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History is driven by ideas and passions, and by unforeseeable events. The modern world might be very different if the German generals’ attempt to kill Adolf Hitler had succeeded, or if Lee Harvey Oswald’s attempt to kill John F. Kennedy had failed.
History is also driven by science and technology. Science is at the center of many of today’s political arguments—about climate change, evolution, definitions of the beginning and end of life. The technologies of economic growth (cars, factories, power plants) and of weapons production have created problems that other technologies (of conservation and miniaturization and communication) will presumably help solve.
The Atlantic was founded largely as an anti-slavery journal at a moment when technology was about to seriously affect the course of that debate. (Against the productive might of the industrialized North, the states of the slaveholding South stood very little chance in drawn-out warfare.) Ever since that time, even though its emphasis has been on public affairs and the arts, The Atlantic has consistently noted—with excitement, occasional concern, and serious attention—the inventions and discoveries of each age. These eight excerpts show the attempts of writers, frozen at particular moments in technological time, to imagine how the gizmos and breakthroughs they have just seen will matter in the long run. As a group they illustrate how prescient such assessments can turn out to be—and how silly. The more detailed a writer becomes about the scale and impact of an invention, the greater the potential giggle factor in retrospect. Airplanes that cut the travel time between Vienna and Paris to a mere ten hours! Word processors that spare you the need to hit “return” after you type each line! (The source of that last insight was, um, me, in an article twenty-four years ago. I should probably note at this point that I’m just writing the introduction—I didn’t choose the passages.)
But the harder a writer has tried to connect the technology of the moment to the permanent nature of individual and social life, the more prescient the assessment is likely to seem. The most famous of these passages is Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” which in 1945, before the first transistor existed, imagined the structure and value of the modern World Wide Web. What Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1937 about television’s likely effect on styles of thought, what Oliver Wendell Holmes foresaw in 1859 about how photography would change our view of the physical world, and most of what the other writers predicted stands up well now. And what Mark Twain wrote in 1880 applies to a predicament as fresh and modern as hearing one side of a cell-phone call.
The Age of Photography (June 1859)
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
In the mid-nineteenth century, photography was in its infancy. Louis Daguerre had developed the daguerreotype in 1837, and by the 1850s travel photography and photographic portraiture were beginning to catch on. In a much-cited 1859 essay, Oliver Wendell Holmes impressed upon readers the revolutionary implications of this new technology.
A Telephonic Conversation (June 1880)
by Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s family was one of the first in Hartford to install a telephone (which had been patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876) in its home. In 1880, Twain, bemused by this new device that permitted eavesdroppers to hear only one side of a conversation, wrote an amusing description of overhearing his wife talk on the telephone.
The New Talking Machines (February 1889)
by Philip G. Hubert Jr.
In 1889, Philip G. Hubert Jr., a noted architect and writer (his 1893 book Men of Achievement: Inventors remains in print today), commended Thomas Edison for his progress in developing the phonograph and predicted great things for its future, including books on “phonograms” and music reviews accompanied by sound clips.
Life As We Know It (July 1924)
by Arthur D. Little
In the early years of the twentieth century, standardization, mass production, and the rise of consumer culture combined with new scientific advances to transform the everyday lives of Americans. In 1924, Arthur D. Little, the MIT-educated chemical engineer who in 1886 founded the world’s first consulting company, took note of some of those dramatic changes.
Television and Radio (May 1937)
by Gilbert Seldes
In 1937, the impending commercial launch of television inspired Gilbert Seldes, a commentator on popular culture and the author of The Seven Lively Arts (1924), to consider how this new technology would affect radio. Soon after this essay appeared, he became the first director of programming for CBS.
As We May Think (July 1945)
by Vannevar Bush
Near the close of World War II, Vannevar Bush, the former director of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, urged scientists to turn their energies from war to the task of making the vast store of human knowledge accessible and useful. The “infostructure” he sketched out—including a proposal for what might be seen as a kind of precursor to hypertext—was destined to be realized in what we now know as the Internet.
Moving Toward the Clonal Man (May 1971)
by James D. Watson
As the science of embryology advanced in rapid strides, the geneticist and Nobel laureate James D. Watson—best known for his research on the structure of DNA—considered the potentially troubling implications of such research.
Living With a Computer (July 1982)
by James Fallows
Always a technophile, Atlantic contributor and editor James Fallows was one of the first writers to incorporate a personal computer into his life. A few years later, he explained for Atlantic readers how it worked and how it was subtly influencing the way he wrote.