09 July 2012

So many changes in a lifetime

Last night I finished reading Stephen Ambrose's book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.  It was a bit too detailed and plodding for me to add to my recommended books category, but there were some thought-provoking passages, including this one:
[The] transcontinental railroad was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. They may have exaggerated, but for the people of 1869, especially those over 40, there was nothing to compare to it. A man whose birthday was in 1829 had been born into a world in which President Andrew Jackson traveled no faster than Julius Caesar, a world in which no thought or information could be transmitted any faster than in Alexander the Great's time. In 1869, with the railroad and the telegraph, a man could move at 60 miles per hour and transmit an idea or a statistic from coast to coast almost instantly.

In the 21st century, change is so constant as to be taken for granted. This leads to a popular question: what generation lived through the greatest change? ... For me, it is the Americans who lived through the second half of the 19th century. They saw slavery abolished and electricity put to use, the development of the telephone and the completion of the telegraph, and most of all the railroad. The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space. After it came and after it crossed the continent, nothing could ever again be the same.
The concept of change-within-a-lifetime is recurrently brought home to me after conversations with my 93-year-old mother, who is alternately confused, bemused, and delighted with the wonders of "this modern world."  She spent her earliest years on a farm with a wood-burning stove and an outhouse, so even everyday things like barcode scanners are a source of amazement.

That's one (long) lifetime.  Now go back another one.  Someone who was 93 when she was born ("you are here" on the graph below) would have been born in 1825 - the era described above by Ambrose, when the fastest transportation was by horseback - just as it was for the Greeks and Romans.  And when the population of the entire world was less than one billion:

So what will the child born today be seeing 93 years from now?  I have no doubt the world will be profoundly different.  I'm not convinced that it will be substantially improved.


  1. So what will the child born today be seeing 93 years from now? I have no doubt the world will be profoundly different. I'm not convinced that it will be substantially improved.

    An evergreen statement.

  2. Semaphore, a late 18th/early 19th century forgotten technology:

  3. 1913-1915 period marked a dramatic shift in the world. Someone young in those days would see some of the first heavier-than-air flights... followed by a dramatic increase in technological capabalities stoked by the first world encompassing war.

    They would eventually live to see the same airplanes double the speed of sound, see men walking on the moon and the birth of the internet, whilst the world has been embroiled in an almost constant state of random wars (hot ones, cold ones) that keep pushing technology further and further.

  4. My godfather was born in 1900, and was fond of thinking about all the changes he had seen in his life. He couldn't understand why I couldn't explain how a VCR worked when they first came out. I was young, and should therefore understand all the new things as they came along. He lived to be 92, so he saw an amazing amount of new things, from the obvious technology to the rise of political systems, changing maps, feminism, birth control, etc.

  5. Interesting subject, sometimes I ponder about these kind of questions. I agree that the 2nd part of the 19th century saw more changes then our present time, but that's hard to explain to people who think Lincoln was the first US president (the education system in The Netherlands is not fond of history). I think every lifetime has its impressive changes. See what happend just a few years after Columbus triggered the exploration of the Americas. Or the abolishment of feudalism. Or the appearance of Romans in Western/Northern Europe. Or the implementation of farming. Etc.

  6. The Dutch education system doesn't teach US history. No need to sneer.

    1. Rob knows that. He livers in the Netherlands...

    2. I'm sorry. I'm just frustrated with the lack of basic historical knowledge. The teachers are fine, it's the government which is the root of the general problem. Ask someone a basic math question (involving numbers with more than 1 digit) and you'll start crying.


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