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What's the secret of the lines for the Apple 3G iPhone when people are cutting back on so much else? Sure, it makes them more productive. But there's more to it than that. Bad Times are good news for design. Manufacturers turn to new looks hoping to stir anxious consumers. My friend the historian of technology Jeffrey Meikle has noted that planned obsolescence in the automobile industry began during the now-overshadowed recession of 1927 -- the height of the 1920s boom, but also a year of urgent warnings that too few Americans were sharing in the prosperity, as Gerald Leinwand has documented. The streamlining of the 1930s was in part a desperate marketing ploy, but it also brought some real benefits in manufacturing and functionality, even if Chrysler flubbed the decades biggest automotive innovation, the Airflow, an aerodynamic car developed with the help of a wind tunnel and the advice of Orville Wright himself.
1934ChryslerAirflow-small.jpg

Source: Wikipedia

It was during the Depression that three-strip Technicolor was introduced to the public, despite the bulk and cost of equipment ($30,000 for the camera alone), setting what remains a benchmark for cinematic color. Wade Sampson writes:

The Three Little Pigs premiered on May 25,1933. It was so popular that it ran for weeks. Variety stated: "Three Little Pigs is proving the most unique picture property in history. It's particularly unique because it's a cartoon running less than 10 minutes, yet providing box office draft comparable to a feature, as demonstrated by the numerous repeats."

United Artists could not supply enough prints to meet the demand and some exhibitors had to share a print, running it back and forth between two or more theaters.

"Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" replaced "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" as the working man's anthem during the Depression.

The amazing early history of the process and the tenacity of the founders and their investors is here.

Hard times may inhibit investment in research, but they can also create a paradoxically opposite effect -- heightening the psychological boost of novelty and opening new markets.
 


 


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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