World War I is over! Hurrah! As the heroes came home from the battlefield, many more changes were about to unfold. Amid new (albeit, short-lived) economic prosperity in the U.S. and the Housing Boom in the UK, the roaring twenties presented our ancestors with a bunch of brand new tech that would thrill the public of their day, and in many cases, determine how we live today.
Radio and broadcasting
Radios in the '20's evolved from small tabletop “crystal” radios—named for their internal crystal detector—to tube radios, which boasted superior sound quality and better reception over greater distances. Tube radios were built inside of a cabinet (some were massive) and, unlike the crystal's isolating headphones, had speakers so the whole family could listen together, which often earned the radio a hallowed spot in the living room. From this point on, family time would often mean consuming entertainment together over the technological medium of the day (although, no one would get overly concerned about kids and tech obsession until much later).
In London, the electrophone—which allowed users access to live theatre, operas, religious services, and lectures, right over the phone—gave way in 1925 to broadcast radio, and the British Broadcasting Company. Radio put audio entertainment more within reach for the average British citizen, as electrophone service was run via a manual switchboard, and very expensive. For the BBC's first outside broadcast in 1923, audiences were treated to a production of The Magic Flute, live from Covent Garden.
Radios were a cultural phenomenon. It was the dawn of a new age of mass media. Radio ads were big business. During the 1928 U.S. presidential election, networks raked in over $1 million in campaign ads alone. Radio had given musicians a whole new platform on which to jumpstart their careers, and the most popular were now being hired by companies as sponsors to endorse them. Singer Al Jolson famously represented Luckies cigarettes, claiming they helped him stay fit, and “always feel peppy!”
Al Jolson would also play a huge role in another deeply influential technology of the ‘20’s: talking pictures, or “talkies.” Jolson starred in the very first motion picture created with audible dialogue and singing, The Jazz Singer. Silent films had been popular since the early 1900's, but in 1927, new innovations in sound recording made it possible to actually hear the lines being spoken, and songs being sung! Many thought that films with pre-recorded, synchronized sound—attainable through the use of microphones, amplifiers, and phonograph-like technology—would end up a ridiculous, passing fad, but ecstatic audiences demanded more, and a few years later, silent movies had been fazed out completely.
The newfangled automobiles of the 1920's had taken much of the developed world by storm, with “Tin Lizzies” (the Ford Model T) selling like hotcakes in the States, and the Austin Twenty dominating the car market in Britain.
In the short time since these sputtering gas-guzzlers had been invented and commercially available, they had revolutionised leisure time and everyday travel. Cars had, in effect, made the world a bit smaller, placing more of it within our reach.
Nearly a century before bendable smartphones would delight our imaginations, the telephone of the 1920's was undergoing a serious design evolution of its own. The candlestick telephone had reigned supreme since the turn of the century, standing about 10” tall and featuring a round base, long stem, and circular mouthpiece to speak into while you held the fluted receiver to your ear.
Around 1927 however, the Model 102 splashed onto the American telephone scene (though already popular in much of Europe), changing everything. Sophisticated and “modern,” the Model 102 desktop phone was shorter and more compact than its predecessor, with a cradle to hold the innovative two-in-one handset with built in earpiece and voice transmitter. The base would change, but this handset shape would endure throughout landline history. Though phone technology and service has improved in leaps and bounds, both of the 1920's phone styles were shapely and beautifully sculpted. What would they think of today's flat rectangles that break at any given drop?