Rufus Porter lived through a remarkable technological transformation. When he was born, in 1792, Americans traveled overland by foot and horse, communicated by hand-carried letters and resorted to being bled when ill. Fifteen years later Robert Fulton's paddle-wheel steamboat began transporting people up the Hudson from New York City to Albany. By the time Porter published the first issue of Scientific American magazine on Thursday, August 28, 1845, steam engines were driving the nation's burgeoning factories, mines and mills, and steam-powered railroads were transporting goods and people across land at breathtaking speeds. “Superbly splendid long cars,” Porter wrote, could carry from 60 to 80 passengers in safety, comfort and convenience “while flying at the rate of 30 or 40 miles per hour.”
Porter, the son of a well-to-do New England family, had galloped through careers as a landscape artist and inventor; he edited Scientific American for only two years. That was enough, however, to fashion it into an organ of technical prophecy. For 170 years Scientific American has chronicled the astonishing advances in science and technology and frequently offered commentary on how these advances might transform the ways Americans live and work.
Porter was farsighted in founding a magazine that celebrated science and technology. In the 1870s the nation began running out of new arable land for settlement beyond its western frontier. Science and technology offered new frontiers to conquer. At the time, game-changing technologies came mainly from individual inventors such as Fulton or Samuel F. B. Morse, the progenitor of the telegraph. Yet the process of invention was itself going through an important transformation. During the half a century that began in the late 1870s, industrial research facilities such as the Bell Telephone Laboratories rose in prominence, exploiting the rich potential of physics and chemistry and overshadowing the industrial development by even the era's founding inventors, such as Henry Ford. They increasingly provided the big breakthroughs that were changing American life—principally in electrical, chemical and automotive technologies.
The Second World War ushered in a new transformation. Beginning in the 1940s, the federal government began to fuel much of the nation's scientific and technological development through grants and contracts in support of research and training, vastly enlarging opportunities for technical careers and accelerating the pace of innovation. Public and private investment together produced antibiotics and vaccines, transistorized electronics, as well as digital computers, and promised cheap nuclear power.
The rise of the personal-computer and biotechnology industries in the 1970s expressed a reinvigoration of private small-scale innovation. Entrepreneurs were encouraged by the promotion of free-market capitalism, governmental policies that fostered economic deregulation, tax write-offs for research, the patenting of living organisms and vital software, and the transfer from universities to small business of useful knowledge gained with federal research support. Innovators spawned high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, which played an outsized role in reshaping the technology landscape. They brought new technologies, such as the now ubiquitous microprocessor, to the marketplace with startling speed. Handsomely funded federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, pushed advances in molecular biology and genomics, stimulating dramatic changes in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
To appreciate the sweep and magnitude of the changes, I have imagined what each period would seem like through the eyes of a few curious observers. We start with Aurora, a teenager in the 1870s and a grandmother in the 1930s, reflecting on the vast changes in American life with her young grandson Michael. We will also follow Michael, from his boyhood during World War II to his grandfatherly years in 1970s, and his grandson Joel, our contemporary.
Light, sound and mobility
When Aurora visited the nation's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, she took a horse-drawn coach from the train station to the exhibition. Horsepower was how people traveled locally and wherever else the railroads and steamboats did not go. Aurora raised her skirts and held her nose whenever she walked the manure-speckled streets. Her mother did the cleaning and washing by hand and kept the family food fresh in boxes cooled by ice. When her brother broke his leg, the doctor could only guess at the location of the fracture. She and her friends kept in touch mainly by postal mail, although some acquaintances sent missives via their servants. Aurora found pleasure, if she had the time, mainly in live entertainments—lectures, concerts, theater, vaudeville—and her brother especially liked the increasingly popular sport of baseball.
But Aurora knew, in part because she read Scientific American, that enormous changes were germinating. The year of the centennial, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the ability of his new telephone to convey conversations over wires. Some experts derided the invention as a toy, but the magazine's editors noted just a few years later: “Who … can have the courage … to forecast the social and commercial changes which the annihilation of time and trouble, and the doing away of forgetful or erring servants, will bring in their train? Soon it will be the rule and not the exception for business houses, indeed for the dwellings of all well-to-do people as well, to be interlocked by means of the telephone exchange.”
