How the Automobile Affected Culture in the United States
Throughout history, humans have been able to enhance their lives through the creation of various technologies. Whether it’s the creation of the wheel, or sending a man to the moon, humans have been able to innovate and push the boundaries of what is believed to be possible with each new technological development. In conjunction with this fact, I have come to learn through this course that these technological advancements are much more then just technical achievements. These advancements serve to shape the cultures of various civilizations in a multitude of ways. One such example of this phenomenon is the development and widespread use of the automobile in the United States. The automobile came together as a product of advancements in many fields, requiring developments in material, power, and mechanical technologies. Cars fundamentally changed the way that people travelled and, along with other technological innovations in the field of radio, affected how people receive information on a regular basis. All of these developments had and continue to impact the culture of the United States. Before we discuss these different cultural impacts, we must talk about the origin of the automobile in the United States.
The automobile was first invented in the late 1800’s through the work of European inventors and engineers, who were mostly French and German. However, it did not take long for Americans to get their foot in the door with this revolutionary technology. America’s automotive industry really began after inventor Henry Ford innovated production techniques at the time to create what is referred to now as the assembly line. Soon, major companies began to form, specializing in automobile development. These companies were Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, all of which became established by the 1920’s.
One major hurdle in the way of the automotive industry was trying to balance between design quality and affordability. In Europe, the Mercedes was the most technologically advanced vehicle, which featured a thirty-five-horsepower engine that was relatively lightweight. This allowed the vehicle to reach a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour. However, because of this high level of quality, manufacturers could only produce around one thousand cars per year. Compare this to the Oldsmobile, and automobile created by Ransom Olds around the same time as the Mercedes. The car featured a lowly one cylinder, three-horsepower engine, that operated at the same level as a horse drawn carriage. However, since Oldsmobiles could utilize assembly line technology, as well as the concept of interchangeable parts, a concept introduced to the United States by Eli Whitney, the Oldsmobile was able to be manufactured at a much higher rate than the Mercedes. The Oldsmobile also benefitted from its lack of technological superiority, as it significantly lowered its price, selling for six-hundred and fifty dollars, which made it more affordable for most Americans.
The are many different factors as to why the automobile took off in America to a much greater degree than in Europe. One of these factors was that lack of skilled laborers on the United States. This fact coupled with an abundance of raw materials provided fertile ground for an industrial boom in the United States. Another reason that the automotive industry grew exceptionally well in America was Ford’s ability to change his employees’ schedules to maximize levels of production. Ford did this by compartmentalizing a worker’s shift into eight-hour intervals. This allowed him to split up the work cycle among three different sets of workers, effectively allowing for twenty-four hour, seven days a week production. Another idea that Ford introduced was raging the wages of his employees. He effectively doubled all of his employees’ wages, raising them to five dollars an hour, which was relatively high for that time period. This increase in morale for his employees coupled with the fact that their schedules were optimized like never before led to unprecedented levels of manufacturing output.
This increase in output led to a surplus in supply. The next battle for automobiles was a cultural one. How would these automobile manufacturers market these cars to the expansive American market? Ford’s strategy was to change the perception of the automobile as a product. When the automobile was first invented, many viewed as a luxury item that only the rich could own for their leisure. Ford on the other hand pushed the notion that automobiles were not a luxury, but rather a necessity. This notion combined with lower prices and increased manufacturing output, made the automobile a commercial success with the masses.
Once automobile ownership grew in the United States, many other industries began to feel residual effects, most being positive. These new automobiles required many specific materials, one being vulcanized rubber. This caused any business that produced this type of material to benefit economically. Another major industry that blossomed during the automobile boom was road construction. Thousands of workers were needed to meet the growing demand for roads in the United States, and state governments began to allocate funding to build these necessary roads and highways. Oil and steel also saw a considerable increase in profits during this time period, as both materials were integral to the car industry.
The widespread use of the automobile also led to the creation of entirely new industries. One such industry that is iconic in American culture is the roadside diner. These restaurants were home to classic American cuisine, such as burgers, French fries, milk shakes, and apple pies. These foods were cheap and took a relatively short amount of time to cook and prepare. This was the begging of a cultural shift in the United States towards the fast food style restaurant. Another type of industry that was created to fill needs brought about by the many new motorists on American roads was roadside lodging. Motels began to open up for business along particularly long routes, providing drivers with a place to stay overnight.
The auto industry also changed the way American families interacted with their communities. Before the automobile, those that lived in rural areas of the United States lived isolated from urban centers, as well as their amenities. One of the most important changes to these rural communities was the ability to have their kids access better hospitals, as well as better schools. Suburbs began to spring up around surrounding cities, as workers were now able to commute from longer distances to go to work every day. Homes were beginning to be constructed with consideration to the automobile, with home owners opting to add garages to protect their cars from the outside elements.
Another cultural effect of the automobile was a new sense of independence gained with the freedom to travel great distances. Teenagers especially experienced a greater range of freedom from their parents, as the automobile provided them with an opportunity to escape parental supervision by allowing them to find a place to be alone. Families could also vacation in much different areas now, which helped grow the tourism industry and provide many new experiences for the average American.
New laws were also required to keep up with the ever-changing American landscape. With a great deal of drivers on roads with no specific system to keep drivers safe, many traffic accidents occurred as a result. This prompted American citizens to call for safety regulations, leading the way to state run licensing and traffic regulations. Despite the potential dangers brought about by driving, Americans continued to purchase and drive automobiles.
Today, automobile ownership is at an all time high, with almost every American adult owning and operating their own vehicle. Some people own more than one vehicle, with some going as far to collect classic models. Even though almost all Americans own cars, the automobile industry continues to produce and sell new vehicles, with ninety-five percent of domestic car sales stemming from need of replacement.
Technology continues to shape industry as well as the culture of civilization. The automobile is a prime example, as it effected the lives of American citizens to a great extent. It provided them with great personal freedom, as it allowed for new job and leisure opportunities. These new freedoms created new industries and helped existing ones, which further grew the United States economy. It will be interesting to see how far automobile technology will go in the future. Will electric motors replace the internal combustion engine? How will a more environmentally friendly focus effect car design in the future? Will cars be driven by advanced artificial intelligence? All of these questions and more will surely be answered in the coming years. Hopefully, these new technological developments will benefit society in the same way that early automobiles did in the early 1900’s.


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