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April 12, 2006

The Century of Maximum Change

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Sharpen your swords, history fans. I'm about to stick my neck out.

From time to time I stumble across articles by technology-oriented writers claiming that we're living in an era of profound, unprecedented technological change. And their claim usually hinges on the emergence of the computer.

Gimme a break.

I'll concede that in certain areas such as biology and medicine, changes over the past few decades have been more profound than at any time in history. And true, computers have made important changes in details of our daily lives.

But in those daily life terms, the greatest changes happened quite a while ago.

Take my grandfather (1869-1963). When he was growing up there were no airplanes or automobiles, no radio, no television. Intercity travel was by steam train. Telegraph was the main medium of rapid communication over long distances.

Yet in the year or two before he died he was in front of a TV set watching astronauts being launched into space. And taking it all in stride.

(He was not highly-educated by today's standards, having made it through the eighth grade -- a fairly common attainment in the 1880s. Yet he adjusted to the introduction of cars, telephones, radio, TV and so forth. So I'm skeptical when pundits suggest that common folk are flummoxed by change.)

But my grandfather got in on only part of the era of greatest quotidian change.

When was that?

Let me play the round-numbers game and propose a century as our measurement unit. Not a calendar century, but a 100-year period. I propose 1825-1925 as the century where everyday life changed the most.

The year 1825 is my starting point because that was when the first true railroad began service, in England, using George Stephenson's steam locomotive. Railroads revolutionized intercity travel, which previously was limited to the speed of a horse. About 20 years later the telegraph entered service, raising the speed of long-distance communication well in the direction of the speed of light.

Before 1825, travel on land was usually by horse or horse-drawn vehicles: otherwise, one walked. The most rapid form of communication was by semaphore systems, and these were government operations in only a few places; nearly everyone had to rely on mail carried by express rider, on stage coaches or on ships. Houses were lit by flame lamps. Cooking was done using flame. If there was refrigeration at all, cooling was done using blocks of ice cut during wintertime and preserved in ice-houses.

In 1925 one might travel via subway, railroad, streetcar, automobile, airplane or steamships driven by turbine engines. Means of rapid communication were the telegraph, telephone and radio; television was still in its early experimental stage. Houses were lit by electric lights and refrigerators were coming into general use as were kitchen appliances.

Urban American lifestyle in 1925 was much closer to that of 2005 than of 1825.

Can you name a 100-year period where daily life changed more?



posted by Donald at April 12, 2006


You're referring to people like us, right?

For the Blackfeet (who still live where they were in 1776) life changed enormously when whites showed up. But it was the addition of horses and guns that really made the difference at first -- right about 1776. The change was extreme and immediate, because their tribal structure was organized around dogs in a way that allowed horses to become "superdogs" -- everything could be done pretty much the same way, but with a huge increase in power, swiftness, and effectiveness. There is a theory about how a thing that is simply increased in dimension will at some point become a different in kind, but there wasn't really time for that before the railroad and cavalry were upon them. The first Blackfeet treaty was signed about 1850 (congress never bothered to ratify it) and the buffalo were gone by 1876 -- THAT was the real change. Without buffalo, they couldn't be themselves -- at least not in the old way.

So for them -- 1776 to 1876 turned the world upside down.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 12, 2006 8:42 PM

The period of Industrial Revolution was the major change is almost any setting, whether than was the 18th c. (England), 19th c. (the US), early 20th c (Italy, for instance) or the present (China, among others). The shift from subsistence agriculture to integration into an economy with cities, division of labor and the ability to consume products beyond what one makes oneself is enormous.

That said, I do agree that the 1825-1925 difference in the US is far larger than 1925-2025 (assuming rates of change similar to what we've seen over the last few decades).

Posted by: cure on April 12, 2006 9:21 PM

This was written in 2002:

