All Change Please
Did my grandfather see more change in his lifetime?
'Little Grandad', not the big one, was born four years after the Liverpool Overhead Railway opened in 1893. The docks were alive with activity, congested and overcrowded with sail and steamships. Horsepower was the only practical way to shift heavy loads including people. What a revelation to build the first electric elevated railway in the world. A first for automatic signalling, electric coloured light signals and escalators. Thomas Howells, a tailor, travelled the railway between Dingle and the Pier Head to work.
He died in the 1980s, in time for heart transplants to be perfected, not that he needed one. Apart from feeling under the weather for a few days in 1918 with the flu, he was never ill.
Vaccine rush in the 1920s
That was fortunate because sticking plasters weren't invented until the 1920s. Or vaccines for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis and then the discovery of penicillin in 1928. He was fortunate to miss the First World War, although his son was willing and able in time for the second.
Titanic, BBC, atomic bomb
As a teenager, Grandad must have read about the sinking of the Titanic in a newspaper in 1912. Fortunately, Marconi's new technology, the wireless telegraph saved hundreds of lives, although many more were still lost.
He never owned a car. He walked or used public transport. He never felt the need for a television set. The BBC started broadcasting television in 1927 when he was still a young man but radio was the main source of news, entertainment and propaganda, especially during the Second World War. It’s how he heard the headlines on 6th August 1945 when 80,000 in Hiroshima were killed instantly by the first atomic bomb.
Did he listen to Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon in 1969? I doubt he was that excited when he next spoke to Dad, either with the moon landing or his relatively new landline.
I thought my grandfather's generation must have witnessed more change in one lifetime than future generations could ever hope to achieve.
As a 'boomer' I can lay claim to a small part of my grandfather's history. But what life-changing events have I experienced beyond that?
There are more than you think. Three that immediately spring to mind are the internet, personal computing and mobile everything.
One which I thought profound but doesn’t count is colour television. I was stunned when the man from Radio Rentals arrived during the school holidays with our new rented TV. I was watching a repeat of The Virginian at the time. Suddenly it sprang to life from its monochrome prison.
I am going to include multi-channel TV though - hundreds of channels and no need to ever think about a schedule. The excitement of the Christmas edition of the Radio Times (TV schedule) which ran through to New Years Eve, gone forever. It didn’t bother me that it was largely repeats.
Speed of change
It isn’t just new technologies arriving, it’s the speed of adoption and how it has changed consumer behaviour as a result. Some have been life-changing for many of us. My business, CitNOW, could never have existed without the internet, search engines and broadband. There’s another one to add to my list.
Technically, it’s related to clever compression, squeezing more information down a straw. The straw has also been upgraded with a more recent shift to fibre optics. Streaming video, lots of data travelling super-fast, is a long way from my first dial-up modem when sending a single image was often overwhelming, and not for me.
Our own Covid pandemic
Few of us ever expected anything like this. Or that it would resemble in any shape or form the Spanish Flu of 2018. (It’s also a misnomer. It was only because of Spain’s neutrality and less press restrictions, that they started reporting on flu related deaths before anyone else). It killed an estimated 228,000 in the UK, making 1918 the first year on record in which deaths exceeded births. That’s almost 100,000 more UK deaths than Covid so far. Globally, the 2018 flu pandemic is thought to have been responsible for 50 million deaths. Covid currently stands at about 3.25 million.
We have also witnessed the speed of reaction to finding and developing a vaccine. Within a year of first reports, a number of vaccines, all highly effective, are now available. Rightly or wrongly, the 10 year development cycle for a vaccine has gone. The firebreak of social distancing is being replaced by rapid vaccination, at least in some countries. But it’s important to remember, pandemics are like wars, we are in this together.
Back to the future
I still have a few aspirations to add to my lifetime list. Will I fly on a plane with no human in the cockpit? Will planes even need one? Could make for safer flying no matter how uncomfortable it might sound. Even better if the jets powering it are electric or small nuclear reactors with no environmental impact built-in.
Ever more computing power to speed up and correctly diagnose aberrant cells stopping cancer before it’s started, combined with even better targeting of drugs. More automation will happen in all parts of society, not just medicine. Autonomous transport, will hopefully impact my life and I won’t own a car anymore. That has already started to happen. But when taxis don’t need humans, the cost to hire will make car ownership pointless.
I think a Mars landing is almost guaranteed, although how the super powers settle the debate over who owns what in space requires attention. There is a great opportunity for the world to unite when it comes to space exploration. But the US, for one, needs to learn how to play nicely with China which has developed its own space programme because NASA hasn’t been allowed to share.
The most exciting discovery I hope will be alien life. Something, anything. Hopefully, not a fully fledged creature with a bad temper and an eye on our blue planet.
Containable nuclear, without a nasty legacy, as described last week, seems to be close. And that’s exciting because it would be a big step in the right direction of ending world poverty.
I think the gains from discovery during my grandfather’s lifetime were extraordinary. He witnessed horse drawn cart and their replacement by automobiles. Atomic and nuclear power. 2 world wars, the discovery of penicillin, countless vaccines, radio, television, telephony and computing.
Many of these 20th century discoveries were unexpected. The story behind penicillin is serendipitous. Alan Turing’s voyage beyond enigma to the automatic computing engine was one man’s obsession.
Today, we are already building upon a solid foundation. The results may be spectacular but the size of the steps will be smaller.
What did I miss?