The 'Prime Movers' of the 20th Century

Text © Don Davis

   Among those I am indebted to while considering a list of those who shaped the Twentieth Century is Michael Hart, whose book 'The Top 100-A Ranking Of The Most Influential people of All Time' opened my eyes to a wide range of people and movements which shaped History. I admit to a hefty influence in my own appraisal of historic importance from Hart's well reasoned book. In the most recent version of his book Hart removes the Soviet figures from his list in the wake of the collapse of European Communism, however the decades of suffering and division affected hundreds of millions of people for half the century, and in a consideration of the events of the 20th Century the East/West power alignment remains a central theme. I compiled such a list partially because of dismay at others which received wide attention yet seemed the product of meetings with Political Correctness of the times in operation. There is also a dismaying tendency to weigh heavily in the later decades for names most of the readers might have heard of. The idea is not to try to emphasize the best influences of the times, hoping more will emulate their example, it is to record who for better or for worst had the most influence, who changed more lives, and who has stimulated more ideas which changed the world. A lot of valuable lessons on paths best avoided are plentifully found through out the history of the 20th Century.

    Based on a lifetime of reading I judge the most influential people (certainly not the nicest!) of the 20th Century to be:


1. Adolf Hitler 1889-1945)-His bloody career changed the world more than any other, even more in it's unintended aftermath than in it's immediate effects. Perhaps the most effective orator in history, so central was his personal involvement to creating a European German empire that it was in the end his very flaws which defeated him as much as his foes. During the brief period when he was master of Europe, his infliction of horrific cruelties and massacres on millions of helpless victims surpassed the depravities of the worst of the Roman emperors. The entire western world rose up to defeat him, but it was the attempted conquest of Russia which determined the outcome. His dark shadow persisted for many years during the realignment of the world power balance which divided Europe at the territory Russia in the East and the western allies occupied at the end of the Second world War. Because of Hitler we now have atomic weapons, powerful rockets, The United Nations and bloated militaries.




   2. Joseph Stalin (Joseph Visssarionovich Djugashvili) (1879-1953)-He brutally whipped Russia into the industrial age, at a terrible price. He displayed the cruel art of survival of the strongest in his ruthless rise to power in the wake of the death of Vladimir Lenin. He exported grain while millions of his countrymen were starving just to 'keep up appearances'. Millions more of his subjects were engulfed in the Gulag system, most never to return. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union many Russians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators, only to be savaged and killed by soldiers and especially by the SS. With most of the qualified generals of his armed forces long dead from episodes of purges, immense losses mounted as Stalin sought out the greatest surviving generals, notably Georgy Zhukov. Stalin directed the entire economy of his immense country toward pouring machines and men in an avalanche of iron against the Germans, unflinchingly sustaining losses of several men to each German killed. Stalin steadily defeated Hitler in an industrial scale struggle to the death as titanic as the rest of the Second World War put together. His ruthlessness was shown not only to his foes in battle, but even to his own soldiers who had become prisoners of war, including his own son. Later he established a series of 'buffer states' between the USSR and Western Europe, run by puppet governments. Stalin frightened the west into continued technological competition which changed world geopolitics.



 3. Mao Tse Tung (1893-1976)- He took over a China pummeled by colonialism and war and brought it to the frontier of world power status. Sheltered from world accountability by secrecy and isolation, he led the life of a living god in public, in private that of a Roman Emperor. Mao's wife, Jaing Ching, inundated a generation of Chinese youth with her series of tedious Model Operas. In 1957 Mao encouraged open criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, then treated those who spoke up as public examples for his subsequent Anti-rightist campaign. He 'flew into the ground' the economic and especially agricultural infrastructure of China, causing famines which killed tens of millions. His success in ruthlessly changing his nation exceeded that of Stalin. Uncountable millions of people grew up under carefully watched repressive conditions that made the Soviet Union look like a paradise in comparison. The 'Cultural Revolution' of the late 1960's brought further chaos and mass arrests by youthful agitators against the established bureaucracy and numerous contrived 'suspects'. At one time his diminutive red bound volume of 'quotations' rivaled in the number of circulated copies that of the Bible. As his permanent portrait overlooks Tiananmen Square, his ideological ghost still haunts an awakening China. To this day rebel movements in jungle nations kill in his name.



