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Programme 5

The 2nd Industrial Revolution

By Dr Robert Bud, Head of Research, Science Museum

Today, the words "dot com" signal not just a novel technology but a whole new way of doing things. A century ago people were also discussing a transformation in the creation of wealth, technology and lifestyle. The phrase the "second industrial revolution", was coined by the Scottish town planner and seer Patrick Geddes almost as soon as it had happened - in 1915 during the bleak days of the First World War.

Geddes saw a new world in which coal and iron were giving way to electricity and new materials such as aluminium. Cities were now becoming light and liveable, rather than the squalid slums he associated with the 19th century's beginning. Geddes was being too simplistic, but something fundamental had indeed happened.

The 35 years before the First World War had seen the introduction or invention of many of the technologies which we have hitherto taken for granted as modern. These include those based on chemistry, electricity and internal combustion engine: the radio, the telephone, the cinema, the petrol driven car, the aeroplane, heroin synthetic aspirin, the electric light bulb, the domestic refrigerator, air conditioning, vacuum cleaners, punch card machines for data analysis, gramophones, machine guns and other new devices whose impact would take the better part of a century to work through.

Early radio technology
Many of these had been the result of the use of applied science more systematic than ever before. The scientific exploration of new phenomena, particularly by chemists and physicists, the development of measurement skills, chemical analysis and advanced mathematics, the proliferation of professional scientists and the multiplication of specialised instruments had opened up new possibilities. The exploitation of these required the concerted action of many more people with a formal education. Looking back, it is in this period that we see the beginning of formal research and development departments directly geared towards the generation of new knowledge and the application of scientific research to practical problems.

New means of communication were enabling a global economy. Britain imported, for example, meat from Australia and Argentina, wheat from Canada, and oil from Persia and exported manufactured goods and coal. Increasingly she was also having to compete in a global marketplace. The United States had become an even more important manufacturing nation and Germany had taken the lead in the new industries of chemicals and electricity. In both the motor car and the aircraft industries French manufacturers were leaders.

Just as today, there were many who saw the downside in a technological transformation which was dooming many traditional lifestyles and replacing a sense of the natural by the synthetic. The terrifying science fiction novel of H G Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau made into a major motion picture as recently as 1996 was published in 1896. The First World War remains an ambivalent testimony to the power of the new technologies.

The Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery opens 28 June 2000.

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