Today, a world prepares to be transformed. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Which age in human history
saw the greatest change in daily life?
Twelfth-century windmills, Gothic architecture, and
a belief in invention changed that age beyond
recognition. Mid-14th-century plagues changed the
world by killing off half its population.
Eighteenth-century revolution certainly changed the
way we lived.
But for technological change, what can match those
years before the First World War? My father, born
in 1893, entered a world without airplanes, movies,
or radio. Telephones, automobiles, X-rays,
refrigeration, the germ theory of disease, and
electric lights all existed. But they were still
unknown to most people.
Here's a 1910 book, Marvels of Modern
Science. The chapter titles tell of a world
being turned on its ear: Flying Machines,
Wireless Telegraphy, Radium,
Moving Pictures, Sky-Scrapers. The
last title asks, Can We Communicate with Other
The authors thought airplanes were destined to
become war machines. Radio signals had reached
halfway around the world, but no one saw that radio
would become an entertainment medium. Radium
was the most murderously radioactive material
known. A fifty-milligram particle cost $4000 (about
50,000 dollars in today's economy). A scientist
could rent that particle for $200 per day.
The promise of movies was enormous. Edison had just
cooked up crude means for synchronizing recordings
with the moving images. It'd be two more decades
before talkies appeared in theaters. But no one
doubted that was where we were headed. The authors
worried about keeping movies morally uplifting.
They looked for the day when "remote hamlets" could
see and hear Caruso singing opera.
A lyrical chapter on Ocean Palaces talks
about the new ocean liners, Mauretania and
Lusitania, which could now cross the
Atlantic in just four days. (A German U-boat sank
Lusitania five years later.) The White Star
Company was just building two even larger ships:
Olympic and Titanic. Since they were
meant to carry huge payloads, the authors didn't
look for new speed records. Two years later,
Titanic hit an
iceberg, trying to beat time to New York. Then it
had too few lifeboats for all its paying
As we read, we compare the book with the way the
20th century really did unfold. But the last
chapter hasn't unfolded yet. Will we ever
communicate with other worlds? The authors doubt
it. It was clear that other life-bearing stars
would be light-years away, and only Mars could
conceivably sustain life in our solar system.
If there were life, the only communication the
authors imagine is by signaling. They rightly
decide that viewing signal flags through telescopes
would be impractical even for neighboring Mars.
They wrongly conclude that even Mars is beyond the
reach of radio.
But the odd part about this view from 1910 is that
what really did happen isn't mentioned. The idea of
space flight -- of actually going there -- didn't
cross the authors' minds, back in 1910.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds