FC117: The Quickening Pace of Technological Change (c.1850-1900)


FC117 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1687.

Throughout history, the slow pace of progress and the large gaps of time between new advances have generally made technological progress hard to perceive.  However, since the mid-nineteenth century, one could hardly miss seeing the rapid evolution of technology at work.  The key to this development was the fusion of science and technology in research laboratories resulting from three lines of development.

First of all, as the standard of living of the common people improved, they had money to buy goods.  Sales and profits led to more production and jobs for more people, who also now had money to spend. This further improved the standard of living, leading to more sales, production, jobs, and so on, all of which generated the incentive to create new products to sell this growing consumer market.

The second and third lines of development were the parallel, but separate evolutions of science and technology.  On the one hand, the Enlightenment spawned new discoveries and ideas in the fields of physics, biology, and chemistry.  At the same time, Europeans' growing proficiency in machines produced the power loom, spinning jenny, steam engine, and locomotive in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  However, until the 1800's, scientific and technological developments had rarely touched one another.  But as technology became more sophisticated, it became increasingly obvious that further progress would depend on fusing it with the more abstract scientific knowledge that had been developing in the universities and labs.

Because of the more complex science and technology and the growing opportunities afforded by a growing consumer market, private companies and governments set up research laboratories where scientists could develop new inventions.  No longer would technological progress rely on the random findings of brilliant but isolated inventors with little or no background in scientific knowledge.  From this point on, science and technology were fused together into one of the most dynamic partnerships in history, triggering a cycle of new inventions generating more ideas and needs that led to more new inventions and so on.  The result has been an incredible outpouring of new inventions and discoveries at an ever-accelerating pace, which continues to the present day.  All this progress bred a new optimism and faith in the ability of science and technology to solve our problems.  Some historians have even dubbed the period from 1870 to 19l4 as the Age of Progress.

One could hardly give an exhaustive list of the new inventions and discoveries of the later 1800's, but just looking at some of the highlights shows the dramatic technological and scientific progress of this period. In transportation, we have already seen the impact of the railroads.  Other developments further accelerated the pace at which the planet was being tied together.  Steam powered ships reduced travel time at sea much as the steam locomotives did on land since ships were no longer dependent on tail winds for smooth sailing.  By 1900, the automobile, powered by the internal combustion engine, was ushering in an age of fast personal travel that took individuals wherever and whenever they wanted independently of train schedules.  In 1903, the internal combustion engine also allowed human beings to achieve their dream of powered flight.  The sky was now the limit, and even that would not hold up, as the latter twentieth century would see flights to the moon and beyond.

Developments in communications were even more startling, led by the telegraph, which allowed messages to travel at the speed of electricity rather than the speed of a horse.  When transoceanic cables were laid, the time it took to get a message from one side of the planet to the other was literally reduced from months to minutes.  The invention of the telephone in 1876 made such communication more personal and accessible to the individual.  Twenty years later, Marconi's invention of the wireless radio allowed a message to be broadcast to millions of people simultaneously without having to be directly linked by wire to each receiver.  The world was effectively becoming a much smaller place.

Fuelling these new developments were new sources of energy.  Petroleum powered the automobile, while natural gas was used extensively for lighting street lamps.  Possibly most important of all was electricity, which could be transmitted over long distances and whose voltage could be adapted for use by small household appliances.  Among these was Thomas Edison's lightbulb, providing homes with cheaper, brighter, and more constant light than the candle ever could provide.

Medical advances may have had the most significant impact of all on people's lives in the 1800's.  Possibly the greatest single breakthrough in medical history was the nearly simultaneous discovery by the Frenchman Louis Pasteur and the Prussian Robert Koch of germ theory, the idea that microbes or germs cause disease.  This led to advances in three ways.  First, it gave doctors a direction in which to focus their searches for the causes of various diseases.  One by one, vaccines and treatments were found for such deadly sicknesses as malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, bubonic plague, and typhoid.

Secondly, it spawned a public health movement that provided covered sewers, clean water, and an overall more sanitary urban environment.  Finally, it led to aseptic procedure, where surgeons practiced their art in a sterile environment, dramatically reducing the chances of a patient contracting further infection on the operating table.  Add to this the use of ether as an anesthetic since the 1840's and transfusions and blood typing to compensate for blood loss during surgery, and patients had an excellent chance of survival. No wonder the average life expectancy rose by an unprecedented 15 years or more during the nineteenth century.

Agricultural production skyrocketed thanks to mechanical reapers and combines, steam tractors, hybrid crop strains, and chemical fertilizers.  Growing knowledge in chemistry led to a thriving chemical industry, which produced soaps, alkalis, bleaches, dyes, vegetable oils, and a vast number of other products.  New building materials were used.  The formula for concrete, lost since the time of the Roman Empire, was rediscovered, while the Bessemer Process, which worked iron at much higher temperatures, leading to the production of high-grade steel.  Together they made possible the architectural monument that best symbolized the modern age, the skyscraper.  In addition, there were numerous other inventions to make life easier or more interesting: refrigeration, cameras, movies, and record players, to name a few.

This rapid and wide range of technological advances had profound economic, political, and even philosophical effects on Western Civilization and eventually the entire human race.  Economically, we have become globally interdependent, since industries rely heavily on raw materials found only outside of their countries' borders while less industrialized nations rely on the goods those industrialized nations produce.  Global interdependence in the 1800's led to a common worldwide gold standard to smooth over the complications of international trade.  Although that gold standard has since been abandoned, the various national economies still operate as one integrated global economy.  This has certain dangers as well, since the collapse of one nation's economy can trigger the collapse of others across the globe.  The best-known example of this is the Great Depression of the 1930's, starting with the collapse of the United States' economy and then spreading worldwide.

The need for an integrated national economy with common railroad gauges and safety procedures and the elimination of internal tolls and other hindrances to trade has helped create the modern industrial state.  New technologies, such as sophisticated and expensive modern weaponry that only governments can afford, faster communication to keep closer track of its citizens, and faster transport for moving its forces quickly to quell any civil disturbances have radically increased the modern industrial state's power over its population. Public education has been another outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution, teaching a nation's population a common body of knowledge and values, such as patriotism and living precisely according to the clock.

The Industrial Revolution has spawned new beliefs and weakened old ones.  Longer life spans and the enticements of a higher standard of living have reduced the proportion of people deeply involved in religion.  Instead, many people have chosen a more materialistic way of life.  In fact, the philosophies of Materialism and Positivism emerged in the late 1800's, showing a growing faith in the potentials and values of material prosperity and modern science respectively.  At the same time, Darwin's theory of evolution has emerged, seen by many as a threat to religion.  Another powerful idea to emerge was Marxism, an economic and political philosophy that became a major force in the twentieth century.

Technology is certainly a double edged sword that has also created new problems such as pollution, overpopulation, the greenhouse effect, depletion of the ozone layer, and the threat of extinction from nuclear war.  It has also been used to give us prosperity our ancestors could never have dreamed about.  Whether it is ultimately used for our benefit or destruction is up to us and remains in the balance.