Since the early 1800s railroads have served as a critical element of the transportation infrastructure in the United States and have generated profound changes in technology, finance, business-government relations, and labor policy. By the 1850s railroads, at least in the northern states, had evolved into the nation’s first big businesses, replete with managerial hierarchies that in many respects resembled the structure of the US Army. After the Civil War ended, the railroad network grew rapidly, with lines extending into the Midwest and ultimately, with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, to the Pacific Coast. The last third of the 19th century was characterized by increased militancy among railroad workers, as well as by the growing danger that railroading posed to employees and passengers. Intense competition among railroad companies led to rate wars and discriminatory pricing. The presence of rebates and long-haul/short-haul price differentials led to the federal regulation of the railroads in 1887. The Progressive Era generated additional regulation that reduced profitability and discouraged additional investment in the railroads. As a result, the carriers were often unprepared for the traffic demands associated with World War I, leading to government operation of the railroads between 1917 and 1920. Highway competition during the 1920s and the economic crises of the 1930s provided further challenges for the railroads. The nation’s railroads performed well during World War II but declined steadily in the years that followed. High labor costs, excessive regulatory oversight, and the loss of freight and passenger traffic to cars, trucks, and airplanes ensured that by the 1960s many once-profitable companies were on the verge of bankruptcy. A wave of mergers failed to halt the downward slide. The bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970 increased public awareness of the dire circumstances and led to calls for regulatory reform. The 1980 Staggers Act abolished most of the restrictions on operations and pricing, thus revitalizing the railroads.
The eighty years from 1790 to 1870 were marked by dramatic economic and demographic changes in the United States. Cities in this period grew faster than the country as a whole, drawing migrants from the countryside and immigrants from overseas. This dynamism stemmed from cities’ roles as spearheads of commercial change and sites of new forms of production. Internal improvements such as canals and railroads expanded urban hinterlands in the early republic, while urban institutions such as banks facilitated market exchange. Both of these worked to the advantage of urban manufacturers. By paying low wages to workers performing repetitive tasks, manufacturers enlarged the market for their products but also engendered opposition from a workforce internally divided along lines of sex and race, and at times slavery and freedom. The Civil War affirmed the legitimacy of wage labor and enhanced the power of corporations, setting the stage for the postwar growth of large-scale, mechanized industry.
Michael A. Krysko
Radio debuted as a wireless alternative to telegraphy in the late 19th century. At its inception, wireless technology could only transmit signals and was incapable of broadcasting actual voices. During the 1920s, however, it transformed into a medium primarily identified as one used for entertainment and informational broadcasting. The commercialization of American broadcasting, which included the establishment of national networks and reliance on advertising to generate revenue, became the so-called American system of broadcasting. This transformation demonstrates how technology is shaped by the dynamic forces of the society in which it is embedded. Broadcasting’s aural attributes also engaged listeners in a way that distinguished it from other forms of mass media. Cognitive processes triggered by the disembodied voices and sounds emanating from radio’s loudspeakers illustrate how listeners, grounded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts, made sense of and understood the content with which they were engaged. Through the 1940s, difficulties in expanding the international radio presence of the United States further highlight the significance of surrounding contexts in shaping the technology and in promoting (or discouraging) listener engagement with programing content.
The development of nuclear technology had a profound influence on the global environment following the Second World War, with ramifications for scientific research, the modern environmental movement, and conceptualizations of pollution more broadly. Government sponsorship of studies on nuclear fallout and waste dramatically reconfigured the field of ecology, leading to the widespread adoption of the ecosystem concept and new understandings of food webs as well as biogeochemical cycles. These scientific endeavors of the atomic age came to play a key role in the formation of environmental research to address a variety of pollution problems in industrialized countries. Concern about invisible radiation served as a foundation for new ways of thinking about chemical risks for activists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner as well as many scientists, government officials, and the broader public. Their reservations were not unwarranted, as nuclear weapons and waste resulted in radioactive contamination of the environment around nuclear-testing sites and especially fuel-production facilities. Scholars date the start of the “Anthropocene” period, during which human activity began to have substantial effects on the environment, variously from the beginning of human farming roughly 8,000 years ago to the emergence of industrialism in the 19th century. But all agree that the advent of nuclear weapons and power has dramatically changed the potential for environmental alterations. Our ongoing attempts to harness the benefits of the atomic age while lessening its negative impacts will need to confront the substantial environmental and public-health issues that have plagued nuclear technology since its inception.
