As of last week I have lived 82 years. That’s not so unusual; many people live that long or longer, but living that long is different from what it was in the past. We live in a world of accelerating change.
In ancient times you could have lived 180 years, much less 80, and the world you died in would have been the same one you were born in. That stayed true for a long time. A trickle of changes took place over time, but men and women lived in pretty much the same world their parents lived in.
Consider our nation, formed in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified. That was 224 years ago, so I have lived more than one-third of the time there has been a United States of America. And what changes did each of those thirds bring?
A third of 224 is about 75 years. If you went back 75 years from 1789 to 1714 you would hardly notice any change at all. The country would be the same size. People would be wearing the same clothes and eating the same food. They’d be traveling on horseback, writing with quill pens, firing flintlock rifles, crossing the seas in sailing vessels, and — believe it or not! — rarely straying more than 12 miles from home.
On the other hand, if we add 75 years to 1789 and reach the Civil War era, we see some major changes. Our nation now stretches from coast to coast, men no longer wear knee length silk britches and three cornered hats, and the trip from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean that took the Lewis and Clark expedition over a year in 1804 and 1805 now takes just 84 hours by express train — even tossing in an extra thousand miles from New York to St. Louis. Repeating rifles fire brass cartridges, the Gatling gun spews out bullets like a hose, steam-powered ships cross the oceans and fire cannon balls at each other’s steel hulls, and the telegraph carries messages thousands of miles as fast as a telegrapher can tap them out — including on a cable across the ocean.
That’s more change than the world saw in the 500 years before it.
I don’t need to tell you that in the second third of its life our nation again changed dramatically. By 1939 the fastest trains looked slow in comparison to aircraft, steamships plowed the oceans so fast they actually wore the paint off their steel hulls, and radio waves could out-race trains, ships or planes by roughly 186,000 miles per second.
Per second that is, not per hour.
But the changes in that second third of our nation’s history, while they were truly large, pale in comparison to the last 75 or 80 years. Oddly enough, the easiest way to understand that is to look at what those of us living in 1939 expected to happen in the next 75 years.
I remember 1939 as if it were yesterday, and I can tell you we had an entirely different idea how long it was going to take for us to get where we are today. Many things we take for granted today would have been so startling, so hard to believe, that even the most wild-eyed 1939 science-fiction fan would have laughed at you if you had claimed they would happen in just 75 years. I know; I was one of them. You think we really believed that people would be walking around on the moon in just 30 years? Ha! Think again.
Oh, we had science fiction movies in 1939 where people walked around on the moon, but we knew doggone well it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. For example, I remember the Buck Rogers serials very well because Buster Crabbe, the actor who played Buck Rogers, was a relative of my uncle Wallace and I kept hoping to meet him.
I never did, but I sat through those Saturday matinees, watching the Buck Rogers serials and absorbing every detail of them like a sponge. Man! Did I love it when Buck came out of his ship into the frozen wind-swept waste of some far off world accompanied by the music from Frank Liszt’s Les Preludes. Wow! If ever there was outer space music that was it!
Of course there was no wind in outer space, but a 7-year-old bubble head didn’t know that. But what I DID know was what happened in the first episode where Buck and Buddy crashed their dirigible near the North Pole. Knowing they were dying as the frigid cold gripped them, they escaped death by taking Nirvano Gas, which would preserve them until rescuers arrived.
But then came an avalanche that buried them, and they woke up in the 25th century. And that’s how long we thought it would be before anyone ever walked on the moon — 500 years, not 30. Think of what we would have said if we could have seen what goes on today.
Of which we shall speak in the far future, Johnny — next week, that is.