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Motorized Transportation, Radio Transmission, Tractors Turn North Carolina Into Technological Haven

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RALEIGH — Think back to the days before computers could fit in the palm of your hand, before the magic of movies filled the big screen, before the Wright brothers made history near Kitty Hawk. Most North Carolinians were less concerned with advances in technology and more concerned with making a living.

"You have to think of North Carolina in the early 20th century as almost being the Mexico of the late 20th century," says Charles LeCount, chief curator of the N.C. Museum of History. "Labor was cheap. Unions were almost non-existent in the South. This was a fertile place for industry to move and make profits."

New textile mills offered more jobs for North Carolinians. Machine technology, leftover from the 19th Century, turned Tarheel cotton into clothing for the world.

Inventing and making the machinery was still a job done in northern states. "The factories were not here. The knowledge was not here, and the money was not here to do that," LeCount says.

Assembly lines in Detroit cranked out new Model-T Fords. It was a car many North Carolinians could afford and it changed life on Tobacco Road.

"We went from just a little over 3,000 automobiles in North Carolina in 1910 to more than 100,000 by 1920," says museum curator Leslie Kessler.

Motorized transportation made the world a bit smaller and made distant places more accessible. Radio put the world inside a box.

"Suddenly, having a radio in your house and access to news, to entertainment, to company if you were doing work at home by yourself, was just a big exciting development," Kessler says.

WBT in Charlotte was the first commercial radio station in the state, turning on their transmitter in 1921. Their signal covered territory that was still mostly farm land where work was still relatively unaffected by new invention.

Though tractors were available to replace mule-driven plows as early as the '20s, the advancement was slow to take hold among farmers in North Carolina.

"World War II was the real impetus to having tractors on the farm. They were becoming cheaper, men were leaving home to go fight overseas, and labor was still needed on farms, and tractors were there to produce that source of power," LeCount says.

Through the years, technology turned North Carolina farms more productive, businesses more efficient, and life at home more enjoyable. Wilbur and Orville would hardly recognize the place.

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Rick Armstrong, Reporter
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