Invention in the late 1800s

Off and on, I’ve been reading a biography of William Gillette.

It is, perhaps, the most detailed biography I’ve ever read; the main part (before the endnotes) runs almost 600 pages of small print. Anyway, there’s a very interesting part of Chapter 6, in the context of how someone Gillette studied under (Steele MacKaye) created various inventions for the theater, including things like indirect lighting, two stages which could be rapidly moved into the audience’s view through a system of counter-weights that allowed rapid scene changes, and all sorts of other things. It goes on to say:

Never had the world changed as rapidly and as thoroughly. Every major invention or discovery that impacts our daily lives today came along in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth. In that time America advanced from the horse and buggy to the bicycle, the automobile, the airplane, and prototype rockets; from small wooden steamers to luxury ocean liners and from wooden battleships in the age of sail to huge power-driven dreadnaughts int he age of steam; from rapid food decomposition to cold storage; from handheld fans to air conditioning; from paintings and photographs to motion pictures; from candles and kerosene lamps to incandescent and fluorescent lighting; from kerosene lanterns and gas lines to alternating current electricity; from obstructed or limited vision to X-rays and radar; from the printed page to the telegraph, the telephone, and wireless telegraphy; from live performance to the phonograph, the motion picture, radio, a and television; and from structures of wood and stone to skyscrapers of steel. The discovery of radium, the pronouncement of Einstein’s theory of relativity and our realization that the universe is expanding are only three of the many revolutionary discoveries that would rock the scientific establishment and change forever the world we live in, both theoretical and practical. It all happened then.

There would, of course, be large changes still to come, but for all that I do think that this is fundamentally right. Reading from things people wrote at the time, there was a great excitement and anticipation. All the time, new inventions were coming along that made things better, faster, and stronger. Zecher doesn’t touch on it, but as much as anything this created a major social upheavel by changing what the sources of wealth were.

For most of human history, land was the main source of wealth. This was especially true because land brought forth food, and it was difficult to move that food very far. There were mineral sources of wealth, of course; gold and silver mines have been prized for a very long time. But land and livestock were the sources of most wealth.

The industrial revolution did not happen all at once, of course, and the tremendous shifts it would bring about began in their effect well before the 1870s. That said, I think it right that they were accelerating greatly, then, with each new invention and improvement of industry shifting wealth away from land and in directions no one yet understood. This shift in the patterns of wealth had enormous social consequences, and they, as much as the actual changes themselves, were probably responsible for much of the feeling that the old order was being swept away by human ingenuity and knowledge.

It’s also interesting how, before World War 1, there was a tremendous feeling of optimism about all of this technology and more than a few people interpreted it as man ascending to godhood, taking control of the elements from the old gods and replacing them, much as in Greek mythology the gods supplanted the titans.

Then came World War 1 and people discovered that technology was not bound to bring heaven on earth; it could, perhaps more easily, bring hell on earth, too.

This tends, in the literature I’ve read from the time, to bring a shift in attitude. The world is changing and the old world is fading; people were confident of that. But they were no longer confident that it was changing for the better.

In British literature, at any rate, you can see this especially in the relationships between young people and older people. The older generations had their ideas of how the world should work, and were divided between the sticks-in-the-mud who thought young people should keep on living as if nothing had changed, and those who had no idea what young people should do, and so gave their blessing to anything. Young people, of course, had no better ideas, so some of them muddled through as best they could, and some turned to hedonism, because please is incontrovertible, if soon to be discovered to be inevitably fleeting.

It is, no doubt, in large part owing to the practical necessities of detective fiction that detective stories of the period so often involve people who want to inherit the fortunes of their ancestors in order to squander them on riotous living, but it is curious how explicitly parasitic the roaring part of the roaring twenties was. You can only inherit your Aunt Tillie’s money once, after all, and parties always turn out to be more expensive than one expects. But there was some intelligibility to this parasitism; the old fortunes were made in ways that new fortunes probably would not be. Aunt Tillie probably inherited the fortune herself, and the people inheriting it now almost certainly could not keep it going, to say nothing of making it again. Since the fortune would disappear one way or another, why not enjoy it while it lasts? That’s not particularly wise, but there are no obvious secular arguments against it.

I think this gets to why our own time feels so much more settled than the early 1900s did, though of course we’re still going through a strong cultural paroxysm as Protestantism dies off which makes it anything but a peaceful time. The economy has transitioned to an industrial economy and we have a sense of where wealth comes from, again. (Especially if we’re talking about moderate wealth rather than extravagant wealth.) It’s not as stable as where it used to come from, as businesses are created and die off all the time while new land is rarely formed and rarely falls into the sea. There is no small amount of luck, involved, of course, but we at least have a sense of what that luck looks like and what we can do within our power to maximize it.

I don’t want to overstate this. Rules like, “go to college and you’ll get a great job and be in the upper middle class” don’t work out nearly as well as they’re supposed to. Still, people have a sense of what tends to work out well. People who go into the skilled trades tend to be able to afford nice stuff in their 40s and 50s. People who go to college and then get an office job frequently live comfortably and some very comfortably. Founding a business is a high-risk, high-reward way to get about the best chance you will have to become wealthy. People who are clever and hard-working tend to go further than the dull and lazy. There are no guarantees, but these give people a sense of who on earth they should try to associate with; where to look for the kinds of marriages they’re hoping to get into. It gives parents some semblance of an idea of how to guide their children. All sorts of things are uncertain—see my previous comment about businesses failing all the time—but people can deal well with uncertainty, as long as it’s uncertainty in the things they grew up expecting to be uncertain. No one is in an existential crisis because they have no idea what the whether will be in three weeks time.

When we grow up thinking of something as uncertain, we are careful with it, have backup plans, and buy insurance for it. We can handle uncertainty where we expect it, and are, to greater and lesser extents, prepare to take our knocks, there. It’s when uncertainty is in all the wrong places that people can’t handle it.

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