To businessmen in the 1970s, life seems especially unfair. The big corporations work around the clock and around the world, pouring out on American consumers an unprecedented cornucopia of goods and benefits. Do they get any gratitude?
Hardly. For big business, it's a steady diet of suspicion, complaint an litigation from their customers -- and even from their owners. Instead of thanks, they get a flood of product liability suits, stockholder suits and antitrust suits. They see themselves endlessly entangled in environmental rules and nit-picking safety regulations.
A plaintive and bewildered tone is clearly audible in the speeches that business executives give before each other. Occasionally companies publish advertisements urging applause for the capitalist corporate system. The answer, in the 1970s, is dead silence.
Fifty yeats ago, businessmen were folk heroes. You and I may think the first Henry Ford an eccentric with a distinctly comic sede -- but our grandfathers didn't. At the turn of the century, a certain class of business figure -- not the financiers and speculators, but the inventors and manufacturers -- enjoyed a degree of public admiration that Americans of that period offered to very few of their politicians. Over the years, but especially since World Was II, that unqualified admiration has evaporated. Why?
There's an answer, and a rather simple one. It's not very popular in business circles, because it offers no remedy. The trouble has little to do with the conduct of business, and everything to do with the present stage of American technology.
You have heard it said a thousand times that the pace of technological progress is steadily accelerating, changing people's lives faster than ever before. That, of course, is wrong. The period when new technology was having its greatest impact on American life was, in rough and round terms, from 1875 to 1925. Those were the years in which one development after another came into people's homes and lives with the most jolting effects. Disruptive and dangerous though some of them were, these new technical developments were immensely popular. That brought great popularity to the people who had invented them, and to their companies.
To illustrate the point, let me propose a mild form of historical exercise. Let us draw up a list of the five new products that most profoundly changed American life between 1875 and 1925. Most of the choices are obvious.
The electric light appeared in 1879, when Thomas Edison developed the carbon filament bulb. Three years later, his Edison General Electric Co. began operaing the country's first commercial power station in lower Manhattan. In 1909, the company -- by then General Electric -- brought out the tungsten filament, developed in its laboratories in Schenectady, N.T. Today it requires a strenuous act of historical imagination to realize what life was like, particularly in the winter and in the North, when there was no light after sundown but a fire or a kerosene lamp.
The telephone was demonstrated at Philadephia Exposition of 1976, the year in which Alexander Graham Bell took out his first patent on it. By the begining of this century, his phone company was the largest business enterprise in the United States. By 1925, one out of ever three American homes had a phone.
The first successful internal combustion engines on wheels were built in Germany in 1885 by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. The more significant date is 1913, when the first automobile assembly line went into operation, transforming the automobile from an expensive toy to a practical everyday tool within reach of the average family. The assembly line was Ford's, turning out the Model T, and in 1914 it produced more than half a million of them. By 1924, production of the Model T alone topped 2 million a year, and the price was down to $290.
Gugliemo Marconi's first expermental radio transmissions were in 1894-6, and he threw a signal across the Atlantic in 1901. Lee DeForest's triode tube, in 1907, made electronic amplification possible. Marconi set up a number of successful companies. GE bought American Marconi in 1919, making itself the corporate heir of two of the great classic inventors. The first commercial radio station went on the air in 1920; by 1923, there were 600 of them.
After the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903, the airplane seized the American imagination with extraordinary speed.The first commercial airline went into business in 1914, from Tampa to St. Petersburg.
These five products made a radical change in Americans' sense of time and space. Electric light made the day longer, and the evening pleasanter. The car made the distance from the farm to town shorter. Although many a fire started with the handiwork of a self-taught electrician, and although the early cars and planes were extremely dangerous, hardly anybody considered them anything but beneficial to humanity. If there were defects, further refinement would improve them. They were weapons against the isolation and darkness in which man always had lived. To suggest that there was anything undesirable, or even questionable, about this kind of progress was enough to mark anyone as a nut.
Each of these inventions was firmly identified with an inventor, and the inventors were regarded -- accurately -- as people who had performed vast public services. Most of the inventors organized their own companies to market their products under their own names. There was a firm chain of association from the exciting and welcome new product to the genius who conceived it to the company that he founded to bring it to his fellow citizens. It was all very simple and satisfying. It was the heroic age of the American corporation.
But since 1925, things have changed. Let's pick the five most important new products of the last half-century. Here the choices are no longer so obvious. Perhaps your list will differ from mine, but I think the same points will emerge from any selection.
Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming, working in the laboratories of St. Marry's Hospital, London, in 1928. It was the first of the antibiotics and, itself an unprecedentedly effective agent against infection, it led to the development of further drugs. Fleming, an academic, had no interest in commercial promotion. The early work in finding a reliable and stable form of penicillin suitable for medical use was carried on at Oxford University.
Television became possible with the photoelectric camera tube developed by an emigre Russian engineer, Vladimir Zworykin, who was working for the Westinghouse Corp.Television broadcasting began in London in 1936 but, like a good many other things, was pushed aside by World War II. t/he commercial broadcasting boom began in this country around 1950.
