Seven great steps for mankind
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The fantastic progress of human history has been marked by seven major breakthrough discoveries.
The first was the development of agriculture and animal husbandry about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, enabling humans to advance from small nomadic hunting and gathering bands to permanent settlements of increasing sizes with food reserves and the aid of animal power.
Second was the invention of the wheel 5,000-6,000 years ago in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, originally for carts and chariots, but essential for mankind’s progress into the machine age.
Third was the invention of systems of writing and numerical notation about 5,000 years ago, also in Mesopotamia, which provided a means of keeping records and preserving and disseminating knowledge, the foundation of civilization.
The modern age began with the fourth – the use of fossil fuels, initially coal. Coal had been burned for heat for several thousand years, but it was not until 1785, when James Watt developed the steam engine, that mankind acquired a quantum leap in the availability of power, launching the Industrial Revolution.
The application of steam to power mechanized factories, ships, and railroads elevated Britain into world dominance, and made it possible for the first time in human history to move people, goods and information faster than the speed of a horse.
The fossil fuel that has had an even greater impact on the world is petroleum. As a liquid fuel, it made possible the internal combustion engine, which would power the automobile (1890) and the airplane (1903), and has replaced coal for ships and railroads, and for much of our electric power generation.
A third fossil fuel is natural gas, but its use has been limited primarily to heating and as a substitute for coal in generating electric power. As a liquid fuel, petroleum is the key to nearly all of the world’s modern methods of transportation.
Fifth is the unraveling of the mysteries of electricity in the late 1700s and early 1800s, making it the servant of mankind. The telegraph (1844) and telephone (1876) opened the door to instant communication. In 1879, inventor Thomas Edison built the first electric power generation and distribution system in New York City, using direct current.
But within a decade, his systems were being replaced with alternating current by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, a young Croatian engineer who had previously worked for Edison. Tesla recognized the superiority of alternating current for long-distance transmission through the use of transformers. The result was the electrification of industry, cities and homes, and the proliferation of household appliances.
The miracle of mechanized flight, first mastered by the Wright Brothers in 1903, is sixth. The Wrights beat several other researchers, including Alexander Graham Bell, in discovering the principles of flight. They ushered in the age of aviation, which has made rapid worldwide transportation possible for millions of people and millions of tons of cargo. Unfortunately it has also raised the impersonal destruction of cities and lives in warfare to unprecedented levels.
The seventh step to have a major effect on mankind is the integrated-circuit computer introduced in 1971. Computers have permeated every facet of human activity, starting with the introduction of the personal computer in 1981 and the outpouring of hand-held computerized devices of the past decade, which allow instant communication and access to virtually unlimited information. And computer chips are buried in and control the functioning of our automobiles, airplanes and the myriad of mechanical products we buy.
It may be fun to speculate about what is the next miracle over the horizon, just waiting to be discovered, but more to the point is the question of the permanence of the seven that are essential to our present way of life. The wheel and writing are both here to stay, but what about the rest?
Modern manufacturing and computers are dependent on electricity, which in turn depends primarily on fossil fuels for its generation. Modern agriculture and our means of transporting people and goods depend almost exclusively on fossil fuels. It is unsettling, to say the least, to visualize a world without fossil fuels to power our automobiles, planes, trucks, construction and agricultural machinery, and for generating the electrical power needed to run our factories and our homes.
Other options for generating electricity are being explored, but to date relatively little progress has been made toward finding a substitute for the massive amount of petroleum we use for transportation. Mankind’s future depends on finding that substitute.
– “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at email@example.com.
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