  4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)- brought the United States from the brink of decline to world power status during his extended rule. His later leadership was directed towards helping to defeat the aggressive empires of Germany and Japan. FDR was the first of a few presidents often called by his initials in print. He was the first and last President to break precedent and win election four times, with a constitutional amendment soon written up and passed to prevent this in the future. His initiating the 'Manhattan Project' brought the Atomic Bomb to the U.S. well before the other major powers.






  5. Winston Churchill (1874-1965)- Rallied England in the critical years of its deadly struggle with Hitler, during which Germany was finally defeated. England's vast empire was shattered but the country survived.








  6. Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)-His 1917 Russian revolution created an ideological bloc which eventually enslaved and murdered millions, and stimulated the west to compete for worldwide influence and military technology under the brutal rule of his successor.








  7. Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)-Fascist ideology ran it's course during the 20th, century, at least in it's more overt forms. Mussolini started it all, his Fascist party first consolidating power at home then acting as an ally to a later Fascist leader, this one German, who was largely inspired by Mussolini's example. Later he was swept up in Hitler's losing cause and was ultimately shot while fleeing during the chaos of defeat.







  8. George C. Marshall (1880-1959)-Although his role as a general was considerable, his post war aid plan for western Europe used America's vigorous post-war economy to nurture western Europe through it's recovery. His 'Marshall Plan', announced in a Harvard University speech in 1947, allowed an accelerated return by western Europe to pre war living standards, and earned Marshall the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the only professional soldier ever so awarded. In addition to his efforts to promote peace and well being in war ravaged regions, Marshall was also instrumental in forming the North Atlantic treaty Alliance(NATO) which provided a standing opposition to the massive Soviet military buildup in the Soviet occupied regions gathered under the 'Warsaw Pact', the 'mirror image' of NATO.






  9. Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971)- Attaining leadership of the U.S.S.R. after the 1953 death of Stalin, Khrushchev proceeded to dismantle the gulag empire of his predecessor and exposed Stalin's horrors. He marshaled the resources of his country in military and space projects, the latter of which led to a series of spectacular space 'firsts'. Although more reasonable than Stalin, his occasional bouts of belligerence and confrontation contributed to the peak of the 'Cold War' tensions. This culminated in the 1962 'Cuban Missile Crisis', the closest the world ever came to an atomic war.






  10. Albert Einstein (1879-1955)- His mind made the greatest conceptual leaps since Newton in understanding a greater range of the subtlties of physical reality. The fateful letter to president Roosevelt by physicist Leo Szilard which Einstein co-signed was pivotal in starting the development of atomic weapons.







 11. Gregory Pincus (1903-1967)- Primary inventor of the birth control pill in 1955, which consciously separated sex from procreation and assisted in increasing the social options open to people. He was influenced to invent 'The Pill' by woman's rights activist Margaret Sanger beginning in 1951.








  12. John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)-Invigorated and socially enriched an America rising to the peak of it's post war affluence. In Oct. 1962 JFK saw us through the Cuban missile crisis, our closest brush with nuclear war. Kennedy was instrumental in implementing the nuclear atmospheric test ban treaty. He also initiated project Apollo, which established our ability to reach other worlds. His assassination brought a sense of futility and disillusionment which contributed to the reappraisal of values of the rising youth movement.








 13. Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964)- Great general not only instrumental in bringing the Japanese empire to it's knees, but in presiding over the reworking of it's government. He helped set the stage for the steady renewal of Japan's world prominence in the post war era. The conflict between political and military conduct of U.S. warfare policy led to his dismissal during the Korean war by President Truman.






