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. —James Fallows
For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic/ideastour.