The tall building—the most popular and conspicuous emblem of the modern American city—stands as an index of economic activity, civic aspirations, and urban development. Enmeshed in the history of American business practices and the maturation of corporate capitalism, the skyscraper is also a cultural icon that performs genuine symbolic functions. Viewed individually or arrayed in a “skyline,” there may be a tendency to focus on the tall building’s spectacular or superlative aspects. Their patrons have searched for the architectural symbols that would project a positive public image, yet the height and massing of skyscrapers were determined as much by prosaic financial calculations as by symbolic pretense. Historically, the production of tall buildings was linked to the broader flux of economic cycles, access to capital, land values, and regulatory frameworks that curbed the self-interests of individual builders in favor of public goods such as light and air. The tall building looms large for urban geographers seeking to chart the shifting terrain of the business district and for social historians of the city who examine the skyscraper’s gendered spaces and labor relations. If tall buildings provide one index of the urban and regional economy, they are also economic activities in and of themselves and thus linked to the growth of professions required to plan, finance, design, construct, market, and manage these mammoth collective objects—and all have vied for control over the ultimate result. Practitioners have debated the tall building’s external expression as the design challenge of the façade became more acute with the advent of the curtain wall attached to a steel frame, eventually dematerializing entirely into sheets of reflective glass. The tall building also reflects prevailing paradigms in urban design, from the retail arcades of 19th-century skyscrapers to the blank plazas of postwar corporate modernism.
Contagious diseases have long posed a public health challenge for cities, going back to the ancient world. Diseases traveled over trade routes from one city to another. Cities were also crowded and often dirty, ideal conditions for the transmission of infectious disease. The Europeans who settled North America quickly established cities, especially seaports, and contagious diseases soon followed. By the late 17th century, ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia experienced occasional epidemics, especially smallpox and yellow fever, usually introduced from incoming ships. Public health officials tried to prevent contagious diseases from entering the ports, most often by establishing a quarantine. These quarantines were occasionally effective, but more often the disease escaped into the cities. By the 18th century, city officials recognized an association between dirty cities and epidemic diseases. The appearance of a contagious disease usually occasioned a concerted effort to clean streets and remove garbage. These efforts by the early 19th century gave rise to sanitary reform to prevent infectious diseases. Sanitary reform went beyond cleaning streets and removing garbage, to ensuring clean water supplies and effective sewage removal. By the end of the century, sanitary reform had done much to clean the cities and reduce the incidence of contagious disease. In the 20th century, public health programs introduced two new tools to public health: vaccination and antibiotics. First used against smallpox, scientists developed vaccinations against numerous other infectious viral diseases and reduced their incidence substantially. Finally, the development of antibiotics against bacterial infections in the mid-20th century enabled physicians to cure infected individuals. Contagious disease remains a problem—witness AIDS—and public health authorities still rely on quarantine, sanitary reform, vaccination, and antibiotics to keep urban populations healthy.
The transformation of post-industrial American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries includes several economically robust metropolitan centers that stand as new models of urban and economic life, featuring well-educated populations that engage in professional practices in education, medical care, design and legal services, and artistic and cultural production. By the early 21st century, these cities dominated the nation’s consciousness economically and culturally, standing in for the most dynamic and progressive sectors of the economy, driven by collections of technical and creative spark. The origins of these academic and knowledge centers are rooted in the political economy, including investments shaped by federal policy and philanthropic ambition. Education and health care communities were and remain frequently economically robust but also rife with racial, economic, and social inequality, and riddled with resulting political tensions over development. These information communities fundamentally incubated and directed the proceeds of the new economy, but also constrained who accessed this new mode of wealth in the knowledge economy.
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.