One of the defining chararacteristics of the 20th Century is the way new inventions have infiltrated everyday life. Whether we're talking about phonographs, automobiles, televisions, video recorders or computers, they generally follow the same historical pattern. They start out being so expensive and frivolous that only corporations and rich individuals can afford them, but eventually they become so common that entire societies will be structured on the assumption that everybody has one. In the United States, new cities have been laid out to accomodate cars instead of pedestrians, and the driver's license has become the official form of identification. A phone number is second only to name as the most critical piece of personal information when filling out a check or when meeting someone at a party. Important public service announcements are often broadcast exclusively over television. Even though none of the new technologies are vital to human existence, it is nearly impossible to survive in an economically advanced society without them.

The telephone is the granddaddy of personal technology. The first commercial phone network went online in 1877, but unlike other early inventions of the Industrial Age such as electric lights and indoor plumbing, the telephone did more than merely improve on some pre-industrial equivalent. It came out of nowhere to fill a need that no one even knew they had until the telephone arrived. Other industrial networks like the telegraph and railroad connected one community with another, but the telephone connected individuals.

I have chosen to map only telephones, because unlike, say, televisions, they've been around since the beginning, and unlike, say, radios, they haven't been superseded by a fancier technology; however, the maps for just about every new technology would look about the same. Most gadgets are more common in the United States than they are in Argentina, and more common in Argentina than they are in Peru. Romania has always been about two notches down from the cutting edge, while India is usually three. In fact, the overall distribution has remained remarkably similar across the entire century, and most of the countries in the top ranks in 1930 are still in the top ranks today.

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Last updated February 2000

Copyright © 2000 Matthew White