Overview: Technology 1950-present

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Overview: Technology 1950-present


The foundations of modern technology grew out of developments in electricity, communications, industrial research, and science in the first half of the twentieth century. During that period, technology became much more science-based, invention and innovation became much more deliberate, and the exploitation of electricity provided a new world of electronics for communications, entertainment, and information.

More than any other Western figure, American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) epitomized the changes occurring in technology during the 1900s. His pioneering work with electrical technology in the late nineteenth century, his establishment of an industrial research and development laboratory, and his success in anticipating new markets for communications devices—such as the phonograph, the telephone, and motion picture systems—set an agenda for technological development that shaped the era. The use of electricity to encode, detect, and amplify signals grew out of the previous contributions of Edison and others. These efforts led to radio, television, long distance telephony, and the myriad of consumer products available at the end of the twentieth century for the reproduction of sight and sound.

Edison's Menlo Park research laboratory was the prototype of the commonplace industrial laboratories integral to many modern major corporations. Invention and innovation became less the domain of the lone inventor and more the product of team efforts, particularly in places such as Bell Laboratories, birthplace of the transistor, which miniaturized and transformed electronics. Research-based technological development relied not only on group projects but also on science as a source of innovation. The accelerated research efforts brought about by World War II resulted in electronic computers, jet aircraft, radar, rockets, and nuclear power, all of which demonstrated the efficacy of science in technological change and the increasingly important role of government support in creating new, costly, and complex technology.

These many forces shaping technology at the end of World War II accelerated the rate of technological change and the increased dependence on technology in the Western world. Powered chiefly by electricity and petroleum, this mid-century technology touched more and more people, and their dependence upon it grew. The world of electrical lighting and appliances, electrical power, automobiles, aircraft, and consumer culture created a century of pervasive technology.

The Electronic Age

The development of the transistor in 1947 at Bell Laboratories by William B. Shockley (1910-1989), John Bardeen (1908-1991), and Walter H. Brattain (1902-1987) transformed communications technology in the post-World War II era. This electronic device allowed for smaller, improved and more reliable products such as hand-held radios, television sets, various sound reproduction systems, and computers. The availability of the semi-conductor led to the integrated circuit and the microprocessor, which permitted a new method of control and operation for a wide variety of products, most notably the computer, which began as a specialized, expensive machine but was transformed into a universal piece of technology, ranging from super computers to ubiquitous personal computers.

This electronic age, with many of its components developed by research laboratories, gave consumers a new world of choices from cellular telephones to notebook computers, making communication and access to information easier and almost instantaneous. The ongoing conversion from analog to digital systems, first widely used in computers, produced compact disks, digital videodisks, and developing digital systems for both radio and television. Lastly, the rapid expansion and use of the Internet and the World Wide Web changed both information gathering and commerce; the result was a knowledge revolution in full force during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The Nuclear World

Building upon the achievements of the Manhattan Project to produce nuclear weapons during World War II, scientists and technologists refined nuclear technology with the introduction of the hydrogen bomb in 1954 and the development of nuclear reactors in the 1950s. This new technology held the promise of peaceful uses with the introduction of nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States. At the same time, it created the threat of nuclear destruction with refinements in nuclear weapons that played a pivotal role in Cold War diplomacy for much of the last half of the twentieth century. Nuclear technology epitomized a new world of technology based on science, while being funded and nurtured by governments. The initial hopes for the peaceful uses of this technology were overshadowed by the threat of global annihilation inherent in nuclear weaponry.

Aerospace Technology

Just as nuclear technology built upon research and development efforts during World War II, so did aerospace technology. With the marriage of scientific theory and technological experience, the jet engine emerged after the war as a faster, more efficient power source for both commercial and military aircraft. By the 1950s and 1960s jet aircraft dominated commercial air traffic, making business and leisure travel more rapid and more accessible. Faster and more aerodynamically stable aircraft made supersonic flight a reality by the 1970s and reduced global distances even more.

Also, the German efforts with V-1 and V-2 rockets under the direction of Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) and Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) demonstrated that rocketry was a viable means of controlled flight. Both the United States and the Soviet Union created extensive rocket research programs after World War II; the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the concerned American response led to continuing space exploration, manned space flights, a lunar landing in 1969, space shuttles and the Mir space station.

Along with efforts at space exploration, both nations used this new rocket technology as part of the Cold War arms race, especially with the development of intercontinental ballistic missile systems. An ancillary development in the world of rocketry was the use of satellites, first for meteorological and military purposes and then for worldwide communications. The stuff of science fiction in the 1930s became routine late in the century with regular space travel and the transmission of images from around the globe and the cosmos.


Technological developments during the last half of the twentieth century moved mankind further along into a new era of technological change. The industrialism so characteristic of the pre-World War II era, while still fundamental to a technological culture, was being supplanted by an information or knowledge revolution made possible by the process of deliberate invention and innovation, by the science-technology interface, and by an electronic era with its myriad of new devices and processes. Extensive new worlds opened for people as they could access information from countless sources and as they could communicate instantaneously. This impatient culture expected instantaneous interaction and results; at the same time, the information age required thinking globally as the new technology eliminated regional and national borders for both commerce and access to knowledge.

Along with the prospects of the information age were the possibilities of fusion technology as a source of new, clean, unlimited energy. Such a result would fulfill the optimistic promise of a new era in technology envisioned in the 1950s by nuclear scientists and engineers. Continuing research efforts will play a key role in seeking a practical process for this new energy source.

The exploration of space, based on continuing developments in aerospace science and technology, have provided, and will continue to provide, new perspectives and knowledge that will reshape our sense of our world and the cosmos. These efforts could rival the impact of the information age in shaping the technological milieu of a new century.

By the year 2000 technological developments had removed traditional barriers of time, distance, and space that defined technology a century earlier. In the process, the emerging technology relied more on electronic rather than mechanical devices, more on knowledge than materials, and more on information than industrialism.