On a History Theory

During a video work meeting recently, one of the moderators shared a video of a person using a pay phone. We were all struck with the fact that those things have pretty much gone from the landscape in much of the western world, an entire segment of the communication industry replaced by more modern methods of human interaction. Ask the harness makers from 120 years ago or the carriage companies from the same period about becoming obsolete. People are now being replaced in many areas of the manufacturing sector by robotics (and even in the logistics sector as well). Certainly, air travel, cell phones, and automated factories mark the modern world.

And that’s the way of the world, I suppose. Except maybe not. Let’s go backk (insert echo sound effect here in your head), backkk, bakkkk. We are really talking about innovations in three major areas of life throughout time: Communication, transportation, and manufacturing. It’s interesting to note that the ground-shaking changes in these three areas happened in an incredibly short time historically.

For most of recorded history, man traveled at the speed of, well, man. Ok, horses did speed up travel considerably (or camels or whatever beast a person rode in that culture). But, for the most part, people moved at the speed of people moving at speed. That means a person who walks at a normal pace could move about 3 miles per hour or 5 kilometers per hour. That was the pace of life. And, unlike what the western film genre tells you, horses couldn’t run for hours at a time. Most of the time, they walked not much faster than men did. Rivers were great ways to get around (and oceans, too), but when the current couldn’t pull a boat upstream, horses (or again whatever animal) did that work, too.

And people throughout history did indeed learn to communicate more rapidly than by foot. Birds where trained to carry messages. Signals (by fire or flag) also sped this up. But both were iffy and dependent on weather/visibility and limited to a small area compared to sending communications intercontinentally.

What about manufacturing. For much of history, mills that ground corn or even cut wood had to be built along rivers that powered the wheels that moved the machinery. True, some mills (think Holland and France, for example) were wind powered, but, again, humans were at the mercy of the breezes. So, if you needed consistent power, you’d have to have a water source.

So, what changed?

Well, according to historian Douglas T. Miller, the modern world wasn’t born anytime this century. Or the last one, either. No, Miller said that the modern world, especially modern America, was born in the relatively short window of 1820 to 1850. That seems crazy to have been so long ago (for us, 200 years), but that is incredibly recent in the long view of the history of mankind.

Miller argues that while steam engines had been used in factories and in manufacturing before 1820, it wasn’t until that year that the number steam powered plants equaled the number of water driven plants. By 1830, steam was well in the lead and never looked back. While water was still needed, factories didn’t need a constant supply of water running all the time and therefore they didn’t need to be along streams any more. 1826 saw the first practical use of steam applied to a train and the beginning of the wide use of steam powered boats on American waters. Suddenly, man, who, all of his existence, had been limited to travel at 3-5 miles per hour, now could go 40, 50, or more. That was mind-blowing to people at the time. And, it was 1844 that Samuel Morse sent the message, “What hath God wrought?” by telegraph, a message that was received miles away almost instantly.

And, what’s more, the airplane, the cell phone, and the automated factory are all extensions of those original creations and applications. In fact, Miller says that the revolution in those 30 years to society is greater than any modern revolution we’ve experienced.

That means a person who lived in those 30 years saw more fundamental change in transportation, communication, and manufacturing than any of us ever will.