Monday, April 30, 2018

In any other period, "one of the greatest inventions ever made" wouldn't seem like such hyperbole

One of the concepts that features heavily in the upcoming technology book is the idea of ubiquitous explosive change. When people wonder at the pace of progress today, they normally point out some aspects of lives that have radically changed, but in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (and to a lesser extent, during the postwar era) the challenge was finding an aspect that did not.
We can quibble about start dates and stop dates, but certainly during the period between, say, 1880 and 1905, inventions and advancements

Inventions and advances were so big and coming so fast that innovations which would have been at or near the top of the list for the decade are often neglected and sometimes even forgotten. New line
For example, in any other era, making the biggest improvement in decade to what was, at the time, the world's only mass medium would have been a pretty big deal.

From Wikipedia:

The machine revolutionized typesetting and with it especially newspaper publishing, making it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis. Before Ottmar Mergenthaler's invention of the linotype in 1884, daily newspapers were limited to eight pages.

Scientific- American 1903/11/14


  1. I would quibble about the "late 19th/early 20th centuries" simply because this is leaving out the overwhelming effects of the telegraph and the steam-powered railway,at least in the UK, parts of Europe, and parts of North America)

    The dramatic differences in speed of communications and travel times were perhaps the most drastic changes we have seen in millennia.

    A simple examples in the travel time from London UK to Edinburgh

    London to Edinburgh
    Coach (1836) 42.5 hr.
    Rail (1854) 11.5 hr.

    (By 1914 this was down to a bit over 8.15 hours but the real impact was seen in 1854)

    The telegraph essentially took communication times from roughly the same times to seconds.

    I expect the advent of commercial steam navigation had a similar impact.

  2. Between job-hunting and trying to finish up a book on this very subject, I have to admit I haven't been putting the nuance that I should into some of the posts. the idea of exponentially advancing technology (and, as a consequence, and unimaginable future) came out of the early 20th century because that exponential curve very nicely fit the rate of progress dating back to the late 18th century, with every generation doing things that seemed amazing to the previous one. Mid-18th century advances in steam power (particularly regarding transportation), telecommunications, and media far surpass anything that it come before and laid the groundwork for even more remarkable leaps going forward.