One day the next year Thomas Edison walked into the magazine's offices on Park Row in New York City, set down a small contraption on a table, and, saying little, turned the crank. To the editors' astonishment, the machine said, “How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?” Edison predicted, correctly, that the phonograph would record and play the spoken texts of entire novels such as Nicholas Nickelby and the voices of prima donnas, prime ministers and presidents.
At the time, Edison was devoting his energies to the development of the incandescent electric light, which he first demonstrated to 3,000 people on New Year's Eve in 1879 at his pioneering industrial research lab in Menlo Park, N.J. The demonstration included a crucial element—a practical means of generating and distributing electric power. “After the electric light goes into general use, none but the extravagant will burn tallow candles,” Edison was widely reported to have said. Electric lighting soon began replacing gas in streets, offices and homes. Scientific American detailed the advantages: it was brighter, didn't flicker, and didn't take the oxygen out of the air or load it with soot.
Through the succeeding decades the magazine's editors prognosticated on the dividends to come from the discovery of x-rays for their potential uses in medicine and the detection of contraband; the advent of the horseless carriage, which would rid cities of “the dust and mud” (the editors were too decorous to mention manure) “and noise” of horses clattering on cobblestone pavements; and the prospects of heavier-than-air flight. They failed, however, to appreciate the invention of the three-element vacuum tube in 1907, which, by generating and amplifying variable signals such as those characteristic of voice and music, would in little more than a decade turn out to be crucial in the development of electronics, including wireless communications.
By the 1930s Aurora could recognize how much electricity and chemistry had changed everyday life. Her son worked in an office lit by electricity, came home to an electrically lit house and went out to dinner in a downtown of bright lights. She and her daughter stored food in an electric refrigerator and vacuumed the floors. She dialed family and friends directly on the telephone, without having to go through an operator.* She and her husband listened to political conventions, concerts and prizefights on the radio and watched movies in air-conditioned theaters.
Chemistry and electricity had transformed the horseless carriage into the ubiquitous “automobile,” a name that signified autonomy of movement. The open touring car that sold for $1,500 in 1915 had turned into the sleek family sedan, with a $680 sticker price that included safety glass, durable paints, cushioning rubber tires and electric lights. With electric starters, Aurora no longer had to turn the crank to start the engine. Gasoline was cheap, not least because between 1910 and 1930 oil company chemists had figured out how to quadruple the volume of gasoline they could extract from a barrel of crude.
The new technologies brought out a corps of critics. The metropolis of automobiles, streetcars, loud radios and foul smells had created a cesspool of pollutions, hazardous to life, limb and sanity. With the onset of the Great Depression, some attributed the collapse to technological unemployment. During the 1930s the auto industry was engulfed in bitter, sometimes deadly labor strife that was largely of its own making.
But the industrial bet on the new frontier had paid off, generating new industries, new jobs, and a cornucopia of consumer conveniences in transportation, communications and daily life. The leaders of the auto industry could rightly say that, counting ancillary businesses such as repair shops, gas stations, and steel, paint, glass, rubber and fabric producers, their overall operations accounted for one in five or six of the country's jobs. Even in the depths of the Depression, Americans remained optimistic that science and technology would forge a better future.
Aurora herself might have enjoyed the report in Scientific American in early 1940 that the DuPont Corporation had developed a cluster of synthetic superpolymers that it dubbed “nylon” and that could be made into woven dresses, bathing suits, underwear and stockings—all advertised as feeling smooth as silk. When Michael accompanied his grandmother to the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, he was more excited about the new high-technology miracles such as television that the exhibits promised were just around the consumer corner.
