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Technology

The Most Disruptive Technology of the Last 100 Years Isn't What You Think 330

HughPickens.com writes: Ana Swanson writes in the Washington Post that when people talk about "disruptive technologies," they're usually thinking of the latest thing out of Silicon Valley but some of the most historically disruptive technologies aren't exactly what you would expect and arguably, the most disruptive technologiy of the last century is the refrigerator. In the 1920s, only about a third of households reported having a washer or a vacuum, and refrigerators were even rarer. But just 20 years later, refrigerator ownership was common, with more than two-thirds of Americans owning an icebox. According to Helen Veit, the surge in refrigerator ownership totally changed the way that Americans cooked. "Before reliable refrigeration, cooking and food preservation were barely distinguishable tasks" and techniques like pickling, smoking and canning were common in nearly every American kitchen. With the arrival of the icebox and then the electric refrigerator, foods could now be kept and consumed in the same form for days. Americans no longer had to make and consume great quantities of cheese, whiskey and hard cider — some of the only ways to keep foods edible through the winter. "A whole arsenal of home preservation techniques, from cheese-making to meat-smoking to egg-pickling to ketchup-making, receded from daily use within a single generation," writes Veit.

Technologies like the smartphone, the computer and the Internet have, of course, dramatically changed the ways we live and work but consider the spread of electricity, running water, the flush toilet developed and popularized by Thomas Crapper and central heating and the changes these have wrought. "These technologies were so disruptive because they massively reduced the time spent on housework," concludes Swanson. "The number of hours that people spent per week preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning fell from 58 in 1900 to only 18 hours in 1970, and it has declined further since then."
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The Most Disruptive Technology of the Last 100 Years Isn't What You Think

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  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @07:36AM (#50742397) Homepage

    The Most Disruptive Technology of the Last 100 Years Isn't What You Think

    Don't tell me what I think. You don't know what I think.

    You don't want to know what I think.

  • by Bohnanza ( 523456 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @07:39AM (#50742405)
    ...and continue to consume great quantities of cheese, whiskey and hard cider.
    • Indeed, kicking it old school ... throw in the odd pickled egg, smoked meat, and ketchup and you can be a foodie.

      They say that like it's a bad thing.

    • by Daetrin ( 576516 )
      We choose to consume cheese in this decade and consume the other things, not because they are necessary, but because they are awesome!
  • Truly disruptive (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chrism238 ( 657741 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @07:45AM (#50742437)
    The contraceptive pill.
    It's saved trillions of dollars, saved trillions of hours of work, reduced poverty, childhood deaths, and the threat of countries being invaded for their land.
    • Re:Truly disruptive (Score:5, Interesting)

      by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @07:57AM (#50742487) Journal

      It's saved trillions of dollars, saved trillions of hours of work, reduced poverty, childhood deaths, and the threat of countries being invaded for their land.

      It also rendered obsolete massive amounts of social convention. We're still working on purging those obsolete ones from the system of society, it seems.

    • Re:Truly disruptive (Score:4, Interesting)

      by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:05AM (#50742525)

      ... except the places where that is most true and would apply if they used the pill ... don't use the pill.

    • Re:Truly disruptive (Score:4, Interesting)

      by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:06AM (#50742527)

      In general a larger population is better for the economy. It is just most of us think of an economy as something in a fixed supply. So more people will just mean more jobs that are filled and less for others. That isn't true, as the population grows the economy will grow to meet the increased demand, by matching its increased supply of workforce.
      The problem is our culture has values that are in conflict with itself. If someone has a child outside of wedlock we still have them considered as an outcast, and prefer not to give them or their child extra assistance, because "She shouldn't have done the act"
      This was less of an issue in the older days, as people got married at a younger age, and often had a tight family structure to cover up such shame, such as the 40 year old grandmother, saying it is her child. In this modern age, we need to realize that people are getting married much later in life, this causes us much more time to avoid our natural urges, which causes a lot more failures.
      Contraceptive is one part of the problem. Allowing the family to plan when they have a child, but the bigger cultural issue is still at play.

      • Depends. As long as the size of your population is less than the number of people that your environment can sustain you will be ok. But at the moment that your population grow more than the capacity of the environment to sustain it, you're screwed (And I find disturbing how every single economist miserably fails to understand this).
        • Because the environment can sustain a larger population. However changes are needed on how we use the environment. We can feed the world, but we are not giving that a priority. We can get clean energy.

