May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
One day toward the end of his life Henry Ford was talking with a local boy named John Dahlinger about the state of things, and they got onto the subject of education. Ford spoke of the virtues of the McGuffey’s Reader era, and this sounded pretty fusty to Dahlinger. “But, Sir,” he protested, “these are different times, this is the modern age and—”
“Young man,” Ford snapped, “I invented the modern age.”
It’s hard to imagine how Dahlinger might have countered the preposterous claim, because it was true. And Ford hadn’t achieved this over a lifetime; he’d done it in little more than a decade, beginning in 1908, when he introduced his sturdy and ever-cheaper Model T.
You will have heard it said that we are living in an era of unprecedented technological change. Certainly the thought embroidered all the millennial observances; the computer has so altered the way we conduct our business—indeed, our lives—that there has been (as people are finally beginning to stop saying) a “disconnect” with the past.
Is it true? Certainly it feels true, but that’s always the case with the present: It is lava, boiling with threats and possibilities whose immediacy makes the landscapes into which it is constantly in the process of cooling seem calm, distant, and quaintly dissociated from the heat of our concerns. What, for instance, could be quainter than the first generation of railroads —those upright boilers, the barrels of water and stacks of wood on the tenders, the passenger cars that look like stagecoaches, the bonneted, top-hatted crowds gaping with naive astonishment? Yet these antiques remade their world every bit as quickly as the computer is remaking ours.
In half a lifetime they turned us from a collection of provinces into a unified nation in which cities served as specialty shops—Chicago dressing our meat, Grand Rapids making our dressers—and distance had ceased to be much of a factor. Just now we’re starting to hear talk about “Internet time”—that is, a new acceleration that compresses yesterday’s spacious hour into today’s harried twenty minutes. But Henry David Thoreau was speaking of something very like Internet time when he wrote that the trains that had begun to clatter past Waiden Pond “come and go with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-regulated institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stageoffice?” And as early as 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne saw that, “by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time.”
Yet we are all chronocentric; it is very hard to imagine that our forebears’ hours were quite so full as our own. In the hope of underscoring the fact that there is never a disconnect with the past—not even in the immensities of Cyberspace—we are inaugurating in this issue a technology column. In “Behind the Cutting Edge,” Frederick Alien will explore the ways in which history has shaped the newest of our technologies and can help us predict how they may evolve. Fred brings unique credentials to the column: Since its birth in 1985 he has edited our sister publication, American Heritage of Invention & Technology , and in those fifteen years he has not only watched a whole vigorous discipline grow up around this onceneglected field of historical study but has helped spur that growth.
In his first column Fred points out how the most significant elements of the PC, that triumphant prodigy of the molten present, are the direct result of decisions made well over a century ago by men who had never seen a motorcar, let alone a modem. In the months ahead the column will offer perspective—and with it perhaps a measure of comfort for those of us who occasionally feel besieged by an onslaught of new things to learn and to buy just to keep navigating our way through the world. After all, those Dickensian figures in their frock coats were just as fascinated and intimidated by the fuming ironmongery of their steam engines as the least computer-savvy citizen is by broadband. Since the dawn of our Republic, the edge here in America has cut not only deep but fast.