NEB&W Guide to Period Modeling - the Mind Set

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One of the most interesting books on the early Industrial Revolution is Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery. This was a novelization of an actual robbery in 1854, which so shocked England because they thought they were moving into a period of Utopia. That a train could be robbed was unbelievable in that society - especially when the robber turned out to be a gentleman.

Besides the story line, what the author pointed out was that society was beginning to change drastically, yet wasn't even aware that many of these changes were happening. Historians disagree on when the Industrial Revolution started, but it wasn't until the beginning of the Victorian period that it began to radically change people's lives. The railroad was one of these changes, both an outcome of the Industrial Revolution, and an agent of further change. (In fact, I would argue that it IS the Industrial Revolution itself that defines and separates what we call "Victorian" from "Colonial".)

One development was in literature: a new genre, science fiction. This arose during the mid-Victorian period, when society was taking stock of what was happening, and could predict possible new inventions. Predictions themselves weren't new. Just on the eve of the first railroads, some predicted the thing might actually work, and people might travel at unheard of speeds of 30 miles per hour or faster. At that time in the early 1800's, such futurists were dismissed as crackpots, and nobody would read novels about the development of such ideas. It took until the 1860's for the idea of change itself to be acceptable.

You have to remember that in 1830, most people were living not much differently from prior generations, as big change had been glacial (the development of the printing press, for instance), and small change was trivial. Scientists were wealthy amateurs who could take time to putter and investigate the workings of the world, but these findings didn't affect everyday life. Oxygen and carbon dioxide had been discovered, but hospital oxygen tents and scuba tanks were a century away, and the only effect at that point was "charged water," i.e., soda pop. Microbes had been seen a century earlier, but Pasteur's work on fermentation and rabies was still in the future. Society had been changed overnight by wars and political uprisings, but not by technology. Not yet.

What science fiction dealt with was the consequences of these new inventions. Jules Verne is credited with being the father of this new literature. He could predict a moon shot and then write a story about going on it, or write about life in a ship that could travel underwater. H.G. Wells went one step further, in his The Time Machine. He predicted a radically different culture in the far future.

Among Thomas Edison's numerous inventions, one of the most important was Edison's organizing a research lab at Menlo Park. He saw that inventions could be encouraged, not just left to random chance. He also realized that new technologies could be profitable, that they could be brought to market fast enough to bring in enough wealth to support a team of researchers. Such an idea wouldn't have worked in Franklin's time.

For instance, after Edison got a light bulb to work, he went on to develop an entire electrical system to bring electricity to the bulbs, for commercial reasons.

In the early 1900's, a number of photographs of cities were retouched to show what life would be like in the year 2000. It was common to show a subway entrance, often labeled "Subway to New York City". Overhead, dirigibles with powered wings flitted from building to building. Wireless offices replaced telegraph offices. The same idea for a future Troy showed it with towering skyscrapers.

We accept it as not surprising that at the turn of the century, a milestone, people would think ahead. However, in 1800, no such future times were similarly predicted. And in the year 2000, no one was predicting life 100 years in the future. We have a hard time predicting even a decade or so ahead, as change is coming at an ever accelerating rate.

Predictions of new technology are surprisingly accurate. Predictions of their effect are way off the mark. I remember a number of Isaac Asimov's short stories of the 1950's. One familiar motif was the development of the computer into a super computer, "Megavac", still using vacuum tubes. He dealt with the idea that people would be deathly afraid of this machine, and all types of ways would have to be found to make people, especially children, use THE computer. He never thought of computer games, or that kids would run virtual reality rings around the rest of us.

Asimov also envisioned a society where many people's jobs would be devoted to reducing questions to machine language, to support Megavac's operation. He never thought that a giant brain could store the translations internally. He never thought past the idea of a computer giving just one answer. He never conceived of a flow of data, of spread sheets, of desktop publishing, of computer animation. (And I don't know of ANYONE who saw the internet coming until it was almost on top of us.)

Asimov's "Foundation" series envisioned the political twists and turns of a space society, which even he admitted was based on the Roman empire. This took place centuries from now. The series was written before computers and genetics came on the scene. One character whips out a slide rule to do some calculations. (For you college students of today, a slide rule was a wooden mechanical device that could do simple calculations using logarithms, sort of an abacus for multiplication and division.) That is the problem for the futurist, of predicting not just one new technology (space travel), but all technologies and how they interact.

In the 1880's, someone could have written about the problem when the entire country would be wall to wall railroad tracks, but that would be simply a projection of the current times without taking into account a little invention called the auto. Thus predictions of the future can be radically thrown off by subsequent inventions.

Conversely, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that yesteryear was merely a recasting of today's world with a different look - replace the Toyota Landcruiser with a Buick station wagon, or going back far enough, a horse and carriage. With different technologies, different cultures emerge. Today's world of SUV's is dependent on multi-lane highways, suburban sprawl, and families owning more than one car. C. mid-20th century, few families had a second car, so when the father drove to work, the family had to get around on foot, bike, or mass transportation. Go back a century, on the dawn of the horseless carriage, and almost no one but farmers and the extremely wealthy had a horse and carriage. If you are trying to model a past era with any degree of accuracy, you need to always stop and think if you are "filling in the gaps" with the details of today's world.