The Conquest of Time

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First - time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

What Makes the Modern World Modern?

A person whisked out of the year 1500 and dropped into 1800 would find the world changed but recognizable. Ships would be more advanced but were still powered by sail. Farming was still done by animal-pulled plow. Weapons were still muskets and cannons. The one really different feature would be the steam engine, but by 1800 the steam engine had not completely changed the world. In contrast, a person whisked out of 1800 into today would find a very unfamiliar world. Would such a person be able to comprehend credit cards, video games, airplanes, microwave ovens, automobiles, or television?

The root changes that made the modern world what it is can be described as the near elimination of constraints of space and time. These two changes are deeply intertwined. We shall also see repeatedly that the real lifestyle-changing technology was often fairly primitive, and that modern high technology is often just an improvement on a revolution that was already won using much more primitive methods.

A Book About Language and What it Tells Us

One very useful source of information on the transition to the modern world is Bill Bryson's Made in America. Although it's a history of English in America, the last half of the book is a remarkably useful summary of the development and impact of modern technology. The fact that a language book is such a useful source on technology is interesting. Bryson has a lot to say about colonial English but it doesn't tell us much about 18th century technology. But after about 1850, the picture changes radically. America becomes such a technological society that technology dominates our language. New terms flood the language, technology becomes a source of imagery, and technology becomes a focus of our speech because it becomes a focus of our lives.

Saving Time


Technologies for communicating instantly across wide areas have always been around. Signal fires and smoke signals have been used in many times and places. In the Roman Empire, chains of signal towers could be used to send messages the breadth of the Empire within hours, limited only by the time it took each tower to read and relay the signals. In the 19th century, chains of signal towers employing semaphore signals - systems of colored arms that could be set in different positions - were erected in a number of European nations. The inventors of these early systems solved many problems in information technology, such as ways of compressing signals and techniques for detecting and correcting errors in transmission. These systems were actually called telegraphs. The heliograph made use of sunlight reflected off mirrors to send messages. It had the obvious drawbacks of being usable only in daylight and clear weather, but the great advantage of portability, and saw some use by the U.S. Army in the Southwest, where conditions for its use were excellent. All of these technologies were special-purpose systems, limited only to extremely important and official messages, and they had little impact on the everyday lives of most people.

All that changed in 1844, when Samuel Morse sent the first electrical telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore. The word telegraph had been around for decades, as we have seen, and the device itself was actually invented in 1831 by Joseph Henry of Princeton (the same Henry famous in chemistry and physics). Morse perfected its practical and commercial application. At about the same time, he was doing the same thing with photography in America. By 1850, America had thousands of miles of telegraph lines. News, not just national but local, and personal messages could be sent instantly and comparatively cheaply. The effect was, pardon the pun, electrifying. When Thoreau lamented that modern man would get up from a nap and ask if there was any news, he was referring to the impact that instantaneous communication had on society.

The telephone, radio, television, and the Internet are all fascinating technologies, but the telegraph is really what changed the world. The telegraph marked the transition from a world without telecommunications to a world with it.

To connect the East with the newly-won territories on the Pacific, a group of entrepreneurs reverted to an idea millennia old - fast riders. The Pony Express was inaugurated in April, 1860. It made it possible to get information from coast to coast in about a week, at the then-staggering cost of $5 an ounce for letters, but even as the riders traveled, they were being paralleled by telegraph line. The Pony Express went out of business after 19 months and never turned a profit, surely the most colorful and romantic business failure in history. The telegraph line to California was completed just before the outbreak of the Civil War and was instrumental in keeping the far West in the Union. We tend to forget that America had frontiers in other directions as well; Californians knew of Lincoln's assassination within hours, but the news took two weeks to reach northern Maine.

America and Europe might be tied internally by telegraph lines, but news between the two still took at least a week by fast steamship. Transoceanic telegraph cables were proposed in the 1850's. The technology is daunting. The cable has to be insulated well enough to survive immersion in thousands of feet of ocean water, and means have to be developed to retrieve the cable and fix it if it breaks. Cable-laying ships were devised and means of insulating the cable as it was laid perfected, and the first transatlantic telegraph cables were in service by 1868. By 1900 the world's oceans were laced by cables.

Two vignettes from the dawn of trans-oceanic telegraphy are revealing:

Death and Rescue in the Arctic

In 1876 the steamer Jeanette left San Francisco for the Bering Strait, in an attempt to reach the North Pole from the Pacific side of the Arctic. The attempt was a failure; the ship never got beyond 76 degrees north, was frozen in the ice, and eventually crushed. The crew dragged longboats over the pack ice and rowed to the Arctic coast of Siberia. One boat capsized in a storm and the other two separated. Both boats landed with the occupants horribly frostbitten and near starvation. The crew of one managed to reach a village, and two of the healthiest survivors sledged over a thousand miles south to Irkutsk where there was - a telegraph. They were able to get word to America of the fate of the expedition. Rescue expeditions had been searching the Arctic for two years looking for them. Tragically, the crew of the other boat was located in the spring, all dead of starvation and cold. But by 1876, survivors of an Arctic expedition were able to communicate with the rest of the world from the middle of Siberia.

