Many people think that the 20th century was the time period of most technological change in the world. “Look, from Orvilles at Kitty Hawk to Armstrong on the Moon in less than a long lifetime,” they’ll cry. They do have something of a point, but they are mistaken. The one hundred years between about 1818 and 1918 (roughly the 19th century) was the period of most technological change in the world. (I first saw this idea on Michael Flynn’s blog and have come to support it.)
How can that be? Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you took a person from the England or the US, familiar with the newer technologies of their day. They read widely and took in various scientific shows or expositions. Bring that person forward from 1918 to 2018. Almost every bit of technology you can explain with the words ‘faster, better, cheaper’. Phones? They had phones in 1918. Cell phones? Better wireless. Cars? Better. Airplanes? Better. Agriculatural harvesters? Just better tractors. Computers are combination of typewriter and adding machine and of course much better. Even the moon landing is better rockets with a protective suit, like a diving suit but better. MRI and ultrasound would be new, but could still be described as better imaging, as radiography was invented in 1894 and used widely during World War 1. Even the short description of how MRI and ultrsound worked would be understandable to our World War 1 era technophile. And of course, every thing is cheaper, so more people can have them. Off hand, I can only think of antibiotics and other kinds of chemotherapy as new, though some MDs may have dreamed of them.
Do the same with somebody from 1818 brought forward to 1918. Steam ships were toys back then, just coming into commercial use. Trains had come out of the coal mine but steam locomotives were still experimental, used only in a few areas to haul cargo. No automobiles existed at all. No airplanes, or the science of how they would work. Rockets were imprecise bombardment tools. In the field of medicine they still worked with humors and bloodletting. They could see cells, but modern cell theory of disease was decades away. They knew about vaccines, but not germ theory. No wireless, or even the concept of it. Same thing for x-rays and radiography. Agriculture showed improvements, with the use of guano fertilizers from South America, and introduction of mechanized (although still horse drawn) equipment.
Trying to explain all these changes to the 19th Century person would be long hours of discussion and teaching, probably intermixed with periods where the person simply refused to believe what you told them.
The nineteenth century brought unprecedented technological change to the world and it’s time to recognize that.