The year 1902 was only one hundred years ago…what a difference a century makes.
1. The average life expectancy in the US was 47 years.
2. Only 14% of the homes in the US had a bathtub.
3. Only 8% of homes had a telephone. A 3 minute call from Denver to NYC cost $11.00!
4. There were only 8000 cars in the US and only 144 miles of paved roads.
5. The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
6. Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California. With a mere 1.4 million residents, California was only the 21st most populous state in the Union.
7. The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower in France.
8. The average wage in the US was 22 cents an hour.
9. The average US worker made between $200 and $400 a year.
10. A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 a year, a veterinarian between $1500 and $4000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5000 a year.
11. More than 95% of all births in the US took place at home.
12. 90% of all US physicians had no college education. Instead, they attended medical school, many of which were condemned in the press and by the govt. as “substandard.”
13. Sugar cost 4 cents a pound. Eggs were 14 cents a dozen.
14. Coffee cost 15 cents a pound.
15. Most women washed their hair only once a month and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
16. The five leading causes of death in the US were:
Pneumonia and Influenza
Heart disease
17. The American flag had 45 stars. Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Alaska hadn’t been admitted to the Union yet.
18. The population of Las Vegas, Nevada, was 30.
19. Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
20. There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
21. One in ten US adults could not read or write.
22. Only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.
23. Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter in corner drug stores. According to one pharmacist, “heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and the bowels, and is in fact a perfect guardian of health.”
24. 18% of all households in the US had at least one full-time servant or domestic.
25. There were about 230 reported murders in the entire US.

What a difference 100 years makes, Huh?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 12, 2006 9:55 PM

On a quick analysis, I would be closer to Donald. 1825-1925. Donald didn't even mention the political changes. 5000 years of feudalism and oligarchies was rapidly approaching its end. I am not sure I can think of a more interesting historical change than the enfranchisement of peasants/workers and women. Inconceivable for millenia, anywhere in the world.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 12, 2006 10:08 PM

I've occassionally thought along similar lines -- that the period between 1825 and 1925 was the era of history with the most significant changes -- particularly since becoming acquainted with the story of the Old Merchant's House (a/k/a the Seabury Treadwell House) on E. Fourth (?) St., which is a small house museum that is located along the route of a Greenwich Village walking tour I used to do for the MAS. (I believe Francis use to do the same walking tour for the MAS a few years later.)

I forget the exact details, but the story of the house is loosely something like this:

Elizabeth Treadwell (correct name?) was born in the house (1835?) shortly after it was built (about 1830?). At that time the neighborhood was being transformed from farmland into a neighborhood of grand row houses for New York's elite (like the Astors).

Elizabeth Treadwell never married (her life is supposed to be one of the inspirations for the novel "Washington Sq.") and lived in the house until she died at a very advanced age -- I believe she lived into her 90s.

So let's say she lived there from 1835 to 1925. Imagine the changes she saw and experienced!

Her immediate neighborhood changed dramatically, from brand new "suburb," to "old money" residential, to high class business, to a backwater district of small factories and sweat shops (with the nearby skid row of the Bowery just steps away). (There are some great New York "then and now" photos that show the dramatic differences between 1860 and 1970, or so.)

NYC itself changed from just another "new" America city to one of the world's great cities -- a metropolis of five counties and about 7(?) million people. A city united by steam ferries, electric trolleys, automobiles, great bridges and underground/above ground electric trains.

When the house was built it was, in some ways, little different from houses built hundreds (thousands?) of years earlier. Rooms were lit by candles (?) and heated by fireplaces. There was no indoor plumbing.

Over the years the lighting system changed from candles (?), to oil lamps (or maybe it was oil lamps to begin with?), to gas lamps, to electric lights.

New fangled Indoor plumbing -- eventually(?) with automatically heated water -- probably replaced cisterns, outdoor pumps, bed pans and an outhouse in the 1840s (?) or so. Somewhere along the line they probably got an ice box with regularly scheduled delivery of ice, and then a refrigerator, and they switched from cooking in the fireplace, or on the relatively recently invented Franklin stove, to cooking on a gas range. Laundry was probably originally done by servants on a washboard, but eventually was probably done in a washing machine.

Elizabeth Treadwell lived to see the development/introduction of gas lit streets, the horse drawn omnibus (maybe it was introduced just shortly before she was born?), street railways (originally horse drawn, then powered by cable and then by electricity), intercity railroads, elevated trains, anesthesia, asprin, penicillan (?), the photograph, the telegraph, "mass produced" pianos and sheet music, home sewing machines, the development of shorthand, typewriters, elevators, skyscrapers,the telphone, mass produced clothers, the automobile, the bus, the record player, electric street lighting, the home washing machine, the refrigerator, giant ocean liners ("when does this place get to England?"), commerical radio (or at least the beginning of commerical radio), movies and movie palaces, the airplane, etc.

Hint to some actress looking to write herself a tour de force, one-woman show: Elizabeth Treadwell.