Escape from a Penal Colony

After a failed revolt in Ireland, ten Irish rebels were exiled for life to the penal colony of Australia. After ten years, sympathizers devised a plan to free them. They hired an American whaling vessel to travel to Australia to carry the escapees. Meanwhile, advance men traveled across America and then across the Pacific by ship. Two groups of conspirators traveled in opposite directions to rendezvous on the opposite side of the planet. The prisoners escaped and were spirited out to the American ship, while British authorities commandeered the only other ship around, a coastal steamer. After a tense confrontation in which the whaler nearly rammed the steamer, the convict ship made it safely into international waters. Now to get to America. Had this happened a decade later, the British Navy would certainly have intercepted them, but since there was not yet a telegraph line to Australia news of the escape failed to reach Britain in time and the Irish rebels made good their escape.

The interplay of technological progress in this episode is fascinating. The escape worked because transportation technology made it possible to travel freely around the globe, but information technology had not quite caught up.

A New Rhythm

As James Burke points out in The Day the Universe Changed, until recently, the number of people living at any one time depended fundamentally on the weather, which in turn dictated the harvest. It is still true, as Nobel Prize winning agronomist Norman Borlaug pointed out, that "the single most important event on Earth each year is the harvest." The single biggest seasonal rhythm faced by humans was cyclic food availability and variety. New crops and farming techniques in the 18th century created new food surpluses, and the development of reliable canning techniques in the early 19th century made it possible to eat a variety of foods at all seasons of the year. If canned foods seem bland to today's palate, they were amazing to those who experienced them for the first time. Wrote one admirer:

M. Appert [the first successful commercial canner] has found the art of fixing the seasons. At his hands spring, summer and autumn live in bottles, like those delicate plants which the gardener protects under a dome of glass against the intemperate weather.

The invention of refrigeration opened new horizons in food preservation. Even before there were refrigerators there was ice - cut off northern lakes in winter, protected by sawdust, and shipped as far as China in the 19th century. Improvements in transportation - first rail, then truck, now air - make it possible for consumers in the developed world to have fresh food at all seasons of the year.

The daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset began to change in the early 19th century with the advent of gas lighting. Before this time, lighting was provided mostly by candles, which were made of wax (expensive) or tallow. Shorn of all the folksy and quaint imagery, burning a tallow candle amounts to burning congealed grease, and smells exactly as appetizing as it sounds. Candles of any kind provided poor light at best and coated everything with soot. Gas for lighting was initially a byproduct of manufacturing coke, and was first used in lighting nearby factories. It was so successful, as well as being cheaper than candles, that investors began looking to expand the market. By 1807 prototype lighting systems were installed along a few London streets, by 1823 all the major cities in England had gas lighting (300 miles of gas mains) and by 1850 there were 2000 miles of gas mains in England. Gas also caught on in America; Baltimore had gas lighting before many European cities.

The good news was that improved lighting made the streets safer and made it possible to have a vastly greater array of social activities in the evenings. The bad news was that lighting made it possible to have longer work hours. The good news about the bad news was that productivity rose, prices fell, and the workers got to use at least some of the newly-available evening time for themselves. In addition to recreation, workers' organizations set up evening classes teaching a wide variety of subjects. Here again, while the upper classes were debating how much, if at all, to educate the lower classes, the lower classes were settling the issue on their own.

What if you live too far from cities to take advantage of gas lighting, as was the case for most Americans? The best lighting material available about 1800 was sperm oil from whales. Sperm whales have a large fluid-filled cavity in their skulls, the function of which is still not entirely clear, but it is a clean, bright-burning illumination fuel. In the early 19th century American whalers roamed the seas hunting whale oil. But the coke-manufacturing process generated liquids as well as gases, and these turned out to be cheaper and superior to whale oil (fortunately for the whales). The manufacture of coal oil for lighting soon became an industry in its own right, and kerosene derived from natural petroleum seeps also came into use. In 1857 the first deliberately-drilled petroleum well was sunk in Pennsylvania and kerosene soon became the dominant lighting fuel. The distillation process also generated other fluids, too light, volatile, and flammable to be suitable for use in lighting, and these were dumped or burned as waste products. The term applied to this waste material was gasoline. (Before you recoil in horror, the scale of the 19th century petroleum industry was so small that the total amount wasted was insignificant by modern standards.)

In cold climates, heating has always been a matter of survival as much as comfort. What has really changed the seasonal rhythm of the world is air-conditioning. On a trip to Hawaii, I noticed that the airport concourses were simple elevated troughs with slab roofs and no windows. I'd seen open hotel lobbies, but I just assumed they could be closed off if necessary. But these concourses were never closed off, because it never gets cold in Honolulu (the all-time record low temperature there is 59 degrees.) Imagine living in a place where it never, ever, gets cold, where working hard means overheating and taking hours to recover from it. What would that do to your concept of work? Your sense of urgency to get things done? Many stereotypes of the pace of life in the tropics have a strong element of Western ethnocentrism and racism (though, curiously, nobody considers it racist or ethnocentric to observe that "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun") but they also contain a great deal of truth, based solidly in climatology and human physiology.

Artificial heating is as simple as building a fire, but artificial cooling is a lot harder. In many hot regions people have devised technical and cultural innovations to lessen the effects of heat, but true cooling could only be achieved by either going to someplace cool (say the mountains) or storing snow and ice into the summer. Both were largely limited to the rich. Artificial refrigeration units were invented in the mid-19th century, and air-conditioning for buildings came into use in the 20th century. Really widespread air conditioning only became available after World War II. It's safe to say the economic vitality of the Sun Belt is largely due to air-conditioning (imagine trying to live in Houston without it!)


More than other elements of the modern world, the quest for speed has older roots. Water and wind had been used to drive machines for centuries, but they are subject to weather conditions and restricted in location. They are not always located where they are needed. The search for some other power source began about 1690 when Denis Papin conceived of using gunpowder to drive a piston. He failed to come up with a workable machine. About 1700 Thomas Savery devised an engine for lifting water using the expansion of steam in a cylinder. It worked, after a fashion, but was very inefficient. After doing the work, the cylinder was cooled with a jet of water. About 1705 Thomas Newcomen happened to be present when a seam broke on a Savery engine and water got inside. The steam condensed instantly, sucking the piston back down with enough force to wreck the machine. Newcomen was so impressed he designed an engine where the "accident" happened every stroke. This engine was a lot faster and more powerful than Savery's, and Newcomen engines were in use pumping mines around the world right into this century.

In defense of Papin, eventually a machine was built that operated a piston with gunpowder, but something radically unlike what Papin envisioned. Automatic weapons are effectively piston engines run by gunpowder. The gunpowder actually powers two pistons. One is the bullet. The other is the bolt, which is driven backward, allowing the next bullet to be loaded, by which time the bolt is driven forward by a spring and the weapon is ready to fire again. His concept of using explosives to drive pistons in an engine was finally realized in the internal-combustion engine, although the explosive is a fine mist of gasoline.

According to legend, James Watt was watching the tea kettle boil in his mother's wee cottage in Scotland when he got the idea to launch the Industrial Revolution. As usual, the legend is wrong and the reality is a lot more interesting. Watt was part of a brilliant circle called the Scottish Enlightenment that arose in Edinburgh in the mid-1700's. Watt was the instrument maker for the University of Edinburgh, and while fixing a model Newcomen engine, he realized that the act of alternately heating and cooling the same vessel was very inefficient. He devised a different design that bled the spent steam off into a separate condenser, so that the steam cylinder was always hot and the condenser always cool. The Newcomen design had been quite suitable for pumping mines, but the new engine's speed was governed only by how fast the steam could be let in and drawn off. Since it was faster, it could be used for powering applications undreamed of with Newcomen's engine. Since it was more powerful, it could be made smaller than a Newcomen engine. It was possible to power individual machines. It could be put on vehicles.

In addition to faster machines, modern productivity required a conceptual advance: mass production. The British Navy was already using mass production to make pulleys for its vast fleet, and if individual pulley parts varied a bit, it didn't really matter. It is hard for us to realize that two centuries ago every single object was one of a kind, handmade. Individual nuts and bolts, once made, were tied together by string because every single one had slightly different diameter or threads. The American, Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin) conceived of making identical parts and persuaded Congress to put up some money for the experiment. It took some doing - doubters said it was impossible - and as usual the doubters were right. The machine tools of the day weren't quite up to the task and the parts had to be hand-finished. Nevertheless, Whitney dumped the parts of a dozen muskets on a table, grabbed parts at random, assembled a dozen muskets, and every one worked. The impact was tremendous - imagine pulling parts at random from a junkyard and building a working car - and Congress easily allotted Whitney the funds to perfect the technology. Thus Whitney became the father of another staple of modern America - the defense contract cost overrun.

If America had the machines and concepts for mass production in the early 19th century, why is the 20th century the age of consumer goods? The answer is that to create a consumer society, it's not sufficient to produce the goods, they have to be transported to the consumer.


Return to Course Syllabus
Return to Course Notes Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 18 September 1998, Last Update 10 December 1998

Not an official UW Green Bay site