Timothy James LeCain
Technology and environmental history are both relatively young disciplines among Americanists, and during their early years they developed as distinctly different and even antithetical fields, at least in topical terms. Historians of technology initially focused on human-made and presumably “unnatural” technologies, whereas environmental historians focused on nonhuman and presumably “natural” environments. However, in more recent decades, both disciplines have moved beyond this oppositional framing. Historians of technology increasingly came to view anthropogenic artifacts such as cities, domesticated animals, and machines as extensions of the natural world rather than its antithesis. Even the British and American Industrial Revolutions constituted not a distancing of humans from nature, as some scholars have suggested, but rather a deepening entanglement with the material environment. At the same time, many environmental historians were moving beyond the field’s initial emphasis on the ideal of an American and often Western “wilderness” to embrace a concept of the environment as including humans and productive work. Nonetheless, many environmental historians continued to emphasize the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of organisms and things. This insistence that not everything could be reduced to human culture remained the field’s most distinctive feature.
Since the turn of millennium, the two fields have increasingly come together in a variety of synthetic approaches, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theory. As the influence of the cultural turn has waned, the environmental historians’ emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman has come to the fore, gaining wider influence as it is applied to the dynamic “nature” or “wildness” that some scholars argue exists within both the technological and natural environment. The foundational distinctions between the history of technology and environmental history may now be giving way to more materially rooted attempts to understand how a dynamic hybrid environment helps to create human history in all of its dimensions—cultural, social, and biological.
By the end of the 19th century, the medical specialties of gynecology and obstetrics established a new trend in women’s healthcare. In the 20th century, more and more American mothers gave birth under the care of a university-trained physician. The transition from laboring and delivering with the assistance of female family, neighbors, and midwives to giving birth under medical supervision is one of the most defining shifts in the history of childbirth. By the 1940s, the majority of American mothers no longer expected to give birth at home, but instead traveled to hospitals, where they sought reassurance from medical experts as well as access to pain-relieving drugs and life-saving technologies. Infant feeding followed a similar trajectory. Traditionally, infant feeding in the West had been synonymous with breastfeeding, although alternatives such as wet nursing and the use of animal milks and broths had existed as well. By the early 20th century, the experiences of women changed in relation to sweeping historical shifts in immigration, urbanization, and industrialization, and so too did their abilities and interests in breastfeeding. Scientific study of infant feeding yielded increasingly safer substitutes for breastfeeding, and by the 1960s fewer than 1 in 5 mothers breastfed. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, mothers began to organize and to resist the medical management of childbirth and infant feeding. The formation of childbirth education groups helped spread information about natural childbirth methods and the first dedicated breastfeeding support organization, La Leche League, formed in 1956. By the 1970s, the trend toward medicalized childbirth and infant feeding that had defined the first half of the century was in significant flux. By the end of the 20th century, efforts to harmonize women’s interests in more “natural” motherhood experiences with the existing medical system led to renewed interest in midwifery, home birth, and birth centers. Despite the cultural shift in favor of fewer medical interventions, rates of cesarean sections climbed to new heights by the end of the 1990s. Similarly, although pressures on mothers to breastfeed mounted by the end of the century, the practice itself increasingly relied upon the use of technologies such as the breast pump. By the close of the century, women’s agency in pursuing more natural options proceeded in tension with the technological, social, medical, and political systems that continued to shape their options.
The development of military arms harnessing nuclear energy for mass destruction has inspired continual efforts to control them. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa acquired control over these powerful weapons, though Pretoria dismantled its small cache in 1989 and Russia inherited the Soviet arsenal in 1996. Throughout this period, Washington sought to limit its nuclear forces in tandem with those of Moscow, prevent new states from fielding them, discourage their military use, and even permit their eventual abolition.
Scholars disagree about what explains the United States’ distinct approach to nuclear arms control. The history of U.S. nuclear policy treats intellectual theories and cultural attitudes alongside technical advances and strategic implications. The central debate is one of structure versus agency: whether the weapons’ sheer power, or historical actors’ attitudes toward that power, drove nuclear arms control. Among those who emphasize political responsibility, there are two further disagreements: (1) the relative influence of domestic protest, culture, and politics; and (2) whether U.S. nuclear arms control aimed first at securing the peace by regulating global nuclear forces or at bolstering American influence in the world.
