Q. What were the key innovations of the 1930s?
Mr. Field: What’s notable about the Depression years is the very broad range of advance. One can’t point to a single or even a few innovations that somehow defined the era. Nonetheless, notable new products included the DC-3, a plane introduced in 1936 that revolutionized commercial aviation; television, developed with venture capital funding during the 1930s and rolled out at the 1939-40 World’s Fair; and nylon stockings, introduced in May 1940, with 63 million pair sold the first year.
A number of products available in the 1920s moved from low-penetration boutique goods to mass-produced commodities. Case in point: mechanical refrigerators. Less than 3 percent of U.S. households had them in 1929, and they were expensive and unreliable, requiring extensive after-market service. In 1941, 44 percent of households had mechanical refrigeration, including 56 percent of urban households.
Automobiles saw major refinements in the 1930s. Heaters, radios, low-pressure balloon tires, and four-wheel hydraulic brakes all became standard. The decade saw the development of options we often consider standard today — power steering, automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, and V-8 engines. Aside from product innovation, significant process innovation occurred across the industrial sector.
And in contrast to the 1920s, advance was not limited almost entirely to manufacturing. Highway design in the 1930s excited engineers as much as did the information “superhighway” in the 1990s. The U.S. route system, built almost entirely during the Depression, represented a huge improvement over what had preceded it, with big benefits for transportation and distribution.
Organizational innovation also played a role. In railroads, treaties now allowed unlimited freight interchange. Rolling stock — railroad cars — from one road could move onto tracks owned by another, and while there, discharge and pick up cargo, and even be repaired in a “foreign” yard. The agreements and uniform tariff schedules that permitted this were critical in enabling U.S. railroads to carry more freight and almost as many passengers in 1941 as they did in 1929, using many fewer employees, cars, and locomotives.
I wrote about some of the basic numbers of the Depression here.