The 1920s Science and Technology: Overview

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The 1920s Science and Technology: Overview

During the 1920s, ideas and inventions on which scientists and engineers had been working for years came out of the developmental stage and entered people's lives for the first time. For instance, the automobile became a fixture of everyday American life. The Ford Motor Company's classic Model T remained the most popular and affordable car. When sales began to slip, Henry Ford marketed a totally new design called the Model A. Meanwhile Chevrolet, a rival manufacturer, began encroaching on Ford's domination of the automobile industry.

The airplane had been in existence since the first years of the century, but it had not yet grown into a commercial industry. Former World War I (1914–18) pilots, unable to find postwar employment, purchased war planes and barnstormed across the nation, performing daredevil feats at country fairs. At the time, the skies were just as likely to hold a dirigible (a balloon-powered airship) as an airplane. As the decade progressed, however, airplanes increasingly were used to deliver mail across America. Dayand-night flying became commonplace. By decade's end, the major American cities were connected by regularly scheduled commercial air flights. On the military front, William "Billy" Mitchell, a U.S. Army Air Corps officer, became a vocal and controversial advocate for the establishment of an air force as an independent branch of the American military.

Since the late nineteenth century, attempts had been made to add sound to motion pictures, but problems of amplification and synchronization prevented these experimental systems from succeeding. From 1922 through 1925, Lee De Forest, Theodore Case, and E. I. Sponable devised a means for adding synchronized sound to film. Engineers at Western Electric and the Bell Laboratories also developed a sound-on-disc system for motion pictures. This system was employed by the Warner Bros. film studio in 1926 and 1927, when it began producing and releasing the first motion pictures featuring synchronized music, sound effects, and dialogue. Their immediate popularity spelled doom for silent films and revolutionized the industry. During the decade, a number of motion pictures also were filmed using the Technicolor process. American entertainment underwent further upheaval with the growth of radio. The first commercial radio station came into being at the decade's start. Others followed, and the new medium eventually became a multimillion-dollar business.

The 1920s saw the invention and marketing of a range of new (or improved) products and processes. Magnetic tape, cellophane tape, and foam rubber were developed during the decade. So were the polygraph (lie detector) and the iron lung. Several vitamins were discovered or identified. Scientists explored the heavens and conducted experiments involving the nature and composition of matter. The first successful helicopter flight was completed during the decade. So was the initial solo, nonstop transatlantic flight, which proved to be the decade's most heralded technical feat. In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh, a young aviator, departed Long Island, New York, in his small custom-built plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." Thirty-three-and-a-half hours later, he landed in France. Lindbergh promptly became one of the decade's heroes.