In the twentieth century, Americans in particular seemed to have picked up a bug for defining themselves by the technologies they used. We are always apparently living in an “Age” of something. In and of itself, defining your own “Age” while you are living in it isn’t brand new — there was that whole “Age of Enlightenment” thing, of course — but our amazement at the apparently changed pace of life brought on by science and technology has sped this up quite a bit once things really got hopping in the last century.
Starting in August 1945, we officially began living in the “Atomic Age.” Which is to say, really, that people started saying that they were living the atomic age. We did this for awhile, and at some point transitioned to the “Nuclear Age,” the “Jet Age,” the “Space Age,” and so on.
A nice set of historical questions follow: When did those transitions between “Ages” happen? Which “Ages” were more influential, as a term of self-identification? Do “Ages” die, or just fade away?
Google’s Ngram Viewer makes this sort of thing quite fun to track, though the results aren’t necessarily straightforward. Basically the Ngram Viewer can track the usage of specific (case-sensitive) phrases across the Google Books corpus over time, normalizing them to a relative frequency of use (so that the results just don’t reflect how many books there were being published at any given time). It’s a nice way to get preliminary information about linguistic disputes, though it has plenty of obvious methodological difficulties.1
A wonderful case study: when did “atomic” lose traction to “nuclear“? Google NGrams gives a fairly unambiguous, mostly straightforward result:
In the beginning (1945), “atomic” was king. In 1958 or so, it was surpassed by “nuclear.” This coincides nicely with the startup of the first nuclear power plant in the United States, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. It’s hard not to conclude that the shift from “atomic” to “nuclear” was caused by the growth of the nuclear power industry (even if Shippingport was itself under “atomic power”).
While “atomic” was on a free-fall from then on, “nuclear” enjoyed two peaks: on in the mid-1960s, then one in the mid-1980s. This maps fairly well onto the cultural history of nuclear weapons in the United States.2 With only a slight understanding of nuclear history, the 1960s (Cuban Missile Crisis, ICBMs, Limited Test Ban Treaty, Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the 1980s (Reagan, Gorbachev, Pershing Missiles, Reykjavik, “Star Wars,” Chernobyl) conjure up periods of high cultural interest in many things nuclear.
Interesting side-note: we all know that scientists and other precise-minded people consider “atomic” to be an inferior designation than “nuclear.” The energy we care about is not “atomic” in nature (which also includes the electrons) — it’s specifically involved in the fissioning or fusing of nuclei. And yet, “atomic” was what was even plastered across the official government statements in 1945 — the Smyth Report was originally meant to be titled “Atomic Bombs,” as I discussed on Wednesday. An interesting wrinkle is that Smyth himself hated the use of the term “atomic” when “nuclear” was meant, but was overruled by Groves and others. “Nuclear” just wasn’t a word well-known by the general public in 1945, whereas “atomic” has been common currency for a long time.
During the Manhattan Project, the scientists at the University of Chicago thought that they ought to use a completely new term to describe what they were doing:
We propose to use the word “nucleonics” as a name for this field. Reflecting the modern trend toward close correlation between science and industry, and following the load of “electronics”, we propose that the word “nucleonics” shall refer to both science and industry in the nuclear field.3
“Nucleonics” didn’t really take off, though. It was occasionally used by scientists, and there was a journal with the title, but in the public mind it never had any traction.
Returning to our question about the “Ages,” I ran a whole bunch of “age” phrases through the Ngram viewer. Here are the interesting results, methodological caveats notwithstanding:4
An interesting conclusion: We no longer live in the “nuclear age.” Which is to say, we no longer define our times by the fact of our using nuclear technology — which we still do, in abundance. (The United States still has well over 100 operating commercial nuclear reactors, providing around 20% of the nation’s electricity generation. The world still has thousands of nuclear weapons in it. Nuclear issues still appear on the front pages of newspapers with alarming regularity.) But since the mid-1990s, “information” has defined us overwhelmingly.
Methodological issues with these kind of keyword searches aside, these results jibe with the general feeling that our having specifically “nuclear” technology is not longer a distinguishing — or at least novel — characteristic of the times in which we live, in the same way that calling attention to the engines in our airplanes, or places we visited on a handful of occasions (outer space), soon ceased to be definitional of our times.
There’s an easy narrative one can make about this — perhaps too easy. New, disruptive technologies enter into our world. They seem to change everything. Machines completely changed the way labor worked and the nature of manufactured goods. The atomic bomb seemed to change everything about security, diplomacy, and war. The jet suddenly made distances very small indeed. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons became a mainstay of modern life. And information gradually began more and more to define how we operated in the world.
And yet, not one of these technologies replaced the others. We still have machines. We still have jets. We still have nuclear weapons and nuclear plants. But all of the others have long since ceased to impress us. Information still impresses us — we’re still in the middle of its thrall, we’re still shocked and surprised by the things it does for better and worse. So even though the information age feels a little old hat at this point, as a phrase, it’s still going strong in the zeitgeist. Until the next revolution.
But lest we feel that Information is something terribly new and shocking, take a look at that graph again: none of these, even the Information Age, hold a candle to how people talked about living in the Machine Age. One might be tempted, were one to take a long view of things, to say that the twentienth century was bracketed on one side by Machines, and on the other by Information. In between, we flirted with the Bomb.
- Transcription fidelity and dating fidelity are two major systemic issues with the Google Books corpus; the inability to tell what sense a given word is being used is an issue with any kind of “dumb” concordance approach. [↩]
- I haven’t separated out “American English” from “British English” on these charts, though Ngrams lets you do it. Frankly, I just don’t trust the results — I don’t know how it is claiming to tell one from the other, and I fear it has to do with publisher location, which is very misleading. In this particular graph, though, there are some interesting differences in the “British English” version from the “English” and “American English” versions, which are basically the same. Specifically, the rise of “nuclear” occurs slightly later, and slower in “British English,” and has a much more impressive peak around 1985. [↩]
- Z. Jeffries, Enrico Fermi; James Franck, T.R. Hogness, R.S. Mulliken, R.S. Stone, C.A. Thomas, “Prospectus on Nucleonics,” (18 November 1944), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 3, Target 4, Folder 17, “S-1 Technical Reports (1942-44).” [↩]
- In all cases except Information Age, lower-case capitalization increased prevalence. One might suspect that indicates weird false-positives, but a perusing of the data shows that indeed, people did refer to, say, the “machine age” in lower case: “With the coming of the machine age” … “For the sake of the argument, it may be conceded that the machine age has produced nothing comparable with the best of the painting, sculpture, and architecture of antiquity and the middle ages” … “Further, if we are to preserve our adolescents from the banal mechanizing of a machine age”… and so on. “Motor Age,” “Plastic Age,” anything related to biological sciences don’t really chart compared to the others. “Sex Age” goes about as much as “jet age” albeit a decade later, but sex isn’t exactly a technology, so I’ve left it off. And the biggest difficulty here, of course, is the fact that you can’t tell from word counts whether people are self-identifying — thus a search for “Industrial Revolution” tells you little about how people called themselves at that point, given that the phrase takes off pretty much after the Revolution in question as a way of talking about the period itself. Ditto “Middle Ages,” “Age of Exploration,” and other such phrases which are descriptive of past times rather than present times. Additionally, it should be noted that the dataset only goes through 2008. [↩]