- Historic Sites
The 50 Biggest Changes In The Last 50 Years
October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Can you recall a car without a seat belt? The movement to put seat belts in the car began in 1954, when the American Medical Association first recommended them. Ford and Chrysler began to offer them as options a year later. By 1965 they were standard.
The push by safety advocates to require seat belts helped establish the adversarial relationship between government and the automobile industry, which was accelerated by the Clean Air Act of 1970. Detroit grumbled, but the engineering achievement involved in developing the catalytic converter and the air bag, both of which Detroit argued were impractical, suggested that under pressure industry could do far more than it thought. For historians, the story indicated how effective “force fed” technology, demanded by government, could be. For philosophers, it challenged John Stuart Mill’s classic liberal precept that government should not protect the individual from himself. Harley-riding libertarians, agreeing with Mill, have forced a rollback of mandatory helmet laws in some states. Will belt laws be unbuckled next?
Today’s children watch television in a wholly different way from those of the 1950s. The remote control makes television an environment to be moved through, not a schedule of successive programs. The result is grab-’em-quick programming and short attention spans. Once families clustered together to watch Ed Sullivan. Now a program waited for and seen straight through is the exception rather than the rule.
While scientists at the remote Naval Ordnance Test Center at China Lake were developing infrared heat-seeking guidance for the Sidewinder air-to-air missile in the early 1950s, TV designers were struggling to find a way to change channels from a distance. The first remote control, still wired to the set, bore the apt name Lazy Bone. In 1955 a Zenith engineer named Eugene Policy did away with the wire; his Flash-made used light, but it didn’t work very well, so it was replaced by the Space Command, which relied on ultrasound—frequencies beyond the range of the human ear. The sounds were generated mechanically in a system that was part chime, part tuning fork, because batteries were inadequate to power a wireless electric ultrasound system.
Not until the 1980s did cheap and dependable infrared technology take over. Today 99 percent of all TV sets come with remote controls, and restless fingers seek hot news and hot new stars unceasingly.
We forget how much bigger and slower our portable devices used to be. Remote controls and mobile phones and Game Boys have become possible only with improvements in batteries. Hefty boom boxes are loaded with companies of chunky C cells, but hearing aids, watches, and automobile key fobs contain tiny button batteries that often outlast the devices they power. The change began with the introduction of alkaline and nickel-cadmium cells in the 1960s. Later decades saw nickel metal hydrides and then lithium produce order-of-magnitude extensions in battery life. But there have been tradeoffs. Most of the substances that make the best batteries are environmental hazards. Nickel, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals tossed into landfills and incinerators are among the most dangerous sources of pollutants. And while cell phones can remain on standby for weeks, running a laptop for a whole airline flight across the United States remains a challenge. The hope? That in the future miniature fuel cells will replace batteries altogether.
In 1954 the first TV dinner arrived. It was a turkey-and-dressing meal packaged in a segmented foil tray in a box printed up to look like a television screen. Frozen industrialized dinners heated in the home kitchen looked like the culinary future. But in 1955 Ray Kroc began the national franchising of McDonald’s and signaled a different pattern, the industrialization of the restaurant kitchen, with machinery and methods allowing the use of untrained labor. More and more meals would be eaten outside the home as standardized chains spread.
Kroc’s kitchen engineer, James Schindler, first broke down the burger production system, the way Henry Ford had broken down auto manufacturing. Then he refined it, the way Toyota had with its just-in-time automaking. Nothing better exemplified the system than the engineer Ralph Weimer’s fry scoop, a metal device that, when slipped onto a waxed bag, measured out an order of fries with a single unskilled swipe.
McDonald’s success has turned less on burgers than on fries, and the fries in turn have depended on a whole supporting infrastructure. As critical to McDonald’s as Ray Kroc himself was the spud king J. R. Simplot, who produced Idaho russets with just the right water and sugar content for proper caramelizing in cooking fat with just a touch of beef lard added. And the potatoes created by a vast growing, freezing, and transportation network end up in the hands of the worker wielding the scoop.
The scoop is an apt symbol of the power of the franchise itself, the business-in-a-box approach that has sprinkled monad-like restaurants and clothing stores across America and the world in the last half-century. What McDonald’s pioneered has been carried out by Starbucks and the Gap and other chains. The colored signal lights that regulate restaurant machinery, the step-by-step photos on training charts in fast-food kitchens, and the just-in-time shelf arrangements at Gap stores—all are exact counterparts of elements in modern automobile factories.