Cowan 8

By the early 20th century engineering was triumphant--Americans looked to rationality and efficiency to make life better.  More, faster, better was the theme of the time.  But questions began to be raised.  Cowan ch. 8 is important for its discussion of the impact of technological change on the experience of work.


 Scythe with cradle

Labor involved in growing 100 bushels of wheat

Horse-drawn agricultural machines developed in the mid-19th century were a revolution at least as significant as the tractor

1837 John Deere produced a wrought iron plow with steel cutting edge for sticky prairie soil--his factory produced about 1000 in 1846, about 10,000 in 1857.  Harrows, grain drills, cultivators, and mechanical threshers (John and Hiram Pitts, 1837) come into use in 1840s

 McCormick Reaper
Two workable horse-drawn reapers patented in the 1830s by Cyrus McCormick (some of the ideas apparently came from a slave he owned) and Obed Hussey, both using vibrating blades, in Hussey's case moving in a slot in a series of guide teeth.  The McCormick reaper could cut 15 acres of wheat a day. A man with a scythe and cradle could cut only 3 acres. Not widely used until about 1855. Widespread use of these machines came with Civil War

 Glidden's 1874 barbed wire design

PEM Photo, Steam Tractor, Dacusville Farm Days
Enthusiasm continued for steam tractors despite usefulness only on hard soils (14 hp steam engine weighed 12,000 lbs.).
Back to the history of Mass Production
Historical steps:

Where the assembly line wasn't possible, factory owners used Scientific management :

 a machine used today in evaluation of workers

How did workers feel about all this?

There were other people besides workers who had doubts about the modern, technology-based world:

Consider also how domestic work was changing:

Is technology liberating?

 cast iron range

 1900s Westinghouse electric range
early electric

history of the vacuum cleaner

  non-electric vacuum cleaners
 Hoover 1907


Washing clothes

 Maytag Washer hooked to farm service engine1940 washing

 1940 Maytag Washing Machine
flat iron (to be heated on the stove
flat ironhappy looking woman using an electric iron
  the electric iron


the story of the refrigerator is fascinating from the technical point of view

What was the impact of all this new technology?
Hours per week spent on housework
1928 Oregon town wives 63.4
1928 farm wives 61
Post WWII farm 60.6
Post WWII small city 70.4
Post WWII large city 80.6
  a bibliography
Key sources:
Vanek, Joann, "Time Spent in Housework", Scientific American, 231, 5, November 1974, pages 116-120.
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

Skyscrapers and urbanization:
when a great fire burned central Chicago in 1871, people realized the city would need to be rebuilt in a more fire-proof way
old postcard of Chicago skyscrapers

this led Chicago to become the first city to start to build taller and taller
Several technologies were needed to make this possible:
 Eiffel Tower Eiffel Tower
Steel Frame:
tall buildings weren't necessarily cost efficient but they became a sign of pride
Between 1870 and 1920 New York City expanded from less than a million to 5 1/2 million population and from 22 to almost 300 square miles.  Density also increased in the center city with the invention of the elevator and steel frame construction.  People began to imagine how far the skyscraper might go

King Gillette
, who started the first company to make disposable razor blades, also wrote a book about how the United States should be organized:
1920s City of the Future by Hugh Ferris
city of the future
The vision of the future in which we lived in giant cities interconnected by skyways was common in the early 20th century, longer in science fiction
the city in the film
the city in the 1927 film Metropolis
Why didn't we get the titan city future?

church and skyscraper in BostonBut we did get modern architecture
masterworks of modern architecture stamps
stamps showing masterworks of modern architecture
This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
HIST 122
last updated 7/21/07