Sundin column: The miracle century: 1901-2000
Though scarred by two world wars and the Great Depression, the 20th Century was the greatest in human history. It was a century of miracles in mobility, communication, harnessing electricity, health care, comfort and convenience.
The automobile was in its infancy in 1901 and the first powered airplane flight was in 1903. It took a week to cross the Atlantic Ocean or the U.S. The Wright brothers’ primitive aircraft has evolved into the jet-powered plane that now makes it possible to cross them in a matter of hours. At the beginning of the century there were no paved roads connecting the country. Now we have an interstate highway system that connects the entire country, and there are only a very few towns we cannot get to on paved roads.
Early in the 20th Century Henry Ford introduced mass production into the automobile industry, making cars affordable for the working class, and today we cannot imagine life without the automobile. Mass production has expanded to bring the prices of all manufactured goods down to affordable levels, including the household appliances that make our lives easier. Not nearly as well known as Ford was Robert Goddard, who from the age of 17 had the wild dream of space travel. He virtually single-handedly created the science of rocketry and in 1920 produced the first liquid-fueled rocket that makes space exploration possible.
In 1901 telephone connection between communities was spotty and and most people did not have telephones. Now we can talk to people anywhere in the world with wireless cell phones via relay towers and satellites.
After two centuries of efforts by numerous scientists to unravel the mysteries of electricity, real progress was made as the 20th Century approached. Nikola Tesla, a European-educated electrical engineer from Croatia (who worked for a while with Thomas Edison) recognized the advantages of alternating electric current. He invented the AC generator, AC motor and the transformer, which allowed electric power generated by Niagara Falls to be transmitted several hundred miles to New York City. Electric power is now available throughout most of the world.
Home life in the second half of the Miracle Century has been revolutionized by electricity which makes possible all of the inventions which have made our lives more convenient and comfortable — refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers and air conditioning. In addition, improvements in television and the introduction of computers into our lives with their ready usability by the public and the exponential growth in their capability. They are considered essential in all offices and most homes. Computers are also in vast numbers of the mechanical products we buy, especially automobiles, which they may someday drive for us. Incorporated into rockets, computers and television have made it possible to land men on the moon and to launch dozens of probes to study all of the planets in the solar system and their satellites.
Medical science has also made giant strides in the 20th Century in surgical and dental techniques, vaccines, medications and diagnostic tools like MRI- and CT-scans. These, combined with the health benefits provided by readily available fresh fruits and vegetables, have increased life expectancy in the U.S. from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years in 2000 and nearly 79 years today. Since 1900 infant mortality has been reduced from 165 per thousand live births to just 7 in 2000, largely due to the rapid spread of central heating of homes in the early decades of the Century. Sadly, the U.S. ranks 27th among the developed countries in the world, six of which have infant mortality rates below 3 per thousand.
All of these 20th Century miracles make our lives richer and more enjoyable, but they come at a frightening cost that will confront our children and grandchildren. In the 21st Century, humanity is likely to deplete the sources of energy that took nature millions of years to produce. When the world runs out of petroleum, what will power automobiles, trucks, trains, airplanes and farm equipment? What will heat people’s homes when there is no more natural gas? Electricity, you say. But where is there a source of the enormous amount of energy needed to generate all that electricity? Only in coal, but the resulting global warming may make much of the world uninhabitable. Civilization may have to return to the horse and buggy era and the 1.5 billion population it could feed at the beginning of the marvelous Miracle Century. It won’t be pretty!
Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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