My grandparents were born before the twentieth century began. They witnessed incredible changes during their lifetimes. The electric light bulb was a new invention, as was the automobile. Indoor plumbing was still a rare luxury. Balloons and dirigibles existed, but no one had yet flown a heavier than air machine.
How did the wonders and horrors of the twentieth century affect them? Was it hard for them to adapt? In contemplating the issue, I’ve decided that it probably wasn’t so hard for them at all. They already had a lot of wonders that made the changing times easy to bear. They were born a couple of generations after the Civil War, a conflict far more disruptive and divisive to the American nation than any of its twentieth century conflicts. My grandparents came into a world of steam engines, industrialization, transcontinental railroads and instant communication by telegraph—across the nation and across the oceans. What they witnessed during their lives merely built upon the wonders that were already familiar to them. That balloons and dirigibles existed meant the airplane, first propeller driven and then jet powered, was merely a logical extension of a pre-existing concept. Telegraphs already made communication around the world instantaneous, so the telephone was not a complete surprise. Likewise, automobiles would seem a reasonable development from already existing railroads. My grandparents adapted to the radio and television, the automobile and airplanes with ease, even though my father remembers as a boy when electricity first arrived in his parent’s house.
Human beings, are remarkably adaptable. We quickly learn to take for granted the newest of marvels. When my cell phone drops a call or the battery dies while I’m surfing the web on it, I don’t think about the fact that ten years ago I wouldn’t have even had such a device. I’m only angry that it isn’t working perfectly now.
When I was born, computers were enormous contraptions that most people never interacted with. Now, computers surround us and we can’t imagine getting along without them. When I was in college, I wrote my term papers using a typewriter. Now I wouldn’t think of writing without a computer. But the process of writing—the typing aspect—remains the same. And oddly, the cost of a basic computer, in real dollars, is no more than the cost of a good electric typewriter back in those years when I was an undergraduate in college. But the modern computer does far more than any typewriter could imagine doing.
The first laser was demonstrated fifty years ago, in 1960. Now we take them for granted and much of the modern technology we use every day makes use of laser light: our DVD players, Blu-ray players, and CDs (which are going the way of the record players they replaced, being themselves replaced by MP3 players); they scan our products when we check out at a store. The military currently uses them in weapons systems for guiding bombs and bullets. And they’re just beginning to turn them into the sort of weapons that once only existed in Star Trek.
When I graduated from college, the personal computer was rare and expensive. CDs had not been invented. We used record players and cassette tapes. The first VCR I ever saw was a Betamax that one of my professors used to show us a documentary in a history class. Certainly no one yet owned their own video camera. Film was still being used in cameras. Pay phones were easy to find. And nothing was digital.
And yet somehow, all those things that my children now take for granted, that have existed their entire lives, I have managed to adapt to. I didn’t fall into a fetal position at the wonder of the new gadgets. Instead, I adopted personal computers nearly as soon as I could afford them. I moved from records to CDs to an iPod. I went from film to digital cameras easily, and transitioned from VCR to DVD to Blu-ray. I went from dial up CompuServe to dial up internet to broadband within a decade or so. I was an early adopter of the cell phone and now own a smart phone that runs Google’s Android operating system. I surf the web on my phone faster than I accessed CompuServe by dialup. My cell phone has more internal memory and better graphics capability than my first computer–a Commodore VIC-20. In fact, it has more than twenty times the storage space of the first hard drive I ever owned and it operates at a speed literally a thousand times faster than that Commodore.
In the same way, my grandparents happily embraced new gadgets. My grandfather owned a wind up Victrola that played 78 rpm records. When they became available, he bought electrically powered record players and eventually migrated to the long playing 33s. He enjoyed crystal radio sets and eventually owned a new transistor radio. He got a color television as soon as he could and loved fiddling with every new thing that came along. He criticized a neighbor whose new car lacked a windshield washer, wondering why someone would even think of purchasing a vehicle without it.
I suspect, if he were still alive, he’d be on Facebook playing Farmville—when he wasn’t listening to music on his iPod.