The Automobile

World War One brought about a revolution in the use of science and technology. As battlefield casualties mounted to horrifying levels, the military turned to an array of recent innovations in hope of finding a way to turn the endless slaughter into victory. In 1901, for example, the Italian physicist, Guglielmo Marconi, had invented the radio or "wireless telegraph" to aid communication with ships on the Atlantic Ocean. What had been a novelty was soon put to such new uses as directing artillery fire, coordinating battlefield maneuvers and even air-to-air combat. Another novel device, the airplane, was also rapidly developed from harmless observers of troop movements into deadly weapons fitted with machine guns and bombs. Scientific advances in chemistry could be turned into deadly nerve gas as well as life-saving medicines. Trucks replaced horses and farm tractors became tanks. On the home front, radios and especially movies were converted into powerful weapons in the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the people. At war's end, all of these technological wonders- radios, airplanes, automobiles, motion pictures- fueled the growth of a consumer society. Only ten years later, after the war, for instance, 60 percent of American families would own a car which, in turn, would transform the city.

More than anything else, transportation technology has shaped the city's physical form. Urban centers in the Colonial Era were "walking cities'' with a three to five mile radius. Horse-drawn railways at the time of the Civil War pushed boundaries outward and led to the growth of "streetcar suburbs." Beginning in the 1890s, electric trolleys, els, and interurbans allowed the city to expand to truly metropolitan proportions of a twelve to fifteen mile radius. The coming of the automobile in the 1900s added further to this sprawling pattern of urban growth.

At first, the automobile was simply a plaything of the rich but with the introduction of the Model T by Henry Ford in 1908, the price fell within reach of the middle class. Six years later, Ford perfected the assembly line and production for the masses began in earnest. This achievement of industrial organization created a new term, "Fordism," which Americans equated with the ideas of technological progress and consumerism. Chicago, for example, contained 110,000 motor vehicles in 1920, a number which rose more than three-fold over the next five years to over 338,000 cars and trucks. Although Henry Ford's Detroit earned its nickname "The Motor City," as the center of auto manufacturing, Chicago too profited from this booming industry. The 1929 census shows that 6,650 workers at approximately 100 companies produced $80 million worth of cars and parts in the Chicago area.

By then, the city had almost a half million vehicles plying its streets, not counting the tens of thousands of commuters driving in from the suburbs. To accommodate all these vehicles, city planners had to become traffic managers and highway builders. In the mid-1920s, for example, they installed a system of traffic signals in the Loop and built the double-decker Wacker Drive to separate cars and trucks. The age of suburban sprawl and its car culture of drive-ins, garages, gas stations, shopping centers and parking lots had arrived. Also developing was the tourism industry with its motor hotels, and automobile clubs, and tourist guides.

In recent years, historians have changed their ideas about technology and the ways in which it changes society. Before, scholars viewed invention and innovation as a steady march of progress. Now, however, historians believe that human choice, not some kind of inevitable logic of the machine, represents a better picture of how technology changes. Chicagoans and other city dwellers preferred cars to several other transportation options such as walking, horses, bicycles, trolleys and els. This choice best accounts for our creation of a suburban nation. Why did Chicagoans choose autos over other technologies? At the time of Ford's Model T, many who lived in the city hoped to escape from its deadly epidemics, polluted air, and garbage-filled streets, problems caused by rapid industrialization and the growth of the urban population. Many also looked for a safe haven in the suburbs because they feared the immigrants, the working classes, and the emergence of new forms of urban popular entertainment such as movie theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs. Although rapid transit and interurbans provided a technological means to fulfill this social impulse to get out of the city, the automobile proved to be even more popular. It seemed to reinforce American values of individualism and freedom. Socialchoice was translated into public policies that resulted in a steady decline in public transportation while hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into road and highway improvements.

Dr. Harold L. Platt

Loyola University of Chicago

Complete List of Documents in this Section