How Technology Spreads, in 1 Chart

Mapping when some of our most popular technologies - like air conditioning and internet - reached 50 percent penetration.

We tend to date an innovation from the date a patent was filed or a machine unveiled, but a long time can pass between when something becomes technically possible and when the majority of people are using that thing. Electricity, for example, was a wonder technology of the 1880s, but it wasn't until the mid 1920s that a 50 percent of Americans were electrified. The telephone, which dates back to the 1870s, did not achieve 50 percent penetration until *after* World War II. Air conditioning wasn't a majority experience until 1973. Even cellular phones, which are the go-to example of rapid technology adoption, were first launched (in the guise of car phones) in the 1940s, and were well understood by the late 1970s.

Which is what makes these two graphics, one by Nicholas Feltron, the other by Karl Hartig, so fascinating. (They're hard to see in-line: click on them to make them bigger.) You may have seen them bouncing around the Interwebs.

They purport to show how fast technology moves, I see it the opposite way. If you were born in 1870, say, you heard about electricity as a kid, but were unlikely to get it until you were in your 50s! If you were born in 1960, you heard about computers as a kid, but statistically speaking, probably didn't have one until you were in your mid-30s.


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To draw this out, I transcribed (roughly) from Feltron's chart what year penetration of a technology reached 50 percent penetration.

Electricity: 1924
Cars: 1925
Radio: 1931
Stove: 1937
Refrigerator: 1942
Telephone: 1946
Washing machine: 1964
Dryer: 1970
Color TV: 1972
Air conditioning: 1973
Microwave: 1985
VCR: 1987
Dishwasher: 1996
Computer: 1996
Cell phone: 2000
Internet: 2001
Smartphones: 2012 (different source)

What you don't see from this chart is all the time these technologies spent in development. In many cases, more time was spent going from zero to one percent penetration than from one to 50. But that's much more difficult to show because you can't say precisely when to start the clock.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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