The 100-Year March of Technology in 1 Graph

In 1900, less than 10% of families owned a stove, or had access to electricity or phones, and the Model-T was still a full decade away

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This is the last episode in The Atlantic's trilogy on household spending in the 20th century. First, I followed shifting family budgets between 1900 and 2003. Second, I explained why food seems so much cheaper at the dawn of the 21st century. Those two posts were all about numbers.

But you can't measure a century's progress by numbers alone.

It's not just that life expectancy at birth has grown from 49 years in 1900 to 78 today, but also the quality of our lives has been improved by law (e.g.: new safety and anti-discrimination laws), by culture (e.g.: women's ascent in college and the workplace) and by technology.

That's why this graph below from Visual Economics, which shows the adoption rate of new technologies across the century, is one of my new favorites -- and a cousin to this beaut, which Alexis made viral ...

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... Click it. Print it. Take your time with it. That's a lot of linear data. One way to parse it is to ignore everything at the top and trace your eye along the 10% line:

-- In 1900, <10% of families owned a stove, or had access to electricity or phones

-- In 1915, <10% of families owned a car

-- In 1930, <10% of families owned a refrigerator or clothes washer

-- In 1945, <10% of families owned a clothes dryer or air-conditioning

-- In 1960, <10% of families owned a dishwasher or color TV

-- In 1975, <10% of families owned a microwave

-- In 1990, <10% of families had a cell phone or access to the Internet

Today, at least 90% of the country has a stove, electricity, car, fridge, clothes washer, air-conditioning, color TV, microwave, and cell phone. They make our lives better. They might even make us happier. But they are not enough.


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There is a strain of conservatism that suggests that the march of technology has made life so good for people at the bottom that we don't have to worry much about income inequality. Tens of millions of Americans are living in poverty, "but it's okay, because they have more microwaves than ever before," is an argument that exists, and is widely persuasive. It's accurate to say today's poor own stuff that yesterday's poor wouldn't recognize. But the ubiquity of microwaves doesn't displace the moral obligation of the richest country in the history of the world to protect people who literally can't afford food to put in that microwave. Medical bankruptcy is hardly alleviated by the falling price of flat screen televisions.

One hundred years ago, what is now the modern world was considerably more vulnerable to agricultural crisis. After poor seasons of weather, thousands would starve. It was a tragedy. But this tragedy occurred in the context of what were then amazing new technologies. As Bill Bryson wrote in At Home, the world had never been more brilliantly lit by gas or more reliably cleaned by plumbing. Nobody today would claim that gas lamps and plumbing technologies obviate the need for welfare. And yet, I do often hear it said that microwaves and TVs have partially or wholly relieved us of the burden of worrying about the poor. If the position isn't simply wrong, it is at the very least historically myopic.