 14. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)- Although many would place him higher on this list for his non-violence ideals and what they could mean for humanity if universally adopted, this wishful thinking is not my rationale. Gandhi was probably more than anyone else the one who galvanized India's independence movement in the wake of weakening post war British influence in the region which changed history and the destiny of many millions of people in what has become the worlds largest democracy.







   15. Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright- They knew powered flight could be done, analyzed the unsuccessful efforts of others, and built the first controllable heavier than air vehicle. Air travel has since changed the degree of world commerce and brought distant places within the experience of more people than ever. Such machines have also rained death upon cities full of people and have brought the destructive power equivalent to great natural calamities within our grasp. I have decided to share the credit between the brothers as Michael Hart has done in his book.






16. Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) Soon after becoming President after the death of FDR, Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan to avoid a costly invasion gave the world a terrifying vision of what atomic warfare would mean to humanity. Although Truman refused to let Stalin intimidate him, his decision to fire general MacArthur over differences in how the Korean war should be conducted initiated the practice of overt 'limited warfare'. This marked the beginning of U.S. 'wars without declaration' which avoid U.S. congressional approval requirements to wage war, a precedent which would reap bitter fruit in the future.






 17. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973)-taking office after the Assassination of JFK, he oversaw the completion of the ambitious civil rights and space initiatives of his predecessor. LBJ would deserve prominent recognition for these achievements alone, but his greatest legacy ended up being one of America's great tragedies. The U.S. military aid to south Vietnam always seemed to need just another increase in troop commitments to bring us to 'the light at the end of the tunnel'. A war of deliberately limited scope was conducted against the northern communist forces, perhaps from fear of provoking the USSR and China, perhaps because a real victory would be simply impractical. Casualties mounted with little to show for them as the north Vietnamese forces worked around our strategy. In the end, the corruption of southern Vietnamese officials (but not the soldiers) and the determination of the northern forces were the decisive factors. Although hardly a battle was lost America ended up with it's first humiliating defeat. Later in the undeclared war many young people were galvanized to question the war, authority and societal assumptions in general. Many lives and direction of America's resources in a critical time were altered radically by decisions LBJ made.




18. Henry Ford (1863-1947)-His innovations in manufacturing and mass production made possible the 1908 introduction of the 'Model T', a car deliberately designed not only for simplicity and durability, but for widespread availability at an affordable price. His visionary approach to business widely affected the lives of millions of people as he not only built cars, but promoted the building of paved road networks and gas stations. Henry Ford was both enlightened and despotic in running his business. High wages were paid to his workers, promoting the establishment of a 'middle class' whose income allowed discretionary spending on items besides those needed for survival. He used his private police force to fight unionization efforts in his company, paid company counselors to inform on troubled employees which he would then fire. He dabbled in such diverse pursuits as anti-Semitic ravings in his newspaper, the 'Dearborn Independent', and hiring an ocean liner filled with prominent pacifists in November 1915 to conduct a 'mass meditation' near Europe in hopes of ending the First World War! Before Henry Ford only 20 percent of Americans lived in cities. Thanks to the new mobility provided by reliable personal transportation, by World War II half the people lived in cities. The assembly line process which Ford pioneered not only allowed a Model T to be turned out every 24 seconds, such mass production techniques applied to weapons manufacture during the First then the Second World Wars caused the arming of Humanity on a scale and uniformity unimaginable to earlier ages.



 19. Sergei Korolev (1907-1966)- The Ukrainian rocket genius who suffered through the Gulag system during the depraved reign of Stalin. After being 'rehabilitated', Korolev rose swiftly to the esteemed (and anonymous) position of 'Chief Designer'. His energetic marshaling of the skills of his country brought the Soviet Union to world technological prominence with the fabrication of the first ballistic missile capability, and especially the launch of Sputnik 1. He later supervised the launching of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. These achievements prompted a massive U.S. effort to surpass Russia's space capability, culminating in the Apollo program. His death in a botched operation in early 1966 cost the Soviet Union its chances of winning the Moon race.






