Posted tagged ‘Sewers’

Off-Label use of a DKos Post

June 12, 2008

Check out this — not so much for the snark about McCain, but for the delightful gallery of (period) appropriate tech.

Actually, while I enjoy a good, well prepared, someone-with-not-enough-to-do, professional grade snark as well as the next blogger, I fear that the author, DHinMI, is being a bit unfair here. [Of course s/he’s being unfair. It’s a blog, bozo! It’s a sarcastic bit of fun for the morning! Get a life. –ed.)

No, no — not unfair to McCain; he’s fair game, and if he didn’t want to be twitted for his age, he should have won in 2000.

No, what impressed me about this gallery is the degree to which the technology and experience at the end of the 19th century was so much more like our own than it was like that of the generation of the founders a century before.

Look at the photos on offer: Long distance communications; mass transport; medicine, (not really represented in this gallery) which, for all the easy humor, at least had the germ theory, a grasp of infection and the need for sterile conditions in hospital operating suites, new energy sources, organized, professional, government run emergency services, mass visual media, and, perhaps above all, electricity with which to make so much of the rest go.

Compare this, as I once heard the great physicist and teacher Philip Morrison do, to the situation in 1800. Whale oil as the primary source of light with which the reading and writing public could extend their work into the night. Slow transport, entirely powered by one’s own body, one’s horse, or by wind or water. Debridement and then amputation as the primary therapy for infected wounds. Communication beyond line of sight/hearing proceeding at the same rate as the transport of other goods: slow, slow, slow. And so on.

Morrison, in the lecture I heard, went into detail about the operations of a major wheat growing operation in the upper midwest in 1900. The web existed — or rather a web, a network; telegraph communications enabled the farm’s owners to follow grain prices around the world on a daily basis. Rail transport meant that the threshed wheat from that farm could enter that global market in a timely way.

Chicago, the nearest major city, was home to 1.6 million people. All those people consumed with a vengeance: in the landmark Marshall Field complex on and around State St. in the first decade of the twentienth century, the famous department store employed 12,000 people, doing 25 million dollars in retail and twice that, 50 million in wholesale business around the world. The technology needed to permit such enormous agglomerations of people advanced too — Chicago’s supply of indoor plumbing required continuous tending, culminating in the opening of its new, model sewage system in 1900, centered on a canal that could carry 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute.

All of which means that Morrison’s wheat farmer, some miles out of town, was, all of a century ago, completely innocent of HTML and the joys of a 3G iPhone — but was nonetheless enmeshed in a global system of information exchange and commerce, mass produced consumer goods and entertainment (even recorded music, via the mass market business in player pianos that boomed with new technology in the 1890s and 1900s).

To put it another way: I can imagine myself adapting pretty readily to life in my current home of Boston in 1900. 1800? Not so easy, I think.

So, channeling a little bit of that remarkably clear thinker, the late and missed Professor Morrison, it’s always tempting to think that what’s happening right now is so new, so wonderful, that it is without precedent in human experience. But there has been a whole lot of such experience over time, and sometimes at least, the newness of technology is in the ease of what it enables, and not in its pure, raw, novelty. That is: a question one should ask of the past is not just “how far?” but “how near?”

(Not that any of this, of course, makes me want a president more comfortable with a Hollerith calculating machine than the device on which I compose this.)

Image: Camille Pissarro, “Place du Havre, Paris,” 1893. Location: Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.