Medicine and electronics
Young Michael, growing up in the late 1930s, took for granted that families listened to radios and phonographs. Both appliances were big, and not always reliable, because they depended on multiple vacuum tubes, which were prone to failure. His parents knew all too well that their doctor's bag included few medicines for the treatment of infectious diseases and nothing to combat dreaded polio. They had worried during the Depression about unintentionally incurring the expense of raising another child because the birth control they used—condoms or a diaphragm—was not altogether reliable. The principal treatment for cancer was surgery; the radiation from such sources as radium or x-ray machines posed their own risks of injury. Michael's older sister worked in an office as a “computer”—processing numerical data using hand-operated adding machines. Most computers were women.
During the decade following victory in World War II in 1945, Michael learned from Scientific American that the wartime mobilization of science and engineering had yielded major innovations applicable to civilian life. Among the most significant was microwave radar, a system that emitted and detected echoes of ultrahigh-frequency radio pulses, tracking aircraft in the sky and revealing targets on the ground. In peacetime, the magazine rightly predicted, microwave networks could simultaneously carry “hundreds of thousands” of private phone calls and deliver “high-definition and color television” programs all over the country.
Wartime research on chemical weapons had serendipitously led to chemotherapy for certain cancers; it had a significant impact on survival rates of childhood leukemia and lymphomas. But the dramatic medical dividend of the war was penicillin, the by-product of mold. This first of many antibiotics offered an effective treatment for syphilis and other infectious diseases. By 1952 the development of other antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline constituted, the magazine rightly said, a “revolution in medicine.”
Research on polio had long been hindered by the inability of scientists to grow this virus except in the spinal tissue of monkeys, a scarce commodity. Yet in 1952 the magazine wrote glowingly about the achievement of scientists at Harvard University who had found a way to multiply the virus in ordinary tissue culture, a breakthrough that gave “a tremendous impetus to the study of the disease” and the development of a vaccine against it. In 1955 bells rang out across the country on the announcement that Jonas Salk's polio vaccine had been successfully tested in a nationwide trial.
The war had also given birth to the electronic digital computer. The first models contained thousands of vacuum tubes, occupied entire rooms and consumed enormous amounts of power. Reliance on these tubes was a major obstacle to increasing the complexity of what the machines could accomplish. In 1948, however, as Michael read in Scientific American, engineers invented a device, called a transistor, that performed the same work as tubes but was smaller and less power hungry.
By the 1970s Michael was flying around the world in jets, another spin-off of defense research, confident that radar would track his plane through its entire journey and that electronic instruments would guide it to a safe landing in bad weather.
Michael and his wife could purchase inexpensive goods for their home, including microwave ovens, plastic furniture, and clothing made of polyester that was easy to clean and resistant to shrinkage and wrinkling, not to mention moths. He did not have to worry that his grandson, Joel, might contract polio because vaccinations were widespread in the U.S. Cancer was still a dread but could often be staved off by an expanding menu of chemotherapies. His wife thought it wonderful that their daughters, one married, the other not, could use birth-control pills to divorce sexual pleasure from the risk of pregnancy.
Grandfather Michael liked to point out to Joel and his friends how much autonomy they enjoyed in listening to whatever they wanted on their transistorized portable radios and compact stereophonic record and tape players. Michael himself wore a transistorized hearing aid, unobtrusively miniature in size and powered by a long-lasting battery. He took great pleasure in joining Joel to watch live distant news and sporting events such as Wimbledon because, as Scientific American had predicted in 1961, communication satellites operating thousands of miles above the earth now relayed “not only telegraph and telephone messages but also television pictures … to the farthest corner of the globe.”
Yet not everyone was happy with the high-tech changes. In the 1960s Rachel Carson's searching and eloquent Silent Spring helped to stimulate a new environmental movement whose targets were DDT and toxics. Critics attacked computers for relegating human beings to mere entries of code to be managed by academic and industrial bureaucracies. Anger about the Vietnam War, with its use of herbicides as weapons and mass bombings from altitudes of 30,000 feet, was often directed against the scientific and technological enterprise that had produced such armaments.
All the same, Americans as a whole did not dissent. People who marched against environmental pollution still relished jet travel, transistorized stereos, color TVs and birth-control pills. Once the war ended, much of the anger subsided. Pollution remained a threat, although reformers found the means to mitigate it using cleanup technologies and science-based regulation.
