After the mid-1930s, the advances, of science and technology went rapidly hand in hand, with popular awareness of the changes heightened by spectacular developments in weaponry and in “weapons platforms.” The predictions of Lewis Mumford, made in 1934, that the “neotechnic” age would see multiple cases of science producing technologies and technologies leading to further scientific advance, were rapidly borne out in the remaining decades of the 20th century.
One of the major developments of the period was the creation of nuclear weapons out of the work of nuclear physicists. In this case, the discoveries of science clearly preceded the technological application. In fact, in 1938, there was no such discipline as nuclear “engineer,” and the first weapons designers and reactor builders were nuclear physicists themselves. As Vannevar Bush, the inventor of an early type of analog computer, was put in charge of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, he advocated and fostered the idea that scientific advance had to be well funded and that it had to precede technological development, greatly influencing government policy on science and technology in the postwar decades. His ideas of funding basic research as a stimulus to technological advance were incorporated in the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, and later in the formation of the National Science Foundation. Under his leadership and reflecting ideas current at the time, the phrase research and development or R & D came to characterize the view that scientific research would precede engineering and would lead to development.
The war and immediate postwar years saw a burst of creativity in many fields, with technical advances flowing rapidly out of the wartime
work. Liquid-fueled rockets, computers, microwave transmission of voice and data, jet engines, and radar were only a few technologies boosted by wartime funding and then followed up by efforts to turn the devices to peacetime purposes. Nuclear reactors propelled submarines for the U.S. Navy by the mid-1950s; they were soon employed to generate electric power, with about 500 in place for that purpose worldwide by the end of the century.
Nuclear weapons brought a period of uneasy peace between the major powers, although surrogate wars and civil wars around the world continued to rage. After 1950, with both the United States and the Soviet Union in possession of nuclear weapons, mutual deterrence prevented an outright clash of arms. The threat was too terrible, and those nations and others continually improved weapons-delivery systems in an unrelenting arms race. By the 1960s, nuclear and thermonuclear weapons far more powerful than the first ones used against Japan in 1945 could be taken to a distant target by jet-propelled aircraft, by intercontinental ballistic missiles, or on missiles launched from nuclearpowered submarines.
As inventors labored to turn the machines developed for warfare to peaceful purposes, hundreds of new products came into everyday use. The turbojet engines suitable for warplanes provided a means for civilian air travel; computers designed to decipher coded messages and to project artillery and missile trajectories became more and more common, eventually reduced in size, increased in speed, and reduced in cost to the point that they were found in millions of private homes. By the 1990s, linked together by the Internet, computers and their programs became synonymous with high technology. In discussions of financial investments, technology stocks came to represent holdings in computer-related firms rather than in companies producing the array of other technologies in machinery, engines, vehicles, medicine, and ships. Reductions in component size with the printed circuit, the transistor, the computer chip, the microprocessor, and the light-emitting diode made it possible to install minuscule computer components in hundreds of applications, from automobiles and auto repair shops to household appliances and factory equipment. Assembly lines, employing numeric-controlled machines, used computer parts, sensors, and articulated tools to approach robotlike production.
With the advances of technology came new concerns about their social consequences. New weapons demanded counterweaponry and defenses, and the vicious cycle of an arms race seemed self-generating.
Arms control agreements by the 1980s brought the worst threats under control, especially those between the United States and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. The ease of producing weapons of mass destruction using nuclear or chemical agents raised concerns that terrorists or rogue nations would employ such tools of war.
In addition, continuing problems arising from technology caused further dilemmas that had nothing to do with warfare or defense. Insecticides such as DDT and chlordane poisoned the planet; the refrigerant Freon could destroy the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere; sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from petroleum-fueled engines and from coal-fired electrical plants caused acid rain and greenhouse effects. Nuclear power plants generated radioactive hazards in their waste and, when they suffered accidents, threatened catastrophic disasters. By the 1970s, environmental regulations and controls came into place in the United States and other countries, addressing some of these and other concerns, yet technological hazards persisted. Some of the hazards were results of 19th-century technologies, created when many health and environmental consequences of developments were ignored or simply not known. For example, the gasoline internal-combustionengine-propelled automobile and the cigarette regularly killed, every year, far more people than were killed in wars. Bringing those hazards and their related health costs under control became major policy concerns in the last decades of the 20th century and continued into the 21st century.
As the world’s publics became more aware of the hazards of technology, many of the issues surrounding technical progress, innovation, and experimentation became highly controversial and politicized. Not only the regulation of environmental impacts but also continued experimentation in the areas of biology and the health sciences appeared likely to put unwanted power in the hands of those who controlled the tools and direction of science and technology. Various science fiction scenarios, in which governments sought to control human behavior and structure social relationships by systems of technological observation and biological manipulation, haunted public consciousness. On the positive side, medicine benefited greatly from the advance of science and technology, with machines such as cardiac pacemakers and kidney dialyzers, both of which had been conceived in the 19th century, being perfected and coming into regular use in the last decades of the 20th century. Other tools, such as fiber-optic opthalmoscopes and magnetic
resonance imaging, allowed better diagnosis of problems inside the human body without incurring the risk of tissue damage from open surgery or cancer associated with earlier generations’ X-ray machinery. New medicines, particularly penicillin and streptomycin, provided cures for many diseases. Oral contraceptives, introduced after 1960, allowed more effective methods of birth control and family planning.
The electron microscope aided research, and great breakthroughs came with the understanding of the roots of genetic imprinting on the DNA molecule.
Technologies being studied at the dawn of the 21st century held out the promise of solutions to long-standing human problems. With genetically modified food crops and study of the human genome, biology was clearly on the verge of new departures. The fuel cell went through a series of improvements that promised that it might replace the internal-combustion engine as a means for propelling automobiles and a wide variety of other machines, with no emission of noxious products and reduced risk to health. Nuclear fusion, without the radiation risks of nuclear fission, might provide a vast source of electrical power later in the century.
Yet suspicion of technology and fear of its consequences, spawned by the terrible effects and threats of warfare and the impersonal nature of its challenge to the environment, left humanity concerned: would invention and discovery provide tools for future benefit or pathways toward future planetary disaster and restrictions on liberty?