          They don't fail to understand it, they factor it in, and realize with some tweaks to how we use the environment it can sustain a much larger population.

          Ancient cities use to collapse when their population hit about 1 million people. The environment couldn't handle it, Today we can handle 20 - 30 million peop

      • Except there are things in fixed supplies. Land for one thing. Imagine another 100,000 people in San Francisco and it's impact on housing prices. Or another 250,000. How about another 1M in Toronto? I know that we are going to get those people added there one day but the longer it takes to get there the more time we have to figure out ways to better deal with those numbers in an environmentally friendly manner and in a way that people can, hopefully, afford. Right now it's very difficult to life in a l

        • Land, we can build up, also the United States is 50th in population density. We have room if you are willing to think outside of your little coastal city. As land is in higher demand prices go up, so the population learns to live with less of it. I like my space, so I moved out of the city, where I can have my space, however it is far from many services.

          • Land, we can build up, also the United States is 50th in population density. We have room if you are willing to think outside of your little coastal city. As land is in higher demand prices go up, so the population learns to live with less of it. I like my space, so I moved out of the city, where I can have my space, however it is far from many services.

            The US has huge tracts of desert. California is in a pickle because their cities have outgrown the available water supply. How many people would want to endure Death Valley's extreme summer heat? How many could survive the artic deserts of Alaska?

      • The problem is that infinite growth is not possible over the long run and the earth has finite resources. Unfortunately our economic and political system demands it- deflation is considered unacceptable.

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      Statistically speaking, it wasn't the pill itself, it was the society in which the pill got introduced.

      While the availability of the pill was at about the same time in most Western countries, the strong decline in birthrates that is often associated with the contraceptive pill was setting in at very different times. In the U.S., birth rates were already declining before the pill got introduced, in West Germany, the birth rates were still rising until about five years after the introduction of the pill.

  • I don't know (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    the atom bomb was still pretty disruptive.

  • Aeroplanes. The use of aircraft in war has basically driven every other development, refrigerators included.
  • For the sake of my family name, do NOT invent a disruptive technology involving fecal matter.
  • The entire comments section here is predictable. Clickbait sells ads, even to Slashdotters.

  • by lazarus ( 2879 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @07:58AM (#50742489) Journal

    Agreed that the refrigerator (along with birth control) is one of the most disruptive technologies in the past 100 years. However, this is not yet the case for the world at large. Only 27% of people in India own a refrigerator [economist.com]. In the West we take things like refrigeration and toilets for granted...

    • by Eloking ( 877834 )

      Agreed that the refrigerator (along with birth control) is one of the most disruptive technologies in the past 100 years. However, this is not yet the case for the world at large. Only 27% of people in India own a refrigerator [economist.com]. In the West we take things like refrigeration and toilets for granted...

      True, but what was India's most disruptive technologies in the past 100 years and how does it fit for the rest of the world?

    • Only 27% of people in India own a refrigerator. In the West we take things like refrigeration and toilets for granted...

      While not as many individuals may own a refrigerator in developing countries, a lot of their food is still refrigerated during transport. In fact that's how Chicago became the 3rd largest city in the U.S. The development of refrigerated rail cars in the late 1800s and early 1900s meant the meat processing industry in Chicago could ship product all the way to New York without spoilage.

  • Kalashnikov's Baby (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Oxygen99 ( 634999 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:09AM (#50742543)
    The AK-47. Bringing armed revolution to the masses!
  • Effect on Nutrition (Score:5, Interesting)

    by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:11AM (#50742553)

    Those preserving techniques provided major sources of nutrients. Sauerkraut (and other fermented vegetables) has lots of Vitamin A, C, B-6, K as byproducts of the fermentation.

  • Check your facts (Score:5, Informative)

    by JustAnotherOldGuy ( 4145623 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:14AM (#50742567)

    "... the flush toilet developed and popularized by Thomas Crapper"

    No, contrary to widespread misconceptions, Crapper did not invent the flush toilet.

    Via snopes and wikipedia:

    Wikipedia: It has often been claimed in popular culture that the slang term for human bodily waste, crap, originated with Thomas Crapper because of his association with lavatories. A common version of this story is that American servicemen stationed in England during World War I saw his name on cisterns and used it as army slang, i.e. "I'm going to the crapper".