A biomedical and silicon society
In the 1970s Joel had a teenager's impatience with life's inconveniences. Using a computer meant slogging to his school's computer center, submitting a program and picking up the printed output the next day. He had to call a travel agent to book a trip. His television watching was limited to three national networks and a few local stations. To withdraw money from the bank, he had to cash a check, and to make a call outside his home he had to find a payphone. When his mother was diagnosed with an abdominal cancer, she had to undergo exploratory surgery to determine the location and extent of the malignancy. He was pleased to learn in Scientific American that new technologies promised to dissolve the reasons for his impatience. The microchip would make it possible to downsize computers. “Desk-sized computers will become nearly as common as typewriters,” one of the magazine's contributors predicted. So would access to the World Wide Web, the magazine said in 1991 in an issue devoted entirely to the Internet and its potential uses.
Scientific American, along with other media, also reported on the advent of recombinant DNA, the molecular biological method that enabled the manipulation of life at its genetic essence. Using the technique, scientists could cut out a gene from one organism and insert it into another. Recombinant DNA could in principle be exploited for many purposes: the diagnosis of hereditary diseases and the application of gene therapies to cure them; the genetic engineering of farm crops such as corn to make them resistant to specific maladies; and the modification of microorganisms to produce advantageous proteins for pharmaceutical purposes.
Recombinant DNA aroused fears that the ability to manipulate life at its genetic essence would lead to a new eugenics, that genetically modified organisms jeopardized environmental balances or that genetic engineering for any purpose constituted an act of human hubris, an invasion of prerogatives reserved only for God. By the end of the 1970s the controversies, though not all the objections, had largely abated, quelled in part by federal regulation of recombinant initiatives in both lab and field, and by the benefits of these new genetic powers, such as the production of human insulin for the treatment of diabetes—the first of an extensive line of pharmaceutical products developed over the decades.
In recent years Joel found the conditions of life not only more satisfying but also more conducive to maintaining the health of himself and his family. In the 1970s Scientific American had showcased ultrasound, a technology of medical imaging that, unlike invasive procedures or x-rays, revealed features of the body's interior, including a fetus, “painlessly and with a minimum of risk and expense.” It soon reported as well on a cluster of additional game-changing imaging technologies—CT, MRI and PET scans. If Joel or a member of his family fell victim to a chronic disease, physicians could obtain images of his bodily processes such as blood flow and brain activity or of tumors and painful displacements such as in the spine.
Joel lives, as we all do, in a world of microprocessors. They enable his cell phone, tablet and computer; they regulate his car, oven, refrigerator, house alarm, digital camera and the ATM that gives him cash 24/7. He owes a debt of thanks to microprocessors whenever he uses the Internet, which he often does, to find directions on a map or check his Facebook account.
As in the past, new technologies have stimulated new apprehensions, notably about personal and medical privacy in the information age, the vulnerability of a computerized society to attack at its cybernetic core, the impact of technologies and genetically engineered drugs on the costs of medical services, and the human price of learning that you may be fated to contract a genetic disease for which there is no known therapy or cure. Still, Americans relish the Internet's at-will access to commerce and information and the prospect that genetics, imaging and computing will lead to a more individualized, tailored medicine. They also hope that the world's societies can at once feed their voracious demand for energy and retard the pace of global warming through the cheaper technologies of wind and solar power.
If history is a reliable guide, Americans will welcome whatever science and technology may bring, much as they have since Rufus Porter extolled the railroad in the first pages of Scientific American. The record of the past 170 years offers ample reasons to believe that, despite any downsides, science and technology will continue to transform American life in preponderantly beneficial ways, many of them as yet unimagined.
*Editor's Note (11/17/15): This sentence from the print article was edited after posting. The original erroneously implied that coast-to-coast telephone calls could be directly dialed in the 1930s without the intervention of an operator. Although true for local calls, an operator was required for long-distance calls until the 1950s.