Hint to Francis: What a great movie -- or PBS type special -- that house would make!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 12, 2006 10:39 PM

P.S. -- I forgot to mention the change from wooden sailing ships to steam-powered paddle wheelers to turbine driven, steel ships with scew propellers.

Plus, originally ships left only when they were fully booked. I forget when ships began regularly scheduled service, but I suspect it was sometime during the period in question.

Also forgot to mention the rise of the great metropolitan deparment stores, something one assumes would have figured significantly in the life of Elisabeth Treadwell, especially since one of the grandest -- the great, city block-sized, cast-iron A.T. Stewart store -- "invaded" her neighborhood in the 1860s(?). And then in the early 20th Century (1915?), when she was in her eighties(?), it was transformed into the world's largest store, when it was taken over by Wannamaker's and greatly expanded with the addition of a much, much larger Daniel Burnham-designed structure (a city block in size and sixteen stories?! tall) across the street. (It's still there and houses a small K-Mart which occupies only parts of the first two floors and basement.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 12, 2006 11:03 PM

In the book The Victorian Internet, which I read a few years back, the author Tom Standage made a pretty good case for the fact that the telegraph is really what divided history into two halves as far as communications were concerned. In other words, everything changed when it was invented. The telephone, radio, television and the Internet were just refinements on the theme

Posted by: Peter on April 12, 2006 11:40 PM

Reminds me of that Disney World/Land attraction "The Carousel of Progress" which chronicled the life of a man and his family from the turn of the 20th century into the near future.

I would agree with the idea that 1825-1925 was the century of rapid change. Perhaps tweak the dates somewhat, but who knows. We got down the parameters of transport, electrification, industrialization, communications. What else can we include?

1825-1925 could be a good overall century, but perhaps we can parse it to specific sectors such as which 100-year period saw the most significant change in medicine or communications. Then we may have some varying 100-year periods in which we can average them into, or find the overlap between most of them and declare THAT span of time to be the most rollicking time to live in.

From my perspective (born in 1985), the most significant thing to change my daily life would be the advent of the WWW. I guess that is small change compared to the past.

Posted by: Andrew Yen on April 13, 2006 1:26 AM

The advent of American microbrews (just prior to high school) has changed my life, giving me opportunities, never dreamt of by my father, for getting smashed while being a snob.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 13, 2006 5:51 AM

Has the pace of change in popular culture and music and clothing styles slowed down over the last few decades? I watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off the other day, noticed it was made in 1986, and noticed that the clothing and hair styles were pretty close to what they are today. But to watch a movie in 1986 that was made in 1966, you'd notice a big change.

The Rolling Stones played the Super Bowl in 2006, forty years after the peak of their popularity in 1966. Forty years prior to 1966 was 1926. Can you imagine an act popular in 1926 still drawing the attention of young people in 1966?

Posted by: Bill on April 13, 2006 8:44 AM

My great-great-grandfather Burrell Griffin was born in 1819 and died in 1912. It boggles my mind when I think what his life encompassed, whether he directly experienced all of it or not. Consider that in his lifetime the following people lived: Napoleon, Beethoven, Canova, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, Monet, Tolstoy, Wagner, Brahms, Thomas Edison, Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Victoria and Teddy Roosevelt. He experienced the beginning of railroads, the British Empire, emergence of modern medicine, airplanes, telephones, silent movies and automobiles. By the time he died, the world he had been born into must have seemed like a fantastic dream.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 13, 2006 9:23 AM

I guess I'm not the only one that sees it.

Let's call the phenomenon by its right name:

Technological stagnation

Now what are the causes of this trouble and what can be done to solve it?

I'd say government controls on just about everything are slowing down our progress. You'll note that the least-regulated industry, and the one in which buyers, sellers, worker, and entrepreneurs need no one's permission, approval, or favor to do their thing, is also the one in which technological advancement is by far the fastest. The computer industry is exhibiting the rapid change people used to expect from every industry.

Posted by: Ken on April 13, 2006 10:26 AM

Whenever I find myself amazed 'n' overwhelmed by the pace of change, I think about my grandparents. When they were born, there were no automobiles. By the time they died (most of them around 1970) humans had landed on the moon. Now that's some fast change.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2006 10:39 AM

And that is why you should visit with your grandparents and old folks. They lived the history you can only read about.

One of my grandfathers, born in 1890, had three mothers and two sets of half siblings. Not because of divorce, but because of disease and death in childbirth.

