Chapter 3: The Machine Age in America
“I was amazed at the chasm between the excellent quality of much American production and its gross appearance, clumsiness, bulk, and noise . . . I could not imagine how such brilliant manufacturers . . . could put up with it for so long . . . I imagined that a time would come when I could combine an aesthetic sensibility with my professional background in engineering.”
In the 1920s, American manufacturers introduced a new technological era that promised to provide more comfort and convenience than any other age in history. They invented remarkable new products that offered greater access to information, faster transportation, and easier household maintenance.
Two inventions laid the groundwork for this dramatic era. The first was a practical system of electricity, created by Thomas Edison. The development of electricity required not only the design of the lightbulb, but also a stable supply of power, a network of circuitry, and linkage systems, such as sockets, switches, wires, and fuses. Edison completed the entire system in 1879 and illuminated one square mile of New York City with electric streetlights.
The system was extremely successful–and it made the city safer at night. Edison also demonstrated that electricity could provide power for the new subways and skyscrapers that were just being planned. Investors like J.P. Morgan saw the potential and established the Edison General Electric Co., which soon supplied energy to cities across the United States. Edison's system of direct current eventually would be replaced with Nikola Tesla's system of alternating current, which was less costly.
The full implications of electrical power were not understood until the twentieth century, when the U.S. government brought power to the homes of average consumers, first in urban areas and later rural communities. In 1910, only 24 percent of American homes had electricity. By 1940, it was available in 90 percent of the nation's households.
Electrification led to many new products, such as refrigerators, washing machines, tractors, and manufacturing systems, with each new product having an impact on modern life. Between 1912 and 1929, the work hours of average Americans were reduced from seventy to forty-eight per week, and as work became more efficient, ordinary Americans had more free time to explore personal interests.
The new leisure time brought a sense of prosperity to average families. They could afford to own radios, cameras, and clocks; even cars were within their reach. They also had time to see films, which portrayed a glamorous new image of American culture. The 1920s was the beginning of the age of mass production, mass advertising, and mass communications. It was also the beginning of the consumer society, which soon defined the American way of life.