What effect did developments in technology have on the American way of life in the 1950s?
Technologies that had been developed earlier than the 1950s were bottlenecked by the economic collapse of the 1930s and then by World War II, so many technologies first became widespread in the 1950s in the US as the standard of living rose and people could afford to adopt them.
Labor-saving devices such as fully automatic washers became far more prevalent in the 1950s, making life easier for housewives. The widespread use of refrigerators and freezers also eased the burden on housewives, as they did not have to go the market as often to buy perishable food items. Small appliances became more affordable and also reduced the housewife's workload. By the end of the decade, women were increasingly able to leave the home to take on part-time jobs. Women's desires for fuller lives would explode into the woman's movement of the 1960s.
Advances in medical technology meant that, by 1955, people could be vaccinated against polio, getting rid of fear of a dreaded disease. Increased access to antibiotics also meant that people did not have to worry as much about dying of other dreaded diseases, such as tuberculosis.
Increased pesticide and fertilizer development and use meant crop yields became higher, making food more affordable for the average person. While pesticides and fertilizers use would raise concerns in later decades, during the 1950s people experienced these technologies as a boon.
Television, another technology developed in earlier decades, became quite widespread in the 1950s, leading to a sense of cultural connectedness as people across the country and from different social and economic strata watched the same television programs and news broadcasts. Television also changed the nature of presidential elections, as candidates increasingly had to have the right kind of television appeal.
It is important to remember that new technologies are often not widely adopted right away. Technologies being developed in the 1950s, such as microchips and microwaves, would not make an impact until later. Technologies such as refrigeration and electricity, which had been developed decades earlier, were often reaching American households in more remote or poorer areas for the first time in the 1950s.
Technology was quite important during the 1950s. First, the development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk ended an epidemic that killed millions and crippled even more. Polio would soon be very rare in the United States thanks to the availability of this vaccine.
Though television technology had been around before 1950, the 1950s saw its spread to more households. This led to the creation of more television networks. Many stars such as Lucille Ball have become more famous for their work in television than in the movies. Television in the 1950s became a method to communicate family values through situational comedies (sitcoms) featuring the nuclear family. By the end of the decade, politicians would grasp television's importance in campaigning and getting their message out to a wide group of people.
Another piece of technology that shaped the United States would be the interstate system. Designed during the Eisenhower presidency to support military readiness in the event of a Soviet attack, millions of Americans took advantage of this highway system in order to take vacations and visit relatives in various states. People moved away from the major cities and lived in the suburbs knowing that they could commute via the interstate to their job.
The 1950s can be considered the birth of the computer age and beginning of a huge change in the American way of life. Although the first computers were for commercial use only, they eventually enhanced and sped up processes of daily life such as weather forecasting. The first hard discs, computer modems, and microchips were also developed in the 1950s and led to the improvement of computers.
Medical advances such as the heart-lung machine helped make longer surgeries possible, increasing the success rate for life threatening injury and illness surgeries. Life expectancy increased.
At home, the television became a normal element of daily life. People began to use their leisure hours in different ways. Some might say the "couch potato" was born and changed daily life.
Space exploration increased as satellites went into space. The invention of nuclear power submarines, the hydrogen bomb, and lasers meant that the possibilities of dangerous weaponry was always on the public's mind when talk turned to war and conflicts.
The 1950s were the era when daily life began to move at a faster pace due to technological advances. It has not slowed down since.
Technological developments affected American life in the 1950s in a number of ways.
One technological development that affected American life was the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The 1950s were the decade of “duck and cover” and of fallout shelters. The seemingly ever-present danger of atomic warfare affected American life and the American psyche in important ways.
Another important development was the home air conditioner. Air conditioning in private homes did not really come about until after WWII. This allowed more Americans to live in places with warm climates. It also encouraged more people to spend time in their own comfortable homes.
Within those homes, many people in the ‘50s were watching television. This was the last of the developments I will address here. TV helped to make the home a center of entertainment and leisure time in ways that would not previously have been possible.