Posted by: Jg on April 13, 2006 11:53 AM

Really neat essay, Donald!
In the last decade of my father's life -- He died two years ago, at the age of 95 -- he often spoke of the changes he'd seen. Most of which he celebrated. He was very fond of cars, trains & planes, and often said that the world had seemed much smaller when he was young. And a farm in Illinois had been a much more isolated place.
Going back to 1825 - 1925 catches most of the things that most impressed my father and adds others that are equally important.
But you didn't mention DENTAL ANESTHETICS in your list of changes. My father would've insisted on the importance of that one. He'd had teeth drilled and pulled without anesthetics and the experience made a big impression.
But I suspect that the computer -- especially the Internet -- are making a bigger difference than your essay suggests. Immense amounts of information are becoming freely available to everyone, and I think that this is going to make a huge improvement in human life.
You guys have a great site.
Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Notary on April 13, 2006 12:50 PM

I'd like to mention another immensely important change for the better which occurred in your chosen century.
In 1870, a child born in Chicago had about a 50% chance of living til the age of 5.
Today the odds are better than 98%.

Posted by: Notary on April 13, 2006 1:19 PM

Good post, I agree that the pace of social change in the industrial revolution dwarfs what we see today. But I'd pick 1860-1960 as my "industrial revolution" century. By 1960, our world was astoundingly similar to what we have today. But many things we have today were still somewhat experimental in 1925. The period 1925-1960 was the period where the great industrial revolution inventions in transport, energy, and communications fully integrated into routine daily life.

Posted by: MQ on April 13, 2006 2:51 PM

If you don't mind taking a recommendation from an illiterate dolt who left school at sixteen, you could try reading Paul Johnson's The Birth of The Modern. He makes a fairly compelling case for the years 1815 - 30 being the period in which modern society was formed.
Or at least, that's when most of the changes occurred that led to modern society.
I am not well enough informed to have a firm opinion on the matter.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on April 13, 2006 4:05 PM

I got a chance to check some books so, for the record, here are some corrections to my previous posts:

The woman who lived her whole life in the Old Merchant's House was named Gertrude Treadwell, not Elizabeth. She lived to be 93 and was born in 1840 (not 1835), and died in 1933 (not 1925).

So she misses the "century of maximum change" by a few years, but she does come pretty close -- especially when one remembers that inventions/developments usually take a while to actually become a factor in daily life. (And in the early days, too, NYC was something of a provincial city and not the center of technology and new developments the way it was during its heyday.)

The house was built between 1831 and 1833, and someone from the Treadwell family lived in it from 1835 to 1933. (I believe about two years after Gertrude's death it was purchased by a distant cousin in order to preserve it as a house musuem.)

Also, the 15-story Wannamaker's "Annex" was built in 1903 (not 1915) when Gertrude was 63 years old.

- - - - - -

P.S. -- Like Bill, above, I'm also interested in the fact that the differences in popular culture between 1926 and 1966 are apparently much, much greater than the differences in popular culture between 1966 and 2006.

I suspect that the differences between 1886 and 1926 might also be unusually striking, and I guess this is why the 1920s and the 1960s are cited as cultural watersheds.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 13, 2006 4:48 PM

The recent slowdown in perceived change is as fascinating in many ways as the changes themselves. The slowdown seems to have started in about 1920, by which time the basis of most modern developments, from TVs to spaceships to computers, was in place. 1920. The year women were first eligible to vote in national elections. Coincidence?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 14, 2006 10:22 AM

That was a wonderful post. Two Comments:
My mother was born in 1900 & lived until 1998. I will never forget the last time I took her out for a summer drive. In extreme age, she had little idea of the past & never mentioned it. However that sunny hot day, out of the blue, she said, "How nice this is. The edges of the roads used to be SO DUSTY."
Re the slowdown in change: I have always felt the difference between my mother's youth in the early decades of the 20th century & mine spang in midcentury varied hugely more than mine & my kids', youthful in the 70s-80s. However, I intuit that the gap beween them & their kids is going to be much greater again -- so much information available, everything virtual etc.

Posted by: Susan on April 14, 2006 11:52 AM

Mary -- The Blackfeet experienced change from exogenous sources whereas change in the (cultural) West came from within.

cure -- Yes, economic factors mediate the technological impact and yield differing timelines. In the case of the USA, we were pretty much in the forefront in both dimensions.

Winnifer -- And given current life expectanies, the average person will experience 75-80 years or so of a century of change (be it fast or slow -- later comments get into the pace issue).

