The goal of this lecture is to provide historical context for the technological ferment we see all around us today.
As I told you last week, I believe we have arrived at a pivotal moment in human history, a moment made possible by the emerging technologies that are the focus of this course.
In the century ahead, we may very well redefine what it means to be human, for the first time taking evolution beyond the random processes that previously drove it.
We may achieve first contact with extraterrestrial life, extend the typical human life well beyond one hundred years, and fashion new forms of reality for our amusement.
We may also wage chemical, biological or information warfare on a scale that dwarfs past experience, erode traditional institutions to the point of collapse, or severely degrade the global environment.
Whichever of these various visions are realized, they will be enabled by the technologies we discuss in this class.
But technology is applied science, the translation of ideas into tangible tools.
It takes time for that process to unfold, and more time still — perhaps decades — for new technologies to spread.
The diffusion of technology seems to be facilitated more by democracy than dictatorship, more by markets than government fiat.
Perhaps that is the reason why most of what matters in explaining how we have arrived at where we are today in the evolution of technology has occurred in the West — the cradle of both democracy and capitalism.
It is no coincidence that Adam Smith’s seminal treatise on markets, The Wealth of Nations, and the Declaration of Independence were published in the same year — 1776.
I believe we can trace the genesis of today’s technological revolution back to an intellectual mood that was then sweeping Europe, a movement we have come to call the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment emphasized the value of tolerance and rationalism in human relations.
It embraced the growing study of science, and fostered the optimism about mankind’s prospect that made later political and technological progress possible.
Some historians have interpreted the Enlightenment as a reaction to the religious intolerance of the Reformation in the 16th century — the same intolerance that brought the Pilgrims to these shores in 1620.
Whether that was true or not, it clearly set the stage for the most inventive epoch yet seen in human history, the 19th Century.
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
The first half of the 19th Century was a relatively peaceful time, at least after Napoleon’s army was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
As a result, military science was largely neglected, and the great technological advances of the period originated in the commercial world.
Foremost among these were the telegraph and steam power.
The idea behind the telegraph actually originated in the late 18th Century, when various European nations constructed networks of optical signaling stations to quickly transmit official messages over long distances.
The networks didn’t work at night or in bad weather, but they nonetheless fostered the idea of a communications network that consisted of something more than men or horses carrying messages.
When Samuel Morse and others perfected the technology for electronic telegraphy in the 1840’s, the world was ready.
In 1846, there was exactly one experimental telegraph line in America — Morse’s 40-mile line between Washington and Baltimore.
Two years later 2,000 miles of line had been strung, and two years after that there were 12,000 miles operated by twenty different companies.
During the Civil War, Confederate and Union armies strung up 15,000 miles of line, in the process revolutionizing military command and control.
In the same decade, Western powers began laying submarine cables to communicate with their overseas outposts, so that messages previously requiring weeks to carry between, say, London and New Delhi, could now be transmitted in a few minutes.
As a new British newspaper appropriately named The Daily Telegraph proclaimed at the time, “Time itself is telegraphed out of existence.”
The telegraph was a prototypical emerging technology in that it eventually revolutionized every facet of human interaction — political, economic, military, etc.
Author Tom Standage has called telegraphy the “Victorian Internet,” not only because of its transformative impact but also because its spread was accompanied by considerable hype, such as the claim it would make newspapers obsolete.
As demand for more communications grew, inventors sought ways of boosting the carrying capacity of lines.
Alexander Graham Bell was working on one such idea, called the “harmonic telegraph,” when he stumbled upon the technology for telephones in 1875.
So the spread of telegraphy in the 1800’s anticipated many of today’s discussions about networking, bandwidth, encryption and the like.
Steam power proved to be just as revolutionary.
When the 19th Century began, the main way of moving man and material on land was by horse, and on water it was by sail.
Horsedrawn wagons or barges took weeks to convey small quantities of people and product over modest distances.
Ships at sea took weeks to carry similarly small cargoes over the elliptical routes dictated by wind patterns.
Steam power changed all that.
In the case of land travel it made railroads possible, greatly accelerating the pace of industrialization and revolutionizing military logistics.
In the case of sea travel, it fostered the steamship, which in turn facilitated the shift from wooden to metal ship construction.
Further refinements later in the century such as the screw propeller eventually gave rise to the dreadnought, the submarine and the ocean liner.
When conflict became more prevalent in the second half of the 19th Century, the impact of new commercial technologies on warfighting quickly became apparent.
For example, naval gun technology changed little between when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth and when the Civil War broke out, but during the second half of the 19th Century the advent of steam-powered, ironclad warships led to a complete transformation in seaborne firepower.
In 1860, the biggest gun in Britain’s imperial fleet was a five-ton smoothbore that fired round shot.
In 1885, the biggest gun was a 111-ton rifled cannon shooting 16-inch shells capable of penetrating three feet of wrought iron at 1,000 yards.
So even though the Imperial Navy spent much of the 19th Century resisting the introduction of steam power, in the end it could not ignore the appeal–and danger — of the new technology.
By the close of the 19th Century, the world’s leading military powers were racing to assimilate the fruits of technological revolution, from Marconi’s wireless telegraph to motor vehicles to machine guns.
The stage was thus sent for the most destructive conflict in history, the First World War.
Before leaving the 19th Century though, let’s pause to acknowledge that emerging technologies such as telephony and internal combustion engines were merely the most visible manifestations of a far bigger scientific revolution.
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