Were there health scares caused by new technology in the past?

Modern newspapers often report scientific studies that suggest children watch too much TV, or our gadgets are making us obese. But this anxious hand-wringing is nothing new.

Were there health scares caused by new technology in the past? (public domain)

The 19th century witnessed several health scares associated with new technologies. In the late 1820s, with the arrival of the passenger train, some doctors warned that speeds of 20mph would cause brain damage and the vibrations would shake people insensible.

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It was also suggested that herds of dairy cattle would be terrified by the noise, and so their milk would curdle in their udders.

Later that century, when women took up the new hobby of cycling, a handful of (male) doctors claimed the exertion of pedaling led to ugly ‘bicycle face’, in which the muscles permanently froze in an unladylike gurn. With modern eyes, it’s hard not to see this as deliberate scaremongering to keep women confined to the home.

A more widely-held techno-fear came from 1870s America, when neurologist Dr George Miller Beard claimed the pace of the modern world, accelerated by the electrical telegraph, was causing debilitating mental exhaustion. He labelled the condition Neurasthenia.

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This so-called ‘Americanitis’ remained a recognised medical condition for decades.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of History Revealed and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner.