Most People Didn't Have A/C Until 1973 and Other Strange Tech Timelines

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We tend to date an innovation from the date a patent was filed or a machine unveiled, but a long time can pass between when something becomes technically possible and when the majority of people are using that thing. Electricity, for example, was a wonder technology of the 1880s, but it wasn't until the mid 1920s that a 50 percent of Americans were electrified. The telephone, which dates back to the 1870s, did not achieve 50 percent penetration until *after* World War II. Air conditioning wasn't a majority experience until 1973. Even cellular phones, which are the go-to example of rapid technology adoption, were first launched (in the guise of car phones) in the 1940s, and were well understood by the late 1970s.

Which is what makes these two graphics, one by Nicholas Feltron, the other by Karl Hartig, so fascinating. (They're hard to see in-line: click on them to make them bigger.) You may have seen them bouncing around the Interwebs.

They purport to show how fast technology moves, I see it the opposite way. If you were born in 1870, say, you heard about electricity as a kid, but were unlikely to get it until you were in your 50s! If you were born in 1960, you heard about computers as a kid, but statistically speaking, probably didn't have one until you were in your mid-30s.

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techlines.jpg

To draw this out, I transcribed (roughly) from Feltron's chart what year penetration of a technology reached 50 percent penetration.

Electricity: 1924
Cars: 1925
Radio: 1931
Stove: 1937
Refrigerator: 1942
Telephone: 1946
Washing machine: 1964
Dryer: 1970
Color TV: 1972
Air conditioning: 1973
Microwave: 1985
VCR: 1987
Dishwasher: 1996
Computer: 1996
Cell phone: 2000
Internet: 2001
Smartphones: 2012 (different source)

What you don't see from this chart is all the time these technologies spent in development. In many cases, more time was spent going from zero to one percent penetration than from one to 50. But that's much more difficult to show because you can't say precisely when to start the clock.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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