Yet the suffix tron became associated with technological supremacy only once it was appropriated by midcentury biologists. The controlled conditions achieved in the new phytotrons—computer-monitored research greenhouses—prompted exciting discoveries of the genetic and environmental causes of plant growth and development. From the first phytotron developed at the California Institute of Technology in 1949 to the phytotron in Saskatchewan that was upgraded in 2011, these giant environmental laboratories provided biology with its entry into the atomic and electronic age.
When the smog lay thick on Los Angeles in the 1940s, it’s not surprising that it fell to the organic chemist and plant physiologist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit to spell out the nature of the crisis. Given the size of California’s agricultural industry, the authorities were as concerned with plant health as they were with human well-being. Haagen-Smit conducted a series of experiments in the first phytotron at Caltech between 1950 and 1951, which established that the volatile combination of gasoline plus ozone was bad for organisms; subsequently, Haagen-Smit helped to set emissions standards for the auto industry. Set against the strides that science had taken toward cracking the genetic code, this ability to control the environment made it seem as if humanity had finally taken hold of capricious nature.
Phytotrons went on to spawn an entire family of trons in the life sciences. The Eggatron, built by Australian scientists in Sydney in the 1960s, used computer-readable paper tape to record when an egg was laid. Japanese plant researchers constructed an Assimitron to measure the changing levels of CO2 in the air above a field of crops, while soil scientists in Ames, Iowa, built a rhizotron to view roots and various burrowing arthropods that live underground. More recently, the Australian pyrotron, a device constructed by bushfire researchers in the 2000s, is used to run experiments on the complex interaction between fire, fuel, and forest. And while its name makes it a rarity, nowadays the Biotron complex at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, born of a union between a phytotron and a zootron in the 1960s, has a climate that’s so fine-tunable it’s helping to develop potatoes that can grow in space.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the algatron, a nearly forgotten piece of 20th-century space technology. William Oswald and Clarence Golueke, a pair of sanitary engineers from Berkeley, invented the device and offered it to NASA in 1966. The problem it tried to solve is something NASA still struggles with today: how to deal with shit in space. Unlike chemical treatment, the algatron used living, growing algae as a carbon-dioxide-to-oxygen pump and waste-conversion facility. In practice, this meant feeding an astronaut’s urine and feces into a rotating drum of liquid algae. (For a trip of less than a month, however, the launch weight of the device was too great, so the astronauts ended up storing their solid waste and jettisoning liquids outside.)
Sprawling across the 20th century, trons marked out humanity’s hubristic desire for techno-supremacy. Today they are an endangered species. So where did the trons go, with their thrill of centralized control over particles, plants, or programming? With the end of the Cold War, the term lost much of its political and social power. Now, in the era of the Anthropocene, our fantasies of dominance seem to be withering. What suffixes and embodied symbols capture the spirit of our own times?