 20. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)- Taking up the study of medicine at age 20, this Scotsman concentrated on bacteriology. During World War I as captain in the Army medical Corps he worked to reduce the deaths of wounded soldiers from infected wounds. While searching for anti bacterial treatments which were not also dangerous to the patient. In 1928 Fleming was discarding old petri dish cultures when he noticed a distinctive mold eating into a virus culture, which surprisingly killed off the staphylococcus anywhere near it. Fleming isolated this mold and soon discovered a strain of the Penicillia which attacked only invading bacteria and not the surrounding living tissue, effective when diluted as much as 800 times. Work on Penicillin lagged for years until the storm clouds of War again loomed on the horizon, stimulating research in medical as well as military progress. By the Second World War British and American companies mass produced Penicillin, saving the lives of uncountable thousands of soldiers and millions of civilians in decades to come. The introduction of the medical use of Penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming marked a giant step in humanity's struggle with disease.





 21. Gavrilo Princip (1894- 1918)-This 19 year old Serbian gangster did not set out to change the course of world history, all he intended to do was assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, leader of Austria-Hungary while pursuing the nationalist aims of the 'Black Hand' mobsters. The Archduke and his wife were shot by Princip during their visit to Sarajevo after his henchmen failed to do the job earlier that fateful June 28, 1914 day. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia, and the many alliances lined up to support their commitments with the first world war the result. 8.5 million deaths in the battlefield followed as soldiers fell victim to machine guns, artillery barrages, poison gas, disease, and wasteful tactics. The technology of mass killing had come of age. Among the momentous side effects of the 'War To End All Wars' were the erasing of old kingdoms and regimes including the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the decimation of a generation of Frenchmen, and the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. The Germans were to rise again, partly fueled by resentment over crushing war reparations imposed after their defeat in 1918. The tanks, submarines, and aircraft used in the second world war were refinements of those introduced in the First.






22. Werner Von Braun (1912-1977)- This resourceful rocket pioneer was not only a gifted engineer but an excellent organizer of talent. When approached by German army ordinance expert Walter Dornberger to build rockets for the military, Von Braun realized the possibilities opening up well beyond what his rocket club could accomplish with it's meager resources. While weathering the various funding and priority crises, Von Braun's team steadily elevated the rocket from a firework to a large vehicle. In 1943 the A-4 rocket, later known as the V-2, became the first machine to touch the edge of space. Although this weapon appeared too late to alter the fate of Germany in the second world war, the implications of this technology were realized by the victorious superpowers. Von Braun's team deliberately surrendered to America, where they sensed they had the best chance of continuing their rocket development. When John F. Kennedy decided to send Americans to the Moon, Von Braun and his talented team were among the core group which developed the massive Saturn rockets which made the voyages possible. In two episodes of opportunity and development a continent and generation apart essentially the same team was able to seize the opportunity to realize the dream of making it possible to visit another world.



23. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)-From ancient times until 1844, when the the telegraph invented by by Samuel Morse first transmitted news, the fastest that detailed information could travel was achieved with carefully managed horsemen carrying pouches of documents to fresh teams of horses and riders. The news of the death of Nero was able to be carried in this fashion a then amazing 200 miles a day from Rome to Spain. The apex of this art was reached by the American 'Pony Express' which routinely matched that speed, indeed once achieving a record of 255 miles a day. After running (at a deficit) for 18 months the completion of the telegraph line along that route on October 24, 1871 was a landmark in the history of distribution of information. Technology for allowing mass communication was becoming practical early in the 20th century, springing from the pioneering work of people like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Alva Edison, Jagdish Chandra Bose and and many others. As early as 1896 Alexander Popov demonstrated the transmission of radio waves across the campus of the St. Petersburg Physical Society. Practical breakthroughs in radio broadcasting were accomplished in 1896 by Marconi starting with relatively short range transmissions of a few kilometers, culminating in the first trans-Atlantic radio signals by early 1902, with regular news broadcasts crossing the Atlantic next year. A highlight of 1903 was the sending of the first radio message between U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Edward VII Wettin, King of England by Marconi using his radio station near Wellfleet, MA. World War I caused the shutting down of developments in entertainment based radio, but afterwards Marconi pioneered the use of wireless commercial broadcasting in 1922. Within several years radio would be familiar to millions, with voice broadcasts of immediate importance traveling further and faster than printed media. Marconi cast the first strands of the web of mass communication which was to lead to millions of people being aware of events instantaneously. The speed the spoken word could travel had become that of light itself.

24. Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906-1971)- As with radio, numerous people conceived and tinkered with the idea of transmitting live images over the airwaves. As early as 1885 the first patents for transmitting images were filed by a young German genius named Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, who conceived of using a spinning perforated disk to scan and display images. The 1897 invention of the Cathode Ray Tube by German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun laid the foundation for visual displays for x-ray machines, radar detectors, and finally television. The word 'Television' was first used by the Russian lecturer Constantin Perskyi at the Paris International Worlds Fair on August 25, 1900. Other Russians were prominent in developments of early television using electronic means, whose compact size and inherent versatility would assure its eventual triumph over the ungainly 'mechanical' disk scanning system, as developed by John Baird and Charles Jenkins from the late 1920's to early 1930's. The earliest 'aired' image using a mechanical scan disk TV system was a 1929 broadcast of a small statue of cartoon character 'Felix the Cat' which was glued to a rotating record turntable. Philo T. Farnsworth, a genius emerging from a Mormon family in rural Idaho, first drew up designs for electronic television technology in 1920 at age 14! Farnsworth had a working prototype in his San Francisco laboratory by Autumn 1927. Farnsworth was the first person to form and manipulate an electron beam. On September 27 1927 the first electronic television picture was shown of an opaque line painted on a glass slide placed before the hand built camera. Rotating the slide resulted in the line instantaneously rotating in kind on a small phosphorescent screen, improvised from a flat bottomed conical Erlenmeyer flask, in an adjoining darkened room. The first moving subject is said to be of a wisp of cigarette smoke drifting within the field of view. Vladimir Zworykin, Russian television pioneer, also made important conceptual and practical leaps in his own work to bring about television, but his efforts did not produce functioning hardware until 1933. RCA President David Sarnoff's efforts to buy Farnsworths patents were rebuffed, and Sarnoff applied the pressure of his RCA corporation against Farnsworth's efforts to work with the competing Philco company. A protracted legal battle between Sarnoff and Farnsworth over the ownership of the patent for electronic television eventually led to a victory for Philo, but but at a terrible personal cost to the inventor of electronic television. A mysterious fire which destroyed his lab and notes led to a long sad decline into depression and drink. Television as we know it owes its existence to this energetic and tragic figure. Interestingly, the only appearance of Farnsworth on the medium he invented was as a guest in the television game show 'What's My Line'. Late in his life Farnsworth was greatly disappointed in how the medium he helped invent was being used, with the constructive uses he had foreseen largely unrealized. As Philo and his wife Pem watched the Apollo 11 moon walk, some measure of the potential greatness of the medium must have stirred within him. Although showing live events continues as a prominent and occasionally informative use of TV, most uses of the ability to provide mass shared experiences is squandered on sporting events, carefully censored and selectively highlighted news, and appeals to any human instinct which can be stimulated to sell myriads of products. The sheer quantity of varied entertainment produced in the commercial and ratings driven television industry has helped to diminish the amount of reading, of critical thinking, and indeed the amount of conversation among people.

25. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1901?-1989) He championed a 'Shi'i ' Islamic creed whose medieval ideals and lifestyle as he preached them contrasted startlingly with the overall trends toward progress in Human affairs. Many Islamic fundamentalist believers, dismayed by the Western influences 'polluting' their region, became fanatical allies and followers of his cause. Traditional Persian potential for provoked ferocity, which even the Roman legions feared, was manifested in extremely intense Shi'i religious movements whose fire could not be quenched by the despotic Shah of Iran, only contained. Exiled from the Iranian 'holy city' of Qom after agitating against land reform and women's emancipation initiatives by the Shah, Khomeini went into exile in Turkey, Iraq, and finally France. Khomeini assumed the high religious title 'Ayatollah' and distributed mass copied audio cassettes disguised as music to be smuggled into Iran promoting religion and revolution. Although the Shah, backed by American intervention in Iranian politics, was sympathetic to the virtues of modern life he ruled with an iron hand. Fierce clashes with a rising Islamic Fundamentalist led revolution created walls of dead bodies in the streets. Seizing the opportunity as the Shah was dying of cancer in the U.S., Khomeini began an Islamic revolution which swept the country in a wave of murderous terror. Women were cast from schools, law books were replaced by Islamic texts, and all Western influences were ruthlessly suppressed. With Khomeini's support a frenzied mob attacked the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, taking 55 hostages. President Carter allowed the situation to drag on until an inadequate rescue mission was launched, small enough for a collision between two aircraft during a blinding dust storm to cause a general retreat. The burned bodies of U.S. servicemen left behind were put on public display by the Iranian government. During this time America was provoked into many demonstrations of rage against Iran in graffiti, music and in print. A sense of enraged anguish in much of America influenced the U.S. elections, resulting in the election of actor turned conservative politician Ronald Reagan. As a final insult to President Jimmy Carter (or concern about the response of his successor) the hostages were released after 444 days of captivity, the day the new U.S.President was inaugurated. A war started in 1980 by Iraq had since became a personal vendetta between Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Recalling the horrors of of World War I trench warfare complete with poison gas, Iran and Iraq sent thousands of soldiers to die in attacks mounted with no regard to casualties.Thousands of women were worked into Islamic frenzy by Iranian clerics and sent to clear mine fields by stepping on and detonating them. During the war U.S. intelligence agencies provided Iraq with Iranian troop locations from satellite photographs of the battlefield which contributed to the deaths of uncountable thousands of Iranian soldiers. After 8 years the Iran-Iraq war ended, after a million deaths and innumerable wounded. Iran then focused on exporting Islamic revolution, giving support to supportive movements and persons across the Middle East. Networking was facilitated between malcontents who would later be instrumental in Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. He also issued 'Fatwa' death warrants for thousands of people, most prominently author Salmon Rushdie for writing a parody of Islam called 'The Satanic Verses'. The reign of Ayatollah Khomeini marked the first time the West heard defiant proclamations condemning 'Satan America' made by an Islamic government, and in the wild eyed self flagellating crowds widely televised during his reign we first beheld the face of fanatical Moslem hatred of the West. Later revolutionary Islamic movements and some terrorist organizations were emboldened by the precedent set by Ayatollah Khomeini, particularly Osama Bin Laden. As the West and Fundamentalist Islam confront each other, the spirit of Ayatollah Khomeini stands tall among the heroes of the weapon waving hoards.

26. David Sarnoff (1891-1971)- Figuratively standing on the shoulders of (and occasionally stepping on) giants, this visionary businessman sought and promoted the widespread use of first sound then visual mass media. A Russian immigrant, Sarnoff learned English by reading discarded newspapers, soon this upcoming 'media mogul' had his own news stand. While working for the American Marconi Company he was one of the wireless radio operators relaying reports of the sinking of the Titanic. After the Marconi company was sold to General Electric in 1919, Sarnoff moved to the newborn Radio Corporation of America, which purchased New York radio station WEAF in 1926 initiating the National Broadcast Company, NBC. Even as he was consolidating his radio empire, becoming president of RCA in 1930, he saw the potential for television broadcasting and sought out experts in the infant field, most notably Russian television pioneer Vladimir Zworykin. Vital patents belonging to Philo T. Farnsworth were not for outright sale so Sarnoff spent years and millions of dollars rather than pay royalties to Farnsworth. Vladimir Zworykin did much to advance the early art of television technology, particularly in camera design, and went on to create other valuable inventions including an electron Microscope. His lengthy visit to Farnsworths' laboratory in April 1930 eventually led to suspicion that some of Zworykins' work for Sarnoff was being directed toward duplicating some aspects of Farnsworths' efforts. After protracted legal efforts to invalidate Farnsworths patents failed, arrangements were finally made in 1939 to pay him for his technology. The next battle for Sarnoff was over the broadcast standards for television, which raged for over five years. Sarnoff used his available 343 line television equipment to send to a few New York receivers the April 20, 1939 opening of the New York Worlds Fair. At the fair Franklin Roosevelt thus became the first President to appear on a TV broadcast (Herbert Hoover was seen in a 'closed circuit' scan disk TV transmission on April 7, 1927). Finally on March 8, 1941, after struggles for influence between RCA and other early movers in the infant television business, the Federal Communications Commissions National Television Standards Committee adopted a 525 line interlaced 30 frame per second video standard, known ever since by the initials NTSC. World War II caused an interruption of civilian television development similar to that of radio during the first World War. As the decade of the 1940's drew to a close television sets became a common sight in homes. Sarnoff intervened in the initial approval by the FCC of a high quality color television system developed by CBS, which was incompatible with the millions of existing black and white sets. This struggle between technical and commercial forces became in effect a battle of wills between Sarnoff, president of RCA-CBS and CBS Chairman William Paley. Various factors resulted in the 1953 adoption of a compromised but readily available color system which was compatible with existing NTSC standards, allowing a monochrome version of its image to be seen on black and white sets. The RCA influenced NTSC color video standard was adopted December 23, 1953 and is used to this day. For years until its evenmtual perfection the variable quality of NTSC television prompted TV engineers to state that NTSC stood for 'Never The Same Color'! It is considered likely that the efforts of Sarnoff advanced by several years the introduction of color television. Yet another legal battle, this one with old friend Edwin Howard Armstrong over the patents for FM radio, raged for years until Armstrong was driven to suicide in 1954. Upon the death of Sarnoff in 1970, his major role in the commercial development and growth of modern mass media was acknowledged in a lengthy obituary in the New York Times, referring to David Sarnoff as 'A man of astounding vision who was able to see with remarkable clarity the possibilities of harnessing the electron'.


Revised May 2009. More to come



 I'm running out of obvious choices at the moment, many more plainly deserve to be on such a list. I add some and reshuffle the names in importance occasionally. Many names missing here will occur to some, indeed such thought exercises are fun! Unlike most such lists in circulation, the only entertainers I would probably include, but low on such a top 100 list, would be the Beatles. They not only introduced the 'mass cultural event' rock concerts on a scale unheard of previously, they also were instrumental in the late 1960's counterculture youth movement.

  Such a list is in effect a look into the 'world view' of the author, so as I admit to my own inevitable bias I will at least try to account for it.



 Some of the Best and the Worst of the 20th Century


  The telegraph, invented by Samuel B. Morse in 1837, marked the beginning of virtually instantaneous world communication. Until shortly before that time news could travel little faster across most of the World than during Roman days, about 200 miles a day by teams of horses stationed along well maintained roads. The increased pace of communication and progress characterizing our age were greatly assisted by the introductions of the wireless telegraph by Marconi, and the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 19th Century. The 'turn of the century' inventions of Thomas Edison changed our lives and enriched our entertainment, although like Henry Ford his inventive period peaked in the late 1800's. The wall plugs in American homes and the 35mm film in our cameras are virtually the designs Edison introduced.
   With decreasing exceptions later inventions were developed by groups of people, at times working independently in different countries. Such can be said of the introduction of modern computers, smaller and more efficient electrical components, RADAR, television, large rockets, atomic weapons, and other devices which have affected our World. Mass transportation has also broadened the experiences available to many people, as have efforts to educate the populace. Maintaining a literate populace can never be taken for granted.

