Science, Technology and the Quality of Life

In 1919, Science and Technology gripped the popular imagination and changed the way Americans lived. Chicagoans laughed at the fantastic inventions of Rube Goldberg in the Daily News comic section. Some inventions have faded into obscurity and some have become a part of our everyday lives. In 1900, there were 26,000 telephones, one for every 69 residents. By 1920, the number had grown to 575,000, one for every 5 residents. Around 1900, Commonwealth Edison began to encourage people to purchase electric service for their homes and to use electrical appliancesof all kinds by offering to install six free outlets. By 1919, Chicagoans were rushing to replace their iceboxes with the new refrigerators. Western Electric, in nearby Cicero, broke new ground practically every year: 1913, the vacuum tube which was necessary for audio equipment; 1916, the condenser microphone; 1917, the aerial radio telephone; and in 1919, the first desk telephone and the public address system.

Business and technology developed together. Some familiar products had their start in the second decade of the new century. Zippers produced by Chicago's Automatic Hook and Eye Co. were available but really didn't catch on until a decade later. Chicago's Sloan Valve and the Royal Flushometer became the standard in toilet equipment and still is. The technology of advertising and packaging also advanced. Quaker Oats came out in the cardboard cylinder we still see today. The premiums were put in Crackerjack boxes and Abbott Laboratories developed sugarcoating and standardized dosage for medicines.

Mobilizing for the war effort taught Americans to think in new ways about technology. As a result, the building of good roads and highways became a state governmental priority in 1913. Better roads enabled the development of suburbs and automobile ownership introduced a new feature to the private home, the garage. Perhaps the innovation that had the greatest impact on life in Chicago was the automobile. "Probably never before has a popular mechanical invention had such a potent influence in diverting a prominent street from its original purpose and, incidentally, influencing the development of a pertinent style of architecture as had the automobile in transmuting Michigan Boulevard in the City of Chicago from a residence to a business street." (Architectural Record, 1910)

Autos affected almost every other aspect of life as well. Speed, status and safety became popular obsessions. In 1919, the Auto Show at the Coliseum featured dozens of new models. Autos were used for shopping, commuting and recreation. Called motoring or joyriding, depending on one's point of view, with few "rules of the road" motorists had to contend with pedestrians, horses, and streetcars. Accidents were common and often deadly.

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