There is the old adage that difficulty is the mother of invention – but just how true is this? The relationship between collective societal struggle and technological innovation is a question of great interest to many researchers within the field of sociology, history, and the broader humanities. Looking at the relationship between innovation, both as a cause and effect of social crises, can help us better understand the current state of the world and how to react to future crises.
One of the most devastating socio economic crises that have ever impacted the United States of America was The Great Depression in the 1930s. The relationship between this economic crisis and the technology that both precipitated and emerged during this period is the subject of much research and is a fascinating topic to explore both for university students and casual history enthusiasts. Here we’re breaking down the different approaches social sciences researchers are using to tackle this question, and the conclusions they’ve come to.
The changes in the lead up to the crisis
The historical period that preceded the Depression of the 1930s was one of almost unparalleled historical change. Many Western societies, such as the USA were emerging from the period of time now referred to as the Industrial Revolution, which saw massive reforms and innovations made to many different types of industrial production. Inventions such as electrical wiring, steam trains, and early forms of tractors completely changed the nature of production. Where once most people had lived in rural areas and earned their sustenance through agricultural work, the introduction of these new machines meant that fewer people were needed in these areas to produce the same amount of food.
Instead, these former agricultural workers migrated in large quantities to cities, which began to grow rapidly. There, they made a new living in the developing industry of factory production. Specialisation in a craft started to become less and less common, and more labourers were earning their wages as one cog in a large production line. The current demographic information that we have available suggests that in 1800 83% of the American labour force was engaged in agricultural production, a number which radically dropped to 43% by the end of the nineteenth century.
As occurs with the introduction of many new inventions in society, there was a considerable amount of panic in society about the ability of man to compete with these new machines. These fears came to a head when in 1929, the American stock market crashed. Following this catastrophe, many businesses were forced to close, and this led to mass unemployment. The failure of the stock market had massive repercussions on the newly developed urban centres that now comprised the majority of economic output for the United States.
Tech and innovation during the crisis
Although the 1929 stock market crash had devastating effects on employment rates, it’s important to note that this by no means halted science research or the manufacturing of new tech. In fact, the panic and hardship caused by the recession led many magnates and philanthropic societies to invest major funds into science and developing scientific innovation in the USA. Huge strides forward occurred in the fields of atomic physics and the study of plastics – which would then go on to have major effects on the future of production in the USA.
The invention of rubber tyres created a new breed of even more effective tractors, which then further drove agricultural productivity. Cars and automobiles grew to become even more viable forms of transportation, and oil producers developed new types of gasoline in order to power their machines. These technological innovations indeed paved the way for the rest of the 20th century and even enabled much of the military technology that was used during WWII.
Criticism towards mechanisation
Although all this new technology was presenting people with greater options when it came to production and efficiency, the increase in emerging mechanical technologies was not without critics. Authors, politicians, and citizens’ groups all contributed to the criticisms laid out against new technology during the Great Depression.
In 1932, the author Aldous Huxley published his novel Brave New World, which played a major hand in kick starting the dystopian genre of art. Another notable example of work that criticised the increasing reliance on new advancing technologies is Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times. In general, this movement was characterised by a deep suspicion towards the over-mechanisation of society, and warned of humanity becoming akin to a slave race.
The crisis reached a low point in 1933, with American unemployment rates reaching 25% and all but a few financial institutions being forced to close their doors. Thanks in part to new developments made in technology, the condition of the market started to improve slowly as the decade progressed. The introduction of technological advancements, plastics in particular, paved the way for much of the technological innovation that was to come throughout the rest of the century. It is hardly possible to imagine the 20th century without plastic, as it now seems an inescapable material.
Indeed, far from being a period of inventive stagnation due to the crisis, many of the most important American technology breakthroughs of the century were first achieved during the Great Depression period of the 1930s. In fact, when we now look back on these inventions and see the damage that can be caused by technologies such as plastic and the atomic bomb, it becomes more apparent than ever that the technologies of the Depression era may in fact pose us with some of the most existential questions we currently face as a species today.