I’m 25 right now. According to current US life expectancies, that means I’ve got 50 years left. I expect I’ll get more than that, thanks to improving health care and looking after my health at least a bit better than the average USian, but 50 is a nice round number to set to thinking with.
What can I expect the world to be like by the time I die, if I die at 75? I asked myself this recently, and it seemed a good way to take a stab at this question would be to ask what the world was like 50 years ago. That led to thinking about what the world was like 50 years before that, and once I did that I figured I may as well go back another couple iterations, and here’s what I came up with:
1813: In recent years, Napoleon scored a series of epic military victories in Europe, only to have his invasion of Russia end in disaster. However, he hasn’t been exiled to Elba yet. After his final defeat at Waterloo, he’ll have left Europe a very complicated place.
Dalton’s atomic theory has been around for about a decade.
Steamboats exist, but have quite a ways to go before steam fully replaces sail.
Experiments in telegraphy have occurred, but long-distance telegraphs do not exist. Electricity is mostly just a toy.
1863: Middle of the American Civil War. Military technology has changed since the Napoleonic era, but not enough to make this fact totally obvious to American commanders, leading them to rely on Napoleonic tactics a lot. This, some later historians will conclude, is making the war much bloodier than it needs to be.
Europe is still a complicated place, but has only seen small wars, not anything on the scale of the Napoleonic wars, and that will continue to be true for another 50 years.
Chemistry is continuing to advance, but the periodic table hasn’t been invented yet. Next year, Lord Kelvin will use arguments based on heat loss (and ignorance of nuclear power) to calculate that the Earth could not possibly be as old as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution requirs. However, James Clerk Maxwell has already figured out that light is electromagnetic waves, a fact that will be important later.
Iron-clad (and steam-powered) warships have just started to come into use in the last few years; sail is on its way out.
The American president Lincoln is using the electric telegraph to communicate with his generals. Attempts have been made to lay transatlantic telegraph lines, but these attempts won’t be successful for another few years.
1913: Europe is a dangerous place. The various nations of Europe have formed a complex network of alliances that will explode into one of the bloodiest wars in history next year. Because of advances in military technology, there will be obvious differences in how the war is fought compared to previous wars. This will include widespread use of trench warfare and chemical weapons.
25 years after the beginning of the first war, the Europeans will do it all over again.
Oh, and at some point in the past ten years, some patent clerk took a look at Maxwell’s theory of light and drew a bunch of conclusions from it, including something about mass and energy being equivalent. But nobody’s heard of him yet–he won’t become famous for another few years, and it will be even longer before anyone gets the faintest idea of how to put the mass-energy equivalence thing to practical use.
(A few people are aware there might be some connection to this “radiation” thing that was discovered a decade and a half ago, but beyond that nobody really knows.)
The Wright brothers made their first famous flight at Kitty Hawk a decade ago, but airplanes have yet to be put to much practical use. Steam ships (like the recently, tragically sunk Titanic) are the way to go if you want to travel the globe.
Millions of telephones (a telegraph for sound instead of writing) have been installed in the US. Radio (also using electricity, plus some of Maxwell’s ideas) has been around for a couple decades. Radio has recently become widespread for use on ships in the wake of the Titanic disaster, but broadcasting news and entertainment hasn’t happened yet. Neither has television or computers.
In addition to telephones and radio, thanks to Edison electricity is also providing people with a source of lighting that’s much less likely to burn their house down than anything involving an open flame.
1963: Last year, world was almost destroyed. There are currently two superpowers dominating the globe, each with a large enough stockpile of nuclear weapons to totally destroy the other, and they almost came to blows last year. Had there been war, civilization might not have survived–that’s something many people of the time understand on an intuitive level, even though the concept of nuclear winter hasn’t been developed yet.
Traveling the globe by airplane is a glamorous thing, mostly something that wealthy businessmen get to do. As a result, airlines mostly hire attractive young women as flight attendants. Phone calls can be made across the Atlantic, but are expensive. Color TV has been around for a decade.
Computers were invented during the last war (this electricity stuff is really turning out to be useful), but the integrated circuit has only been around five years. Integrated circuits have been shrinking yearly, but it will be another two years before Intel co-founder Gordon Moore will notice this trend and use it to make the bold prediction that will come to be known as “Moore’s Law.”
As it stands, though, computing technology is quite limited. Universities have started training programmers, but they do that by making them take turns feeding punch cards into massive machines. A few years from now, when humans land on the moon for the first time, they’ll have relied heavily on hand calculations to do so.
Some people have been talking about linking computers together into a network, but it will be another six years before ARPANET goes live.
2013: America is the world’s sole superpower. People are much less worried about total nuclear annihilation, though the thought of one or two nukes being used by terrorists or a “rogue state” has been an important part of the rationale for America’s foreign policy under the previous and current presidents.
News from Europe frightens many people, not because of the risk of war but because the Europeans were so set on the cause of pan-European unity that most of them got into a half-baked monetary union scheme.
Air travel is now something for the whole family to enjoy, at least if you’re middle class and live in a rich country. This, and changing gender norms, has led airlines to abandon the emphasis on young, attractive flight attendants. Oh, and flight attendants keep telling people to turn off their “electronic devices” for takeoff and landing.
That’s because people’s “electronic devices” are very important to them these days. You see, telephones, radio, television, and computers have just recently all become the same thing for some reason. It’s kind of hard to explain from the point of view of fifty years ago. Anyway, these weirdo combination devices fit in people’s pockets and have more computing power than the supercomputers of two or three decades ago. This is because of that “Moore’s law” thing I mentioned.
Oh, and you can pay a monthly fee to get radio access to the world’s computer network, and it will work from virtually anywhere in the US. But if you don’t want to pay for that, you can take your computer to a coffee shop and they’ll give you free network access that you can use to talk to people on the other side of the world for free. This is one of the main reasons people go to coffee shops.
Obviously this is a very incomplete chronicle. My knowledge of the early 19th century is pretty limited. I chose to focus on warfare, overseas travel, communications, and computing, because those seemed like they’d be the source of some particularly dramatic changes, but of course you could include other things as well.
I found the nuclear thing interesting, because over the course of 150 years, we went from no hints about a possible world destroying technology, to some hints, to almost destroying the world, to getting that particular world-destroying threat mostly under control (I won’t claim the risk is entirely gone).
Computers seem even more out of nowhere; the present-day technologies are so different from their precursors of 50 years ago that it’s difficult to even link them conceptually, if you try to do it in a single jump as I have.
To what extent has technological change gotten faster, and to what extent is that my knowledge of the past being inversely proportional to how long ago it was? I guess folks in 1913 were pretty impressed with all the things they were doing with electricity. Could folks in 1863 have been that impressed by steam and the telegraph? It does seem those things aren’t as big of changes as more recent things, but I’m not entirely sure.
Feel free to suggest additions/corrections in the comments.