Chapter 29 From the Past to the Future: 1968-2000

Section 2 A New Revolution in Technology

After World War II innovations in medicine and agriculture saved millions of lives, at the same time contributing to unprecedented population growth. Meanwhile, inventions in transportation and communications technology tied the peoples of the planet more closely together than ever before. For the first time, science was being brought in a deliberate and systematic way into an alliance with technology. Perhaps more than anything else, this alliance became the hallmark of the modern era.

War, Science, and Technology

World War II and its aftermath demonstrated dramatically the potential power that could be produced by the combination of science and technology. In physics, for example, the investigation of atomic and sub-atomic particles carried on by Albert Einstein, James Franck, and others in the first half of the 1900s led to a whole new theoretical understanding of the nature of the physical universe. During and after the war, governments began to sponsor programs that combined these theories with modern engineering techniques to give human beings more control over their environment than ever before. 

Nuclear power. The first great alliance between science and technology, sponsored by wartime governments, led to the development of powerful new energy sources—atomic and then nuclear energy.[58] Although the first use of the new source of power came in war, with the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after the war many scientists and political leaders hoped that atomic and nuclear energy might be harnessed for peaceful purposes. Nuclear energy promised to produce electricity without significant air pollution.[59] In the 1950s, several nations, including the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union began to build nuclear power plants.[60] By the early 1970s, about 70 nuclear power plants were in operation around the world.[61]

            Even peaceful use of nuclear power worried many people, however, who feared that the problems it raised outweighed its benefits. In addition to releasing heat, atomic and nuclear reactions released high levels of radiation. Although radiation can be used for beneficial purposes—such as the treatment of cancer—if uncontrolled it is destructive to all organisms including human beings. Nuclear reactors produced radioactive waste materials that were difficult and expensive to get rid of.[62]

            Fears of nuclear power increased after serious accidents in the 1980s at both Three Mile Island in New Jersey,[63] and above all at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. Advocates of nuclear power noted that the safety features required of all nuclear plants in the United States and most other countries had worked to prevent a major disaster at Three Mile Island. Chernobyl, on the other hand, demonstrated the dangers of a nuclear program without such safeguards.

            An estimated 6000 people around Chernobyl died from radiation sickness and many others suffered increased cancer rates and birth defects. Scientists predicted even further deaths from cancer and more birth defects in the future. While the area around Chernobyl itself became uninhabitable, much of the radiation was also blown across other countries in Europe.[64]  The disaster at Chernobyl led to heightened anxiety about nuclear energy around the world and by the 1990s some countries had begun to scale back their nuclear power programs.[65]

Synthetic substances. While physicists worked on atomic energy, World War II also stimulated discoveries in chemistry that were used to create and manufacture completely new synthetic, or man-made, substances. Although synthetics had been developed first in the late 1800s, it was not until World War II that they began to become commonplace in peoples’ lives. In Germany, for example, the Nazis experimented with synthetic fuels, as they ran out of oil for their war effort. Meanwhile, the Allies, who had plenty of oil, were using oil by-products to create new substances like synthetic rubber, rayon, nylon, and even fertilizer. Perhaps the most widespread of the new synthetic materials were plastics, used to make anything from toothbrushes to telephones.

A new transportation revolution. Wartime developments also contributed to on-going advances in transportation. In Germany, for example, wartime demands led to the development of jet airplanes and rockets. In the years after the war, advanced airplane designs were adapted for civilian use, and air travel spread around the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, jumbo jets replaced smaller propeller-driven planes. Flying more than 500 miles per hour, jets let people travel almost anywhere on earth in a matter of hours. As engineers designed larger and larger aircraft that carried more and more passengers, the cost of tickets fell – which in turn meant that many more people could afford to fly. In the late 1970s France and Britain jointly developed the Concorde, a supersonic jet that traveled at more than 1,000 miles per hour.[66]

            Similar developments revolutionized transportation on the ground. Incorporating new aerodynamic designs, high-speed railways rocketed along at over a hundred miles per hour in Japan and Europe. Meanwhile, the growth of the oil industry, as well as newer and cheaper automotive designs, also contributed to a global upsurge in the use of cars. In 1950 there was one car for every 46 people in the world, but by 1990 there was one car for every 12 people.[67] 

The Space Race

Perhaps the most important combination of science and technology came in space exploration. As the Cold War developed, the implications of combining nuclear weapons with the conquest of the air set the United States and the Soviet Union on a race to gain strategic command of space. In 1957 the Soviets put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.[68] Not wanting the U.S. to fall behind, President Dwight Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to expand American space technology, and in 1958 the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I.[69] In 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.[70]

            Determined to surpass the Soviets, in the 1960s U.S. President Kennedy committed the United States to putting a man on the moon, and returning him safely, by the end of the decade. President Johnson fulfilled the pledge, putting the nation’s resources behind NASA’s manned space program. On July 21, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission achieved the goal.

            Across the globe, millions of people gathered round their television sets to watch the first live transmission from the moon. As Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, for many it was a moment of success not just for the United States but for all humanity: 

“I’m at the foot of the ladder. . . . The surface appears to be very, very fine-grained. . . . I’m going to step off the LM [lunar module] now. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”[71][72]

            The Apollo moon program was followed by more and more space flights as both the United States and the Soviet Union began to explore the solar system with unmanned space probes. The breakthrough into space also allowed many countries to launch satellites into orbit around the earth. Satellites improved global communications, navigation, and surveys of the earth itself—as well as being used for military purposes.

            The 1980s brought even more spectacular advances in space. In 1981 the United States launched the first reusable space shuttle, Columbia.[73] Despite a horrifying explosion that destroyed the shuttle Challenger as millions watched its takeoff in January 1986,[74] dozens of successful shuttle missions were carried out over the decade and into the 1990s. The end of the Cold War led to American and Russian cooperation in space. In 1995, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir for five days, while plans were laid to build a larger, permanent space station.