Benjamin -- Yep, it's easy to forget that New York was remarkably different (and grossly smaller) before the post-Civil War era when it began to assume its present form. Well, that's how I tend to picture it.

Peter -- Good point. Though unless one had access to a telegraph line, had the proper equipment and spoke Morse (as my grandfather did), telegraphed info had to be mediated via another medium such as a printed bulletin or newspaper. Radio, TV, telephony, etc. communicate directly to the populace.

Andrew -- Yes, the Web (plus personal computers) makes many things amazingly easier to do than previously. Nowadays I can Google to locate small bits of info that would have required a trip to a library back in 1980, say. But it's still fairly small-beer compared to the change from horses and carriages to automobiles or from letter via post to long-distance telephone. Plus, the Web still largely affects folks like us who are in the information trade to one degree or another. If I can use The Fiancee as an example, the Internet affects her mostly due to e-mail, which vastly speeds up written communication. Except (sigh) she only checks e-mail once or twice a week at best, so the advantage is negated.

Bill -- Interesting points. I suspect the clothing style thing might be due to the fact that fashions don't change in lock-step as they did before perhaps 1970. Much more variation is tolerated now, so it's harder to pinpoint eras from viewing clothing as a marker (thankfully, the leisure suit saw its brief day and is gone). Hairstyles and eyeglass frame styles are still helpful, I think. But we're talking fashion, not fundamental changes.

As for entertainment, for what it's worth, back in the 50s TV variety shows trotted out elderly stars from the 20s such as Sophie Tucker ("last of the red hot mamas") and Mae West, not to mention Eddie Cantor.

Charlton -- And we can claim Bill Clinton, Strom Thermond, Jacques Chirac, Richard Nixon, Jacquelin Susanne, ..., etc., etc.

Well, maybe the 19th century had its share of losers too, and they're happily forgotten.

Ken -- This reminds me that the Feds established something with a name like Office of Technological Assessment back in the early 70s when the enviro-fear thing was building up steam. I've heard nothing about this for years, so I have to assume that at least that gummint screwup actually got deep-sixed. Imagine a bunch of bureaucrats swivelling on their plush office chairs predicting the next few decades' worth of technology and then deciding which aspects were harmful or okay!!

Michael -- Exactly my point. My life thus far hasn't seen such profound change in daily existence.

Jg -- Right.

Notary -- For some reason, my father (1908-93) didn't take novacaine at the dentist's because he feared the needle more than the drill. I always that that was insane.

MQ -- You have a point. By 1860 the stream of inventions starting in 1825 were becoming part of the general environment -- plenty of RR lines, telegraph lines, etc. in place. But I was trying to pick a time just before this happened to establish the contrast. Maybe 1840 would still work as a "before" date if we play the 100-year game.

Dirk -- I started to read Johnson's book but never finished it (normally I read the whole thing when he writes) so I never fully understood his case. For some reason I don't understand, the period 1820-1860 never much interested me historically with respect to Europe, America, or anywhere else. (My best guess why is that I tend to use wars as entry-points when studying history and 1820-60 lacked major conflicts.)

Robert -- I think it's a coincidence -- a byproduct of modernism in general and not something causal.

Susan -- Could be. One never knows about the future. But from his recent posts, M Blowhard has doubts that such changes are for the good.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 14, 2006 2:14 PM

"[Paul Johnson] makes a fairly compelling case for the years 1815 - 30 being the period in which modern society was formed."

Funny, Jonathan Hale, in The Old Way of Seeing, suggests 1830 as the year when the life began to drain out of architecture. Something to do with a change from seeing buildings and townscapes in terms of form and proportion to seeing them as collections of icons. Hales links this shift to general social changes associated with industrialisation, the increased dominance of financial interests, the decline local identities, and increased moralism and regimentation. I've re-read his book with pleasure several times, but have never quite decided if he's on to something or is just stringing together Romantic tropes that I am particularly susceptible to.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on April 14, 2006 3:01 PM

Great minds, etc -- I've got "The Old Way of Seeing" on my desk right now, and have been scratching my head for a few days over Hale's choice of 1830. Do you buy it? I'm not sure I do. There's a lot of post-1830 town-and-building stuff I like a lot. But I love the book anyway ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2006 3:07 PM