   Among the best inventions of the 20th Century are obviously the many medical advances in treating injury and disease and in regulating reproduction.
   A specific invention of massive importance is that of radio. In 1920 the first radio broadcasts brought President Warren Harding's election to the few sets then being assembled by hobbyists and radio soon became the first instantaneous commercial mass media. About that time the first commercially available sound recording devices became available, storing sounds on Edison designed wax cylinders. Soon 'platter' shaped records would take over, and recording media would steadily move from such platters to magnetic media, first using wire then magnetic tape.
   The ability to capture moving sequences 'in the field' is another great invention. Visual recording is a valuable means of promoting truthful albeit isolated accounts of events. During world war two thousands of 16 and 35 millimeter film cameras captured extraordinary scenes in vast battles, with aircraft 'gun camera' films catching critical moments for later analysis. Unfortunately the use of film for such recording has been discontinued, with poor and overwritten black and white video all historians studying air combat visual records will have to work with. Home video camera use will increasingly assure some record of extraordinary events.

  Film and video are thus among the most potent inventions of all time, with an eternal potential to illuminate at least implied even though these media are mostly used to attract mass paying audiences, propagandize, and otherwise occupy the attentions of the populace. For this reason television belongs both on the list of the greatest and the worst inventions of the 20th century. Because of television reading has alarmingly declined, and attention spans decimated.

   What especially comes to mind at first when considering the worst inventions of the 20th Century is the 1911 invention, by Issac Lewis, of a hand holdable machine gun. This marked the beginning of the era where one person could hold hundreds at bay.  In the days of Rome a high ratio of soldiers with swords and such were needed to keep masses of prisoners subdued. With firearms and later tripod mounted machine guns larger masses could be herded about, but the handheld machine gun prominently featured in some of the most tragic episodes of human history, on and off the battlefield. Mines are another invention we should have left on the drawing board.
   Atomic bombs seem like another obvious choice as a bad invention, and it would be irresistible for us to wish them away with the wave of a hand. We have the luxury of living in a time deemed more enlightened than the world of the early 1940s, yet the prevailing ideas of the time of their invention should be accounted for while discussing their origin. The atomic bomb development program was a response by the British and American militaries to make sure Germany did not develop one first. The specter of Adolf Hitler with nuclear weapons loomed as Albert Einstein signed the fateful letter to FDR urging the development of such a weapon. Soon the United States became the center of atomic weapons research, and by the time 'The Bomb' was ready no one else was close to having one. Germany had been defeated and Japan was fighting a bitter and costly war of attrition against Allied forces closing in on the home islands, each advancing step wading through deeper pools of blood. Most of the American people wanted the Emperor of Japan taken out and hung. The removal of the Emperor was among the items insisted upon as part of Japan's surrender terms, something totally unacceptable to Japan. The fanatical resistance in Okinawa was so costly to American forces that an extrapolation of what was likely to occur during the planned invasion of the Main Islands loomed ominously. It may have been that such an invasion, in which Tokyo itself would be ultimately seized, would amount to the kind of decimating of an entire generation of young men such as France had suffered during world war one. This was the dominant reason for the use of 'The Bomb'. Although there were justifiable qualms expressed over the atomic bombings, it probably took something that dramatic to force the more fanatical elements in the Japanese government to agree to a surrender to the Allies, and there is little doubt they would have used such a weapon against America if they had the chance. In the end the concession was made to allow Japan to keep it's Emperor. The strategic eyes of the U.S. were also on Stalin as a potential adversary, and such a demonstration of sheer power was intended for him as well. The use of atomic weapons was first regarded as an alternate means to do with one plane what hundreds were sent to accomplish, such as in the case of the Great Fire Raid of March 8-9, 1945, which in a massive incendiendry raid on Tokyo started the worst fire ever suffered in the history of the human race.

The detonation of the two atomic bombs in the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the largest war in history, and the conclusion of the crusades of beating Hitler and defeating Japan were accompanied by the stark images of bleached plains of flattened rubble and burned civilians.  Now Japan is so thoroughly changed one cannot imagine the past which is dying with those who remember it. The Germany of today also makes the Hitler era look very distant. We are in a different time and better realities are being forged by those reared in this new world. Perhaps as the 2000's begin one would hope for a worldwide sense of starting anew rather than avenging the past.


Don Davis

Palm Springs, California