    Snopes: Alexander Cummings is generally credited with inventing the first flush mechanism in 1775 (more than 50 years before Crapper was born), and plumbers Joseph Bramah and Thomas Twyford further developed the technology with improvements such as the float-and-valve system. Thomas Crapper, said an article in Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine, "should best be remembered as a merchant of plumbing products, a terrific salesman and advertising genius."

    I guess it's too much to hope that slashdot editors do even the most rudimentary fact-checking, eh?

    • "The flush toilet DEVELOPED and POPULARIZED."

      He didn't invent the idea, he DEVELOPED A VERSION and POPULARIZED it.

      If OP meant to say Crapper invented the toilet, he'd have said 'The flush toilet INVENTED and popularized by Thomas Crapper."

      Ford didn't INVENT the automobile, but he DEVELOPED and POPULARIZED them.

    • "... the flush toilet developed and popularized by Thomas Crapper"

      No, contrary to widespread misconceptions, Crapper did not invent the flush toilet.

      Amazingly, this is mentioned in the 2nd sentence of the wikipedia article linked to in the slashdot article. If only the poster had actually read the link he provided, he might not have made this mistake.

  • Since when did whiskey have to be consumed if it wasn't refrigerated? I mean any excuse will do, but I think that example is taking things a little too far.

  • 1915-2015?

    I can see the argument for refrigeration and it's interesting to contemplate, but the transistor takes the prize for "most disruptive technology" hands down. It's nice to go home and have fresh milk, veggies and leftovers in the fridge as opposed to opening a bag of flour and having a winter squash with some smoked meat, but transistors changed absolutely everything.
    If medicine is considered "technology", the other major contender is antibiotics. For 100s of years, injuries and diseases which ar

  • Not just food (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plopez ( 54068 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:31AM (#50742665) Journal

    It also changed how people socialized. Instead of popping down to the corner store where you often met people from the neighborhood, you now have mega-marts. Instead of canning parties of in-season veggies, you have frozen foods. Small truck farms were driven out of business.

    Also in the field of medicine. Some medicines are very temperature sensitive, insulin comes to mind. Easier blood storage. Easier organ storage and corpse storage.

      It changed so many things besides just food storage and preparation.

  • I think they are possibly right but didn't generalize it enough. Refrigeration is fundamentally the same technology as air conditioning. Both just move heat from one room to another. (a small room in the case of refrigeration) And air conditioning is almost entirely responsible for the migration of huge numbers of people south and huge demographic changes. Same technology with different application and similarly huge results.

    So the answer is correct if you include air conditioning as a subset of refrig

  • Dude-centric (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 16, 2015 @08:48AM (#50742755)

    The most disruptive tech of the last 100 years was the washing machine. Because it gave women some actual time to DO something during the day. Before the washing machine, women washed clothes all day. It was the most laborious thing they did, and it was a constant process. Yes, refrigeration REALLY changed a lot of things, but it didn't make life drastically more worth living for half the population. Washing machines. No question at all. Without them, women didn't need the vote, because they didn't have time to read, or work on getting educated. We're talking about half the population becoming part of the population, as opposed to beasts of burden.

    • by vm146j2 ( 233075 )

      All of them are the same; who do you think was doing all the canning, smoking, pickling and preserving? It's all about women's work, the contraception too. Condoms have been around for centuries, but there's still no male pill, it's still up to the women if they don't want to raise another kid.

      • Pretty much all the above, which is why I'm able to sit in my office during lunch break and read slash dot, instead of being stuck at home taking care of a household full time as well as a child neither my husband and I wanted. My fridge is keeping my food cold, a roomba is keeping the floor clean , and hormones are keeping me perpetually not-pregnant.

        That frees me up to have a career of my own.

        I'd add clean running municipal water as the most disruptive technology of the century before that, but stil
  • This is about as useful as arguing about the most important person of the 20th century. The refrigerator was huge. So was the mass-produced automobile, the atomic bomb, the television, the transistor, digital communications, the list goes on. And all of these things enabled and depended on each other, so singling out one as the key to everything is stupid.

    I do agree that refrigeration deserves more attention, though.

  • by Wycliffe ( 116160 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @09:01AM (#50742845) Homepage

    I think the combine and other heavy machinery would be a contender. Heavy machinery has reduced the number of farm and construction workers by more than 90% allowing those other people to take up new jobs. The computer, the service industry, cities, etc... wouldn't exist as they are today if 90% of our workforce still worked on the farm. The article says that refrigeration and other household technologies made household work drop from 58 to 18 hours (a 69% reduction). Farm machinery has the beat by a long shot with something close to a 90% reduction in labor.