The intensity of nuclear arms control efforts tended to rise or fall with the likelihood of nuclear war. Harry Truman’s faith in the country’s monopoly on nuclear weapons caused him to sabotage early initiatives, while Dwight Eisenhower’s belief in nuclear deterrence led in a similar direction. Fears of a U.S.-Soviet thermonuclear exchange mounted in the late 1950s, stoked by atmospheric nuclear testing and widespread radioactive fallout, which stirred protest movements and diplomatic initiatives. The spread of nuclear weapons to new states motivated U.S. presidents (John Kennedy in the vanguard) to mount a concerted campaign against “proliferation,” climaxing with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Richard Nixon was exceptional. His reasons for signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Moscow in 1972 were strategic: to buttress the country’s geopolitical position as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Southeast Asia. The rise of protest movements and Soviet economic difficulties after Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office brought about two more landmark U.S.-Soviet accords—the 1987 Intermediate Ballistic Missile Treaty (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—the first occasions on which the superpowers eliminated nuclear weapons through treaty. The country’s attention swung to proliferation after the Soviet collapse in December 1991, as failed states, regional disputes, and non-state actors grew more prominent. Although controversies over Iraq, North Korea, and Iran’s nuclear programs have since erupted, Washington and Moscow continued to reduce their arsenals and refine their nuclear doctrines even as President Barack Obama proclaimed his support for a nuclear-free world.
Christopher P. Loss
Until World War II, American universities were widely regarded as good but not great centers of research and learning. This changed completely in the press of wartime, when the federal government pumped billions into military research, anchored by the development of the atomic bomb and radar, and into the education of returning veterans under the GI Bill of 1944. The abandonment of decentralized federal–academic relations marked the single most important development in the history of the modern American university. While it is true that the government had helped to coordinate and fund the university system prior to the war—most notably the country’s network of public land-grant colleges and universities—government involvement after the war became much more hands-on, eventually leading to direct financial support to and legislative interventions on behalf of core institutional activities, not only the public land grants but the nation’s mix of private institutions as well. However, the reliance on public subsidies and legislative and judicial interventions of one kind or another ended up being a double-edged sword: state action made possible the expansion in research and in student access that became the hallmarks of the post-1945 American university; but it also created a rising tide of expectations for continued support that has proven challenging in fiscally stringent times and in the face of ongoing political fights over the government’s proper role in supporting the sector.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.
Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.
From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.
Michael E. Donoghue
The United States’ construction and operation of the Panama Canal began as an idea and developed into a reality after prolonged diplomatic machinations to acquire the rights to build the waterway. Once the canal was excavated, a century-long struggle ensued to hold it in the face of Panamanian nationalism. Washington used considerable negotiation and finally gunboat diplomacy to achieve its acquisition of the Canal. The construction of the channel proved a titanic effort with large regional, global, and cultural ramifications. The importance of the Canal as a geostrategic and economic asset was magnified during the two world wars. But rising Panamanian frustration over the U.S. creation of a state-within-a-state via the Canal Zone, one with a discriminatory racial structure, fomented a local movement to wrest control of the Canal from the Americans. The explosion of the 1964 anti-American uprising drove this process forward toward the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties that established a blueprint for eventual U.S. retreat and transfer of the channel to Panama at the century’s end. But before that historic handover, the Noriega crisis and the 1989 U.S. invasion nearly upended the projected transition of U.S. retreat from the management and control of the Canal.
Early historians emphasized high politics, economics, and military considerations in the U.S. acquisition of the Canal. They concentrated on high-status actors, economic indices, and major political contingencies in establishing the U.S. colonial order on the isthmus. Panamanian scholars brought a legalistic and nationalist critique, stressing that Washington did not create Panama and that local voices in the historical debate have largely been ignored in the grand narrative of the Canal as a great act of progressive civilization. More recent U.S. scholarship has focused on American imperialism in Panama, on the role of race, culture, labor, and gender as major factors that shaped the U.S. presence, the structure of the Canal Zone, as well as Panamanian resistance to its occupation. The role of historical memory, of globalization, representation, and how the Canal fits into notions of U.S. empire have also figured more prominently in recent scholarly examination of this relationship. Contemporary research on the Panama Canal has been supported by numerous archives in the United States and Panama, as well as a variety of newspapers, magazines, novels, and films.