The Information Age

The space program led to many other technological breakthroughs from the 1960s - 1990s. New communications technology allowed ideas to spread so quickly that some people referred to the Information Revolution. At the heart of these breakthroughs was the growing need for smaller and lighter components for the space program. The greatest problem to be overcome in space flight was how to lift dead weight against the pull of gravity. The development of the small lightweight transistor in the 1950s helped solve the weight problem as it replaced the much bulkier and heavier vacuum tubes used in the electrical components needed for communications and other tasks.

Radio and television. The transistor revolutionized communications around the world. Transistor radios became almost universal in the late 1950s and 1960s—only to be eclipsed in popularity by the television. Although television had been invented before World War II, as its technology improved it became both cheaper and more popular. For example, fewer than 1% of American homes had a television set in 1945, but by 1975, nearly all had one.[75]

            Radio and television not only provided people with entertainment and news, but also allowed businesses to advertise their products. Through radio and television many American consumer products, from McDonald’s hamburgers to Levi’s blue jeans, became popular around the world.[76] The results were sometimes dramatic—as President Sukarno of Indonesia once complained: 

“You may not think of a refrigerator as a revolutionary weapon, but if a peasant woman sees one on the TV in her village square and realizes what it could do for her and her family, the germ of revolt is planted.”[77]

By the 1990s, television was available in every country on earth. The U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN) became a global information source.[78] 

Miniaturization. The expansion of radio and television was due largely to miniaturization—the replacement of large, bulky electrical equipment with smaller electronic equipment—that had been such an important part of the space race. Miniaturization also made possible dozens of other new products—pocket calculators, digital watches, compact tape recorders, and many other items. Miniaturization made possible the development of lasers, which concentrated light and released it in bursts of high intensity. Lasers in turn revolutionized such diverse areas as communications, where they could be used to replace metal wires for transmitting signals. In medicine, lasers made possible new, safer, and more efficient types of surgery.

Computerization. Perhaps the most important and remarkable product of miniaturization was the modern computer. Modern computers evolved from the work of Charles Babbage, an English inventor who in the 1830s designed a mechanical calculating machine called the "analytical engine." Refinements improved the performance of mechanical calculators during the next hundred years, but the major breakthroughs occurred in the mid-1900s, when researchers hit on the idea of letting electrons serve the purposes of the levers and wheels of Babbage's machine. Smaller and enormously faster than mechanical parts, electronic switches made computers faster and more powerful than mechanical calculators.

            The first generation of modern computing began with the 1946 development of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) at the University of Pennsylvania, which occupied whole rooms. Using large numbers of vacuum tubes to produce the necessary electronic switches, however, by the mid-1950s ENIAC was being replaced by less bulky machines using the new transistors. Further miniaturization in the 1960s gave rise to integrated circuits, which contained hundreds and then thousands of transistors on a single silicon chip.

            As computers reduced in size and gained in power, they also became standard components in yet other machines. Computers, for example, could diagnose problems in car engines as well as guide and track spacecraft and passenger airplanes. They ran new medical machines such as the CAT scanner that helped doctors diagnose illnesses more quickly and accurately. With further technological developments, by the 1990s individuals and offices could interconnect their computers through the global Internet, a network tying together millions of computers around the world. By 1994 about 40 million people worldwide used the Internet regularly.[79] Through computers, the world was becoming smaller than ever before.

Combating Disease

In addition to the advances made possible by developments in physics, equally revolutionary were developments in the biological sciences, especially medicine. One of the most important was the introduction of antibiotics—drugs like penicillin and streptomycin that destroy or inhibit bacterial infection. Although the British scientist Sir Alexander Fleming first discovered penicillin in the 1920s, antibiotics did not become widely available until after World War II.[80] Equally important was the spread of vaccination against disease, which had been practiced in ancient times in China and India and in the West since the late 1700s. Worldwide campaigns against scourges like polio and smallpox were extremely successful. By the 1990s smallpox had been eradicated from the planet.

New diseases. Meanwhile, however, new diseases also emerged to threaten human life. In the 1980s world health experts began to warn about the rapid spread of AIDS, an incurable and deadly disease apparently caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The World Health Organization estimated in 1993 that about 2.5 million people had been diagnosed with AIDS, while another 13 million had HIV.[81] In the 1990s, other viruses also began to worry the medical community, such as the Ebola virus that first broke out in Zaire.

Genetic research. Perhaps the most promising—and disturbing—medical breakthroughs occurred in genetic research. In 1962 the Nobel Prize for medicine went to an American, James D. Watson, and two British scientists, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for their 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA proved to be a basic part of all genes, small units of chromosomes that determine an individual’s physical characteristics such as eye and hair color.[82] DNA proved to be a basic part of all genes, small units of chromosomes that determine an individual’s physical characteristics such as eye and hair color.

            By the 1980s, biological researchers had begun to use genetic research to change genes in laboratories, producing new strains of plants and even animals. Many medical researchers saw genetic research as a potential solution to human genetic disorders as well as some diseases. Genetic engineers, for example, produced specific proteins to treat diabetes and heart disease. Genetic research also raised the controversial prospect of producing “designer babies,” in which parents determine in advance all the characteristics of their children. Many people debated the ethics of humanity’s growing control over its evolution.


IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:



Information Revolution





1.            Main Idea What resulted from the growing alliance between science and technology after World War II?

2.            Main Idea  How did the US and the USSR lead the way in space exploration?

3.            Technology  How did television and computers change the world?

4.            Writing to Explain  How did the Internet develop out of the Cold War?

5.            Evaluating  Do the risks involved in producing nuclear energy outweigh the benefits? Why or why not?