Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Pace of Change: technological advances since 1916

Zoë Sharp

Last Friday I went to the funeral of my brother-in-law’s mum, Peggy. She died, very quietly and suddenly, the weekend before Christmas. Just went upstairs to bed one night – yes, she was still living independently at home – and never woke up.

She was a hundred and one years old.

It started me thinking, as occurrences like this have a habit of doing, about all the things Peggy must have seen during her lifetime. Not simply her personal experiences, but historic events and iconic inventions.

She was born in 1916, halfway through the Great War. The battle of the Somme had begun the month before. The USA had yet to enter the war on the side of the Allies – that wouldn’t happen until the following April.

The electric drill was invented that year. As was the radio tuner, and Henry Brearly came up with stainless steel.

By the time Peggy was five years old, the world had acquired the modern zipper, the fortune cookie, the flip-flop, the arc welder, and the pop-up toaster, as well as the superheterodyne radio circuit still found in every radio or television set today. John T Thompson had patented the submachine gun that bore his name. The first robot was built.

By 1926, when Peggy turned ten, Sir Frederick Grant Banting had invented insulin, Clarence Birdseye had come up with frozen food, and Robert H Goddard invented liquid-fuel rockets.

We’d also acquired self-winding watches, the dynamic loudspeaker, spiral-bound notebooks, the hairdryer, the electric kettle, the beginnings of television, and the modern traffic signal. The first 3D movie was released, which required the use of special glasses with one red and one green lens.

Within Peggy’s next decade, the world would now have the aerosol can, car radio, the jet engine, the electric razor, penicillin, bubble gum, the Zippo lighter, Scotch tape, Polaroid photographs, the radio telescope, stereo records, the drive-in movie theatre, cats’ eye road reflectors, the Monopoly board game, neoprene rubber, nylon, the tape recorder, radar, the electron microscope, and the ‘differential analyser’ analogue computer was invented by Vannevar Bush at MIT in Boston.

By the time Peggy hit thirty, in 1946, we’d lived through another World War, with its invention and use of the atomic bomb, and seen the first jet engine built, as well as the first working turboprop engine. Igor Sikorsky had come up with the first successful helicopter, and the first electronic digital computer had been built.

Ladislo Biro had invented the ballpoint pen, a Swiss chemist had synthesized LSD, and Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau come up with the aqualung system for scuba diving. We also had the kidney dialysis machine, synthetic cortisone, the microwave oven, the slinky, the first artificial heart, disposable nappies (diapers), the clock radio, and modern colour television.

By 1956, when Peggy turned forty, the world had gained the Kenwood food mixer, disposable cameras, the first pager, the Black Box flight recorder in aircraft, the Breathalyser, the Frisbee, Velcro, the Wurlitzer jukebox, cake mix, the first credit card, superglue, the transistor radio, Teflon non-stick pans, the solar cell, and the first behind-the-ear hearing aid.

Ray Kroc had started McDonalds, the oral contraceptive was invented, as were radial tyres and power steering. Bette Nesmith Graham invented what would become liquid paper for correcting typing errors.

As Peggy hit her half-century in 1966, she would have been able to look back on the invention of the internal pacemaker, the microchip, the audio cassette, fibre-tipped pens, acrylic paint, BASIC computer language, the computer mouse, Astroturf, contact lenses, Kevlar, handheld calculators, the Casio digital watch, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), the Black & Decker cordless drill, and the Kodak Instamatic camera.

By the time she was sixty in 1976, man had been to the moon, the Arpanet (the early version of the internet) had been invented, as had the digital thermometer, the smoke detector, the first digital cameras, floppy disks, and both daisy-wheel and dot-matrix printers, the liquid-crystal display (LCD), the microprocessor, videocassette, the word processor, the Bic disposable lighter, the Ethernet local computer network, Post-It notes, liposuction and silicone implants, the push-through tab on drinks cans, and lithium batteries.

Developments by 1986, when Peggy turned seventy, included the Sony Walkman, the Cray supercomputer, mobile phones, the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, and a vaccine against Hepatitis-B. The first IBM PC, human growth hormones were genetically engineered, the Apple Macintosh was invented, as was the CD-ROM, MS-DOS, Windows, noise-cancelling headphones, synthetic skin was invented, and the high-temperature superconductor.

By her eightieth birthday in the mid-1990s, Peggy had seen the invention of disposable contact lenses, digital cellular phones, Prozac, Doppler radar, high-definition television, the World Wide Web, the digital answering machine, DVDs, the Nintendo Game Boy and the PlayStation 1, the first MP3 player, the Palm Pilot, and the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

In 2006, as Peggy turned ninety, the world now had Viagra, the gas-powered fuel cell, the iPod, self-cleaning windows, artificial organs such as the heart and liver, cloning, the first hybrid cars, robotic toys, and new fabrics such as Luminex, which glows.

In 2016 Peggy reached her century, complete with a congratulatory message from the Queen. By this time, modern inventions included the rise of social media, Kindle, the Apple iPad, 3D printers, and YouTube.

The world has also seen translucent concrete, thinking shoes which determine the kind of support the wearer requires, plants that play music, medication delivered by sound waves, the rise of electric cars, and drones.

I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of important inventions and developments over the past hundred-and-one years. Which of them, to you, are the most significant? And what do you feel has made the most difference to your life, for good or ill?

This week’s Word of the Week is aa, which is a type of basaltic rock, usually dark-coloured with a jagged surface, formed in large sheets from slow-moving lava. It also signifies a move of some desperation in the closing stages of a game of Scrabble …


  1. VERY interesting, Zoë. Sorry about your brother-in-law's mum.

    As for my choice of decade, I think I'm partial to the 70s for rather obvious reasons....

    1. Thanks for the good wishes, Jeff. I think dying quickly in my sleep in my own home at 101 years old is an ambition we can all aspire to.

      The 70s, eh? Hm, I wonder why ...

    2. Who can afford to live that long? Hi Zoe! Spring has finally arrived in NYC.

  2. I guess I'd choose the rather obvious choice of the personal computer and the internet. Those have made the most difference to my life for good and ill.

    1. Me, too, Michael. Without my trusty Amstrad in the mid-80s, my dream of living by words may never have materialised.

  3. Fascinating, Zoe! Even with all this, I believe that century before Peggy's was the one that brought the planet its most significant changes--the railroad, the harnessing of electricity--to the the most significant ever, the automobile, the radio, and the telephone.

    Of the ones listed, like Michale, my most significant is the personal computer--in all its current gadget guises. I think mostly for good for me!

    BTW, I had no idea there such things as self cleaning windows. I want some!!

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. The pace of change seems to constantly accelerate. Interesting to speculate what might be ahead of us in the next hundred years ... if the species doesn't drive itself into extinction in the meantime!

  4. Do you think we organised ourselves better before mobile phones? I grew up in a house with no phone. Life went in a weekly cycle, arrangements for next Monday night at Gran's were made on the previous Monday night at Grans. We went shopping on a Thursday and watched Star Trek on a Monday. Now folk phone each other from the other side of Asda because they forgot what kind of Pizza they wanted.

  5. Without a doubt, Caro, we were far better organised before the mobile phone! As you point out, we planned ahead, and probably walked into far fewer stationary objects, too!