The Spread of Technology since 1900

iPhone
Licensed by Creative Commons (yuichirock)

Earlier this year, according to one study, the smart phone reached an important milestone: 50% market penetration in the United States.

It’s a remarkably quick ascent, but just how remarkable?

I’m no historian of technology, but Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal (author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology) recently looked at a series of now-common technologies and how quickly (or slowly) they became “now-common” in this country and reached 50% penetration. Here’s his list of technologies:

Air conditioning, Automobile, Cell phone, Color TV, Computer, Dishwasher, Dryer, Electricity, Internet, Microwave, Radio, Refrigerator, Stove, Telephone, VCR, Washing machine

In case you’d like to make educated guesses about how quickly they hit 50% penetration, I omitted the dates and put them in alphabetical rather than chronological order. Scroll down to check your guesses:

Is Air Conditioning Really Worth While?
Um, yes. Though maybe not in the pre-changed climate of 1961, when Popular Mechanics asked this question – Creative Commons (Bill Bradford)

Here’s the list again, clustered into the decades in which each technology achieved the 50% mark:

  • 1920s: electricity (1924), automobile (1925)
  • 1930s: radio (1931), stove (1937)
  • 1940s: refrigerator (1942), telephone (1946), automobile again (1947) (up to 60% as the 1920s drew to a close, the trend reversed during the Great Depression, then World War II — during which Detroit’s factories produced other kinds of vehicles — caused automobile penetration to slip below 50% for a brief time)
  • 1950s: none
  • 1960s: washing machine (1964)
  • 1970s: dryer (1970), color TV (1972), air conditioning (1973)
  • 1980s: microwave (1985), VCR (1987)
  • 1990s: dishwasher and computer (both 1996)
  • 2000s: cell phone (2000), Internet (2001)

Were you surprised by how early or late any of these reached the 50% threshold? Dishwasher seemed awfully late to me, though my grandparents never did/have own(ed) one…

Madrigal is interested in how quickly these technologies became popular, but admits that it’s hard to gauge because there’s rarely a clear start point. Even setting aside years of development, most technologies grow through a series of innovations and don’t have a single “invented in” or “introduced to the general public in” date.

But to give some sense of how they spread… Here’s the list of technologies again, with the year that each reached 10%, 50%, and 90% penetration. (The first and third dates are very rough, my best guess using a graph reproduced as a not-so-high resolution GIF.) 10% as an indicator of when something ceased to be an oddity and became a somewhat well-known curiosity, or a luxury good; 90% as the flip side: when not having the technology was clearly out of the ordinary.

10%

50%

90%

Electricity

1910

1924

1949

Automobile

1916

1925

1988

Radio

1926

1931

1947

Stove

1900

1937

1956

Refrigerator

1931

1942

1954

Telephone

1914

1946

1975

Washing machine

1930

1964

?

Dryer

1956

1970

?

Color TV

1966

1972

1986

Air conditioning

1957

1973

?

Microwave

1980

1985

?

VCR

1985

1987

?

Dishwasher

1963

1996

?

Computer

1985

1996

?

Cell phone

1994

2000

?

Internet

1994

2001

?

Clearly, some things caught on more quickly than others. The five fastest: VCR (2 years from 10% to 50%), radio and microwave (5 years each), and color TV and cell phone (6 each). The five slowest: stove (37 years), washing machine (34), dishwasher (33), telephone (32), and air conditioning (16).

1930s Gas Stove
1930s gas stove – Wikimedia

I’d be fascinated to know more about the history of the stove. (And if these numbers reflect only gas or electric stoves, or those that burned wood or other fuels…) Why did it spread so gradually?? Then why did it get from 50% to 90% relatively quickly (faster than cars, electricity, or telephones)?

Indeed, the stove is the major exception to one rule apparent from the above chart: it generally takes longer to get from 50% to 90% than from 10% to 50%. The automobile is the glaring example of this: though complicated by what I noted above about the impact of the Great Depression and WWII, that it took over 60 years to get from being something that most people owned to a true commonplace item probably reflects the fact that it’s easily the most expensive (and therefore risky) purchase on this list.

Related to this is the other thing that jumps out at you from that 10/50/90 chart: most of these technologies still have not reached 90% penetration. The graph from Madrigal’s article only goes up through 2005; but even adding cell phone and microwave (just under 90% seven years ago), you’re still left with several technologies that seem to have plateaued at lower levels of penetration (air conditioning, washing machine, and clothes dryer, stuck at 88%, 82%, and 79%, respectively) or are even starting to fall off (VCR, already becoming obsolete in 2005; and computer, tailing off seven years ago, and that before tablets had emerged as a cheaper alternative).

Interestingly, two other Atlantic contributors also contemplated the pace and impact of technological innovation last week:

First, business editor Derek Thompson dissected a graph showing how many hours Americans spent on different types of communication from 1900 to the present day. A few highlights:

  • When the 20th century started, Americans averaged 6 hours of communication, four of them in person.
  • The addition of radio didn’t really change that, but added two more hours to the tally.
  • Our current average of 10 hours spent communicating each day was actually reached in the 1980s, long before the addition of e-mail, IM, social media, etc., which haven’t added to the total but have certainly changed how we communicate.

Then if you haven’t yet got your fill of Atlantic writing about technology, be sure to read Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs, who looked at J.R.R. Tolkien’s well-known antipathy to “The Machine” and how that theme has continued to resonate with fantasy writers. “What would a fantasy that embraces technology look like?”, asked Jacobs. “Arthur Weasley’s fascination with Muggle tech in the Harry Potter books is simply comical — though a great source of fun in the books. I’d like to see a writer imagine what technologies would arise in a fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town. Is that too much to ask?”


15 thoughts on “The Spread of Technology since 1900

  1. An interesting article, Chris. It brought back memories of what telephone service was like in the early ’70’s when we established our first home. A call to the phone company started the process. After providing billing info, etc, you then went through several plan options that dealt with how many actual telephones you wanted in your home. There were different packages available with cost savings available with larger packages (in case your apartment really needed five phones). When all this was settled, the phone company sent out a man who would go around plugging in the phones to the wall jacks! The phone and cords actually belonged to the phone company and usually a deposit was required. If you wanted to change colors or moved or downgraded your plan all the equipment had to be returned to the phone company. Wall hung phones were an exciting development! As were long, coiled cords so you could actually walk around while you talked or were on hold!! Fun memories, but glad they’re in the past.

    1. When did some of those technologies show up on the farm, Mom? (When I was looking at 1940 Census records, I remember wishing that there were questions asking about electrification, household appliances, etc.)

      1. The house was built in 1923 and amazingly, Grandpa had it wired for electricity and set up a generator that could be turned on and off as desired. {The REA (Rural Electric Assoc.) came a decade later that brought power to the entire rural area.} I recall Mom telling me that they still used kerosene lights at least some of the time. The problem with the wiring was that there was only one outlet upstairs at the top of the stairs (none in the bathroom which was originally a bedroom) and very few downstairs. Electricity was used sparingly. However, there was a light switch on one wall of Grandpa and Grandma’s bedroom that turned on the lights in the chicken coop! No more pre-dawn trips out to the coop to manually light it (to get the hens started laying eggs for the day). Each bedroom had an electric light fixture, the kind with the pull string. Both sets of grandparents had a wood stove in the kitchen for cooking and heating. There was no plumbing in Grandpa and Grandma Peterson’s house where they lived until they passed away in ’72. Sinks drained into pails set under them in the cabinet. Outhouses were tucked away from the house to cut down on flies and smells in the house, making for a long walk sometimes.
        One last thing, I remember Grandma telling me about that amazing day when the first airplane was seen in the area!

  2. I wonder why they didn’t include television of any type, not just color. I would be interested to see how that would compare in its rapidity of adoption.

    1. Kathy – I think that if you click through to Madrigal’s post at The Atlantic, you’ll find a different graph showing the spread of TV and radio in more detail…

  3. Chris- The economic factors would seem to be an important determinant of the rate of diffusion. The utility (or appeal) of the item is a plus but if people can’t afford it, so what. The Great Depression obviously made a difference. Around here, the schools are making a big push for providing ipads to all students, a clear sign of affluence. (A net book is half as expensive and twice as useful for writing and computing.)

    The title of your post mentions the year 1900. In the rural midwest, how did Amish, Mennonite or Lutheran farmers live differently? The technology they used might have been about the same. An elderly farmer told me recently that when he was a kid his family had a model A but they did not drive it due to the cost of gasoline. But the Amish still don’t drive them for religious reasons.

    So morality, cost and affluence affect the diffusion rate. Also usefulness and how much fun it is to use.

    One of the most morally corrosive technological innovations is not on your list: cable tv. Widely diffused and way too expensive as well as being full of bad messages. My hope is that upside of a bad economy will be a drop in cable tv’s market penetration.

    1. Good points all, Jim. Re: cable TV… If you check Madrigal’s original article, he also includes a graph (from the Wall Street Journal I think) that breaks down radio, TV, and other communications technologies into narrower sets of innovations — including cable TV.

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