The first computer -- ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer -- went into operation in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania, where it had been built for the Army by a team led by J.P. Eckert and John W. Mauchly. Its first assignment was a series of ballistic calculations.
The first demonstration of nuclear power was the chain reaction established by Enroco Fermi and his associates at the University of Chicago in 1942. But for our purposes, the commercial application is significant. The British plutonium reactor at Calder Hall began generating commercial power in 1956, and the following year the uranium reactor at Shippingport, Pa., began supplying power to the Pittsburgh area.
The space capsule is hardly a common form of transportation, but in the 1960s it seemed to have the same grip on the American imagination as the early airplanes did two generations ago. As a triumph of many technologies woven together, it has hardly an equal. So far, its commercial applications seem to be zero.
If you compare this list of recent innovations with the earlier one, you will see the direction in which technological history has been moving.
Before 1925, the inventor commonly became the promoter, owner and business manager of his own product and his own company. But even before World War I, the business world was begining to split into separate castes. While it was Edson, the quintessential tinkerer, who first brought the leigh blub to the market, it was Irving Langmuir, with his PhD from the University of Gottingen, who showed GE how to get enormously better lighting and efficiency out of the early tungsten filaments.Edson got his name on companies all over the world; Langmuir got the Nobel prize.
Scientists and businessmen have come to think of themselves as different kinds of people, whose careers lie in different directions, in pursuit of different kinds of reward. %even in the highly technical fields, it is rare for a company to be headed by a dcientist or an engineer. There, as in most other kinds of enterprise, the chief executives are usually accountants and lawyers.
Until the 1920s, the inventor worked with his own money, or found his own backers. Since then, with research and development costs rising as the sophistication of technology advances, the work is increasingly done in government laboratories or in academic labs with governnment funds. The financial risks gave the early innovation some of its public appeal. The risks today are greater than ever, but they are largely carried by the taxpayer. When television commercials speak of space-age technology, the audience knows who paid for that technology. It wasn't the advertiser.
Of the five post-1925 products cited in the little list a moment ago, all but one, television, came either out of academic research or a government project -- or both. The public no longer sees the lonely, daring businessman as the benefactor who brings them a useful new product.
And then there are the doubts about the nature of current technology itself. Four out of those five post-1925 products have question marks hanging over them. The exception is penicillin, which is also the earliest of the five. Most Americans regard the antibiotics as an unqualified blessing -- but who would say that of the other items on the list?
You could spend the rest of your life reading the shelves of books, articles and dissertations on the social effects of television. Despite some of its impressive benefits, the computer has become the metaphor for faceless, coldly rational control. The space capsule, unlike the automobile and the airplane, seems to be fading away. As for nuclear power, the misgivings and antipathies among the American public have become a major restraint on the development of a source of power that, after all, is safer than coal, cheaper than oil and cleaner than either.
It would be altogether wrong to argue that technology over the past 50 years has had no meaning in people's lives, or that it has brought us only trivia like golf carts and electric toothbrushes. The real purchasing power of the average family has doubled since 1925 because of productivity gains that are rooted in technical advances. A lot of that new wealth has been spent foolishly, no doubt, but a lot has gone into the things that really matter.
We live, on the average, 14 years longer than we did half a centrury ago. The infant mortality rate is less than one-fourth the 1925 figure. We work much shorter hours than our parents did, and most of us work in safer and more plesant surroundings. We are better fed and, more cheaply.
We are vastly better educated. In 1925, more than half of all children dropped out of school at the ninth grade or earlier. Today, more than half go on beyond high school to one kind or another of higher education. Public and private money has temendously expanded the national system of colleges and universities.
But the process by which technical invention raises living standards has become remote, diffuse and unintelligible.
There will probably never be another invention with the same radical and immediate meaning for the rhythym of people's lives as the light bulb. If the past half-century is an accurate guide, it seems likely that future developments will continue to be distant from daily life -- incomprehensible to most citizens, invisibly gradual in their effects on national life.
You can fairly say that business is still dong good things for its customers -- if not doing much actual inventing, at least bringing to market the benefits of invention. But the corporation is no longer the vehicle of the simple, brilliant idea that transforms the existence of millions of people. Technology has moved far beyond that stage, and carried the businessmen with it.
Some companies see the danger and are trying to speak to it. In celebrating its centennial, General Electric has been emphasizing the connection with Edison and electric lights. Several oil companies have begun focussing their advertising on the benefits of their engineering -- particularly the great advances in offshore driling.
But they are speaking to a country that does not remember life before electricity and oil. Half of all Americans have been borh since 1948. The only really dramatic innovation that they have seen at first hnad was space travel -- which remains totally removed from the daily experiences of anyone but an astronaut.
Corporations, like other kinds of people, like to think that they are entitled to more affection and admiration than they get. But to the general public, companies tend to take on the aspects of their technologies -- remote, difficult to understand, a little frightening. The public response is to try to regain control by settig rules and limits. As technologies become more sophisticated, the adversary relationships sharpen.
Is the process reversible? No one can predict invention. But it's hard to think that there will ever be another product that will mean as much to consumers, directly and immediately, as did the electric light, or the automobile, or the telephone.