Technological innovations of the late 19th century transformed the American entertainment industry and increased the privatization of American life. Today, Americans experience more entertainment in their home rather than in public movie theaters and concert halls. Technological changes in instrument design have transformed more than just the entertainment mediums; they have changed the way people interact with each other.

Americans embraced the radio and especially the television at an unprecedented rate. In the 1920s, a culture that had previously emphasized communal participation in piano-based live entertainment now turned to the phonograph and the radio, which created passive listeners. The broadcasting power of radio also intensified the possibilities of mass culture, as stations across the country sent public events, from political rallies to sporting competitions and vaudeville shows, into the private homes of millions. When Texas Instruments put the transistor inside the Regency TR1 pocket-sized radio in 1954, entertainment became even more personal. Radio now fit into the pocket of American teenagers eager to listen to rock and roll on the go.

Television intensified the trend that began with radio, as it reinforced the culture of social isolationism in home entertainment. The advent of nationally broadcast television shows in the 1960s emphasized a normative culture across America, although they sometimes exacerbated the country’s deep racial, class and gender divisions.

Today, the top-down economic business model of the entertainment industry has given way to the more democratic DIY entertainment option. In 2001, the iPod’s ability to store lots of music in a relatively small device revolutionized the music industry. Now consumers control how and when they listen to music by utilizing electronic media. Since home entertainment systems have become more affordable, pay services such as Internet access and on-demand cable television provide both entertainment and communication for the majority of American households at a cost of $1,000 a year per person. As more Americans opt to stay home, movie theaters across the country have closed. Technological and stylistic changes such as IMAX, digital images, and social media have forced directors, cinematographers, producers and actors to reinvent their craft. Social media also offers cheaper and faster outlets for marketing greater musical diversity.

Science & U!: Science, Technology and the Internet

Learn More

  1. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  A history of television written by the FCC.
  2. The History Channel.  The History Channel's web page on broadcast media.
  3. Television history, the first 75 years. This website tracks the how television set design changed between 1928 and 2000.
  4. The Early Television Museum.  Website of the Early Television Foundation, which is devoted to preserving television technology from the 1920s to the 1950s.
  5. National Capital Radio and Television Museum.  This museum preserves artifacts and documents related to the development of electronic media.  Its exhibits seek to display the connection of electronic media to larger culture.