Inventions that Shaped Our Lives: Growing Up in the 20th Century

February 11, 2000 - May 28, 2000

In our first exhibit of the year, our staff of volunteer historians, engineers, artists and exhibit preparators have chosen and organized the interpretive materials and artifacts into several categories to describe the impact of invention in the 20th Century:
  • The Age of Information: from the invisible marvels of the telephone to the shocking simplicity of the Post-It note, how our century created an exponential explosion in information
  • The Age of Entertainment and Advertising: from the impact of radio and television on the home to live satellite images of international events, the creation of a global community and marketplace
  • A Century at War: new devices for reconnaissance and destruction and their impact on the American soldier
  • The Invisible World: from the medical x-ray to radar to the transistor; revolutions in detecting the unseen world, and the invisible technology that surrounds us
  • The Age of Convenience and the Consumer: from sliced bread to rayon leisure suits, advertising, increasing mechanization, and chemical breakthroughs permeate our daily life

Exhibit Companion

This exhibit reclaims the wonder of common inventions - devices that in previous ages would have been called "magic," but in our time became so popular that they blended seamlessly into our lives. Two hundred years from now, the 20th century will have labels that summarize a few important events: the Age of Information, the Nuclear Age, or the like. Yet such overarching labels do not give a sense of what it felt like to live in these times. This exhibit displays inventions that were ordinary, many of them used on a regular basis; and iconic, immediately identified with the 20th century by shape, material or purpose.

The exhibit begins with telephones and computers, the oldest and newest inventions of the century. They both quickly developed beyond a few individual devices into a global network. Within forty years of its invention, the telephone revolutionized the speed of communications. It became such a fixture in our homes that it seems unremarkable. Similarly, within forty years of the first electronic model, the computer has become the daily companion of millions, an essential for work, a source of entertainment and a personal assistant for connecting and communicating across nations and continents.

The "Apple I"(1976) in the central bookshelf display represents the genesis of "personal" computers. It is part of a display entitled "Home-grown Inventions". Radio tubes, transistors, computer chips, and calculators are all inventions that have roots in the Palo Alto area. These "home-grown" devices also underline the continuing importance of individual inventors in creating new technology. By contrast the next display concentrates on a "culture of inventiveness". Kodak is a prime example of a corporate structure that is constantly seeking out change and new techniques. The music display in the center of the room also demonstrates this. Over the century, audio recording moved from phonograph disks to magnetic tape to laser discs. Each is evidence of the constant effort to improve a particular product and the fact that the media being played was a more important invention than the machine that played it.

Many inventions do not follow a single line of progress. Copying machines demonstrate how innovations sometimes spiral back to an older technology. Computer printers, for example, picked up and improved the old ink based copiers instead of using the newer "dry" method of the Xerox machine. Sometimes an invention is so complete and "classic" that there is little reason to change. The Coca-Cola bottle (1915) and Coke machines have been tinkered with over the decades but remain fundamentally unaltered.

The displays in the Dining Room gallery illustrate two exhibit themes. The military devices (starting with the machine gun in the center and moving clockwise from the bazooka around the room) demonstrate that one good invention always leads to another. Inventions are rarely the shout of a single genius but the result of an endless dialogue among creative minds thinking about and then responding to constantly evolving problems.

Continuing around the room are interactive displays: the Geiger counter, the oscilloscope, a solar panel, a radar model, that explore the "invisible world" of 20th century technology. Even though invention is a continuum, there are still points where science and technology make great leaps. Electrification, nuclear research, and wireless communication defined 20th century technology but their workings were invisible; they could only be seen by their results. The interactive displays here present devices that were invented to help us see this "invisible world."

Inventions do not have to be large or electronic in order to have an important effect on daily life. The kitchen, little gallery and utility porch show objects that changed the nature of housework, the look and taste of food and even the face and form of American men and women. Some of the objects presented here had different meanings in different eras. The bra, for instance, was meant to liberate women from Victorian limits in 1914, but became a symbol of female oppression fifty years later. Others took on multiple roles. Teflon and nylon were important in warfare before they transformed, respectively, kitchenware and fashion.

The Doctor's Examining Room provides an overview of the enormous changes in medicine during the century. The outer room of the Library traces the changes in transportation as seen through the experiences of the Williams' family, the original owners of this house.Our Learning Center features several interactive exhibits and the opportunity to use an IBM punch card machine, and a "Living Skills Robot" designed for the handicapped.

Because the 20th century is so recently gone, this exhibit, a review of a century of innovation, offers us a unique opportunity to think about ourselves, and the inventions that shaped our lives.

Our Special Thanks
The Museum is indebted to many individuals and institutions for this exhibit. We commend and thank in particular:
Cupertino Historical Museum
Hewlett Packard Archives
History San Jose
Marin County Historical Society
The Museum of Vintage Fashion
Robert Beck
Beth Bunnenberg
Les Burger
Ernestine Faxon
John Garcia
Dor Hesselgrave
Ralph Igler
Bruce Kennedy
Carol and Don Kvingedal
Wayland Lee
Jacques Littlefield
Jim Lyons
Sharon McCarthy
Mary Sheila McMahon
Beverly Nelson
Monroe Postman
John F. Rinaldi
Philip Sunshine, M.D.
Fernando Vescia, M.D.
Bill Wehrend

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