Time and again between the 1890s and 1930s new technologies were hailed as stupefying ‘modern wonders’. This article uses a wide range of texts and pictorial images that disseminated knowledge about technology among technological laypersons at the time to examine the role of ambivalence in public debates about aviation, passenger shipping, and film. Expressing amazement at these (and other) technological innovations, the widespread formula of the ‘modern miracle’ testified to the enthusiasm and the anxiety generated by the innovations: although admiring recent inventions, most contemporaries simultaneously found them beyond their comprehension and thus a worrying source of uncertainty. Public debate lent expression to a highly specific form of ambivalence that gave voice to unease without endangering the acceptance of further transformation because the rhetoric of the ‘modern wonder’ prevented insecurities from developing into outright technophobia. Rational demeanour, it was argued, enabled Europeans to face novel objects with composure. Moreover, public debate not only built trust by emphasizing the links between science and technology to demonstrate technology's rational foundations, it also pointed out that technological development was part of a history of continuing European progress ‐ and this despite the slaughter of the First World War. The rhetoric of the ‘modern wonder’ formulated ambivalence in public debate while simultaneously launching a variety of arguments meant to counteract uncertain evaluations of innovation. Thus, this trope allowed contemporary discussions to embrace technological change while at the same time registering anxiety.
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