Thursday, May 24, 2018

They weren't giving prizes for humility.

"It has been a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so stupendous in its magnitude, so complex in its diversity, so profound in its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficent in its results, that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a full appreciation of it."

Edward W. Byrn

As mentioned before, the 50th anniversary issue of Scientific American is an essential resource for anyone trying to understand the stories we tell ourselves about technology. 1896 was near the peak of arguably the most dramatic period of technological advances, particularly in terms of their impact on society.

This essay on the progress of invention during the second half of the 19th century provides a tremendously informative view into how educated people thought about the state of science and progress at the time, but before we get into that, I want to highlight the list of notable inventions discussed in the introductory column.

There are some notable omissions here. Arguably the most important development of the late 19th/early 20th century doesn't even make the list, but the internal combustion gasoline engine and its progeny (automobiles, airplanes, submarines) wouldn't have their greatest impact for a few more years. The omission of the phonograph is a bit more difficult to explain since Edison's first famous invention gets a large and glowing write-up a few pages earlier in the same issue. That said, the peak impact of recorded media was also a few years away.

As for the essay itself, there's far too much here to comment on in a single blog post, but there are a couple of points I want to emphasize. First, thee people of the time were well aware that they were living in a period of ubiquitous explosive change. It was an attitude remarkably similar to that of today, only more appropriate to the situation.

Second, I've argued in the past that the new frontier of late 19th century technology in many ways fill the hole left by the closing of the actual frontier. As you read through the following, you'll notice more than a hint of manifest destiny. As with the earlier doctrine, it was assumed that Europeans and those of European descent were destined to rule this New World as well.

How widespread were these views? We should probably talk with an actual historian before trying to answer that question, but they were apparently representative enough to win the approval of distinguished judges and be granted a place of honor in the magazine (not to mention the $250, which back then was pretty good money).

Scientific American 1896-07-25

1 comment:

  1. At a rough guess, $250 was over half-a-year's income for a labourer. Pretty good money. Who knows, it might have paid the maid's wages for a year.