    Other runner ups for other reasons would include birth control, antibiotics, plastic, the internal combustion engine, and factory automation.

  • I thought this would have been at the top of the list. Before street lamps people had to continually worry about their own personal illumination. That's 'torches' for those who have never seen a Hammer film. It also had a great deal of impact on the environment. Wild animals who could freely roam now had to learn new instincts and survival skills.
  • So, back then, because refrigerator where uncommon, people had to be creative and found various cooking techniques that improved conservation. For the same reason, local ingredients where likely to be preferred and seasons had to be observed. This resulted in a lot of diversity and interesting recipes.
    The refrigerator is certainly a big advance, so are modern sterilization techniques but it also lead to the hopelessly bland diet of many people today.

    Proof that disruptive isn't all good.

  • The most disruptive technology I recall was certainly Windows 3.1
  • The big ones include but aren't limited to:
    Transistors & Integrated circuits
    Refrigeration/air conditioning
    Jet engines
    Mass air travel
    Nuclear power/weapons
    Birth control pills
    Antibiotics & vaccines
    Genetic analysis and therapy
    Telecom networks (including the internet)
    Containerized shipping
    Email
    Lasers
    Electrical grids
    Superhighways
    Nitrogen based fertilizers
    Pesticides/herbicides
    And some more I've forgotten

    Can you rank these? Not meaningfully. I suppose you could study economic impact but that's going to be

  • The refrigerator is a great disruptive technology for the early 20th Century, here is a list of others by the century they gained wider use and what they disrupted:-

    Mid 19th Century: The Flush Toilet: replaced in a stroke the use of pit drop toilets when coupled to a sewer and disrupted completely the work of Gong Scourers, who's job it was to be paid to regularly clean out cesspits, cart away the waste and sell it to market gardeners outside of the growing cities. Hence the phrase "Where there's much there

  • by Malc ( 1751 )

    Before 2/3rds of Americans owned an icebox, we also didn't have a huge great hole in the ozone layer. Skin cancer is very disruptive, don't you know?

  • The Crossbow was once considered such a horrific weapon, and such a huge advance that "man might never make war again" because of sheer amount of death this device could bring to the battlefield.

    So, it's all relative....

  • I was just discussing something similar with a few of my tech buddies, a few weeks ago. Despite all of us working in I.T. for decades and being up on the latest trends -- we universally agreed that it feels like real innovation is slowing down. There were so many inventions in the last 100 or so years that clearly changed society, but in the last 10 or 20? Not so much. Almost everything heralded as the next big thing is really an incremental revision of existing tech, in recent years.

    I mean sure, the Intern

  • In the 1920s, only about a third of households reported having a washer or a vacuum, and refrigerators were even rarer. But just 20 years later, refrigerator ownership was common, with more than two-thirds of Americans owning an icebox.

    Hold on a second, so in the 1920s, fewer than 1/3 of Americans owned a refrigerator. By the 1940s, more than 2/3 of Americans owned an icebox. How many owned iceboxes in the 1920s? How many owned refrigerators in the 1940s? These items served the same purpose, but are most certainly not the same thing.

  • I'll throw air conditioning in there under the heading of "refrigeration". A/C has turned baking deserts (e.g. Arizona, Saudi Arabia) and humid swamps (e.g. Florida) into popular places to live.

    We've been able to generate heat since the harnessing of fire, but generating cool took a lot longer.

  • The shipping container, you say? Dubious? Read Marc Levinson's excellent _The Box_
  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Friday October 16, 2015 @12:34PM (#50744439) Journal

    If you had asked me the question without prompting, it would have been a tough choice between electricity and automobiles. The fridge isn't there without reliable electricity in the home. Another guy cited the washing machine, since it saved so much labor for women. Same thing. It doesn't happen if you can't plug it in. In a world with cars but no home electric, I think life would still be pretty rough. OTOH, we build "streetcar suburbs" that ran with overhead electric, which solved transit for a lot of people. Car companies killed the street-cars, but nobody could kill electric so I'm going to go with "reliable electricity to the home" as the most disruptive technology even though electrification started well over 100 years ago. For rural people in the USA, 1930-1950 were the swing decades which puts us well in that time-frame.

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