country while supplanting the window-installed air-conditioning unit. It has flourished everywhere cooling is more important than heating and has supported our national dependence on low energy prices to make life sustainable in our fastest-growing areas.

5 The End of the Blues? The Mechanical Cotton Picker

The mechanical cotton picker killed Broadway, believes Jimmy Breslin. By driving poor blacks off the fields of the South to “Trailways and Greyhound bus depots for the long ride to New York City,” he argues, it sent blacks moving “into the tenements that were vacated by whites,” who themselves moved to the suburbs and abandoned Times Square. “Broadway would no longer be the place of guys and dolls.”

The migration of African-Americans north and west out of the South is the greatest in American history, larger than that from the Dust Bowl to California. Cotton-picking machinery, pioneered in the 1930s by the brothers John and Mack Rust, was mature by the late 1940s, but not until 1960 was a majority of the cotton crop harvested by machine.

The cotton picker soon became a key focus for historians studying the interaction of social and technological forces. The debate is charted in The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South , by Donald Holley. Did the migration of workers out of the South trigger the adoption of the picker and push the maturation of its technology? Or did the machine displace the workers? Did the appeal of greater freedom and prosperity in the rest of the country pull people off the land and into cities? Or did the disappearance of an agricultural society create a classic displaced proletariat?

What is not in doubt are the consequences: The growth of frequently depressed inner-city neighborhoods and expanding suburban ones, and the transformation of the blues, in its new homes in Chicago and elsewhere, into rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop.

6 Bar Codes and the Universal Product Code

Scanning your own groceries and avoiding the gum-chewing gossiping checkout girl may be worth it for you, but it’s even more worth it for the supermarket, with its just-in-time inventory. Much of America’s recent productivity growth has been built on new sets of standards and means of marking products. The bar code is the most visible example of this.

The Universal Product Code was the first bar-code symbology widely adopted, endorsed by the grocery industry in 1973. Product coding allows for quick price changes and has abetted the growth of the big-box discount store. Items can be tracked from port to rail to loading dock to shelf, thanks to containerized shipping that uses the codes. The consequence is lowered living costs.

Bar codes are just one of many industry standardizations that have lowered costs and changed life. The American home has doubled in average square footage thanks in large part to standardized building materials (4-by-8-foot gypsum board and plywood, 2-by-4 studs 16 inches apart). Electronics is built on standards such as Windows compatibility, VHS, DVD, and so on. Coded product standards even rule the food in our kitchens. A banana that was once just a Chiquita is now a #4011.