What Mr. Pittenger has put his finger on is something that I noticed some years ago as a science fiction devotee: the future ain't what it used to be. Science fiction as a genre was founded circa 1930 (Hugo Gernsback). SF from that period, and for the next 30 years, predicted vastly more technological progress than has actually been seen. I believe that this was because they expected the later 20th century to match 1860-1930. By 2000, we were supposed to have space travel, aircars, immortality (or at least rejuvenation), transmutation, teleportation, sentient robots, zap guns, stereovision... None of it has happened. Instead we continue with the quite functional technologies that were mostly in place in 1930. The standard energy medium is 120V AC electricity, generated with steam turbines - same as in 1930. Movies are shown at the 24 frames/second rate adopted in the 1920s. US soldiers, facing crazed Moslem fanatics in Iraq, turn to the M1911 Colt .45 automatic - developed to cope with crazed Moslem fanatics in the Philippines 100 years ago. We drive cars that burn gas in reciprocating engines, just like the Model T did. None of this existed in 1860. We live in brick and cement buildings, many of which were built pre-1930. For the average American, 1930 was radically different from 1860 - and 2000 is not radically different from 1930.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 15, 2006 6:55 AM

Rich makes a good point, it's very noticeable if you're a sci-fi fan that the expected pace of technological change, as inferred from sci-fit writers guesses about what the future would look like, has slowed down. Also, that 2006 looks much less advanced than science fiction writers once expected it to be.

I think we are in an era of basic science, where there are many exciting research developments but they are far from practical implementation. Part of this is because the scientific frontier has advanced further beyond our engineering/creation capacities than it once was. But the advanced theoretical physics of 1910 was at its time thought to be completely impractical, and it eventually created atomic energy. Will there be another wave of revolutionary applications of our current scientific advances in e.g. biology?

Also, Don...The Office of Technology Assessment was a great organization. They weren't meant to ban or approve technologies or anything like that. It was just an in-house think tank for Congress to draw on to get scientific expertise. Most of the professionals available to Congress were/are either lawyers or economists. At OTA there were a lot of engineers and scientists, so Congress could ask for independent input on scientific questions. Like it or not, Congress does a ton of stuff that affects technology development and use in the U.S., it can help have some scientific input on it. You're right that it was eliminated in the mid-90s.

Posted by: MQ on April 15, 2006 8:21 PM

"I think we are in an era of basic science, where there are many exciting research developments but they are far from practical implementation. "

I think MQ is quite right. You know the story about the Crusader facing the Saracen? The Saracen goes swish through his neck with his extremely sharp scimitar. The Crusader says, "I never felt a thing." The Saracen says, "Wait until you sneeze."

The reframing of science (genome, cosmic stuff, atomic computers, climate change) is happening now without us really understanding what it means.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 15, 2006 10:31 PM

Donald –

This is an interesting exercise. I think I could make a case for the period between 1786 and 1886. This period goes from the formal emergence of the United States of America, the French Revolution and Age of Napoleon (which saw a radical shift in the technological and social nature of large scale land and sea warfare), and the Industrial Revolution. The end date marks the organization of the Westinghouse Electric Company, and marks the rough midpoint of the era of widespread commercial electric power transmission. Electric power transmission, I think, provided for one of the most dramatic transformations of how people worked and lived, in the entire history of mankind.

By the way, a more subtle, but no less momentous change occurred in 1911, when Willis Haviland Carrier disclosed his basic Rational Psychrometric Formulae to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which still standsas the basis in all fundamental calculations for the air conditioning industry. The air conditioning industry, of course, depended upon electric power, and between 1911 and 1924, the use of air conditioning transformed in turn, industries, large commercial and office buildings, and finally residential buildings. In 1924, for example, shoppers were able to go to the first air conditioned department store, the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, and soon after beat the summer heat going to air conditioned movie palaces such as the Rivoli theater in New York.

Another pivotal date would be 1920, when nearly every American automobile used an electric starter. This was the technological lynchpin that ensured that cars would be usable by the broad middle class (you no longer had to employ a servant to crank the car when necessary) and also made it possible for women to drive by themselves, fundamentally changing social relations between men and women.

Posted by: Alec on April 17, 2006 4:00 AM

Great post. One thing that could be emphasized more was that 1825-1925 saw society (at least in America and Western Europe) move from being mainly rural, mainly illiterate and with no mass communication to being mainly urban, mostly literate and with mass-circulation newspapers, magazines, cinema and radio.

Posted by: squawkbox on May 5, 2006 4:20 AM

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