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The 1930s Science and Technology: Overview

The 1930s Science and Technology: Overview

Despite, or maybe because of, the Depression, Americans showed great interest in the future in the 1930s. World's Fairs, such as the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago (1933–34), were packed with exhibits predicting technological advances. Science and technology were also seen as the path to a better society. Skyscrapers, airplanes, automobiles, and advances in physics and biology all seemed good reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Even after the stock market crash of 1929, scientific and technological research carried on. The sponsorship by institutions, such as the Rockefeller Institute, which were unaffected by market conditions, made possible so many technological advances that the 1930s became known as "the machine age." Major advances were made in atomic physics, as well as in plastics and synthetic materials. Out of this activity came a new group calling themselves "technocrats." Technocrats believed that new scientific advances would provide the tools to end the Depression and solve the problems of society. Technocrats could be found everywhere, from church pulpits to universities and the press. The idea of machines taking over for humans in routine jobs was highly attractive. Low-cost, mass-produced household goods seemed to offer a better life for everyone. In the early 1930s, the use of plastics such as a product called Bakelite offered a new world of cheap, stylish, mass-produced goods.

The machine age influenced housing in several ways. Most importantly, it inspired the idea that, like machines, communities could be designed. The Bauhaus movement designed buildings constructed as efficiently as possible, with residents sharing communal spaces. Swiss architect Le Corbusier even talked about buildings as "machines for living." But the most obvious influence of the machine age on housing was prefabrication. "Ready-to-build" units arrived on trucks and were constructed in a matter of hours. As one slogan put it, houses could be "built like Fords." In the end, none of these solutions worked very well. During the Depression, people with the money to buy a house wanted something more substantial than a prefab, while large-scale housing projects often ignored the needs of the people who had to live in them.

The machine age had its critics. British author Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. In the novel, humans have become slaves to machines. Other authors, such as the poet John Drinkwater, took a similar view of machines. Better known is Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times. Chaplin used his film to attack big business and mass-production. He plays a production line worker who ends up being sucked into the giant machine and is trapped among the cogs and gears. Despite moments of hilarious comedy, the serious message of the film is obvious. The power of the film's message is increased because it was the first film in which Chaplin uses sound technology to speak. Chaplin's movie highlighted the contrast between the benefits of scientific and technological advances and the problems caused when they were put to use. The machine age of the 1930s offered Americans huge technological gains, but it also forced Americans to think about the responsibilities that went along with "progress." In the next decade, the atomic bomb would soon illustrate the weight of those responsibilities.

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