Age of Marvels

From the vantage point of twenty-first technology, it is easy for us to view nineteenth century America as being technologically primitive.  Our ancestors living then certainly did not view themselves in such a light.  They thought they were living in a time of incredible technological change, and they were right.  Within 30 years of the first half of the nineteenth century, steamships, railroads and the telegraph, along with hundreds of other inventions, revolutionized life more than any change in technology that we have witnessed in our lifetimes.

Americans were proud at the time of the technological revolution they were witnessing.  In the seventh of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Alton, Illinois on October 15, 1858, Douglas hit upon this theme:

But Mr. Lincoln says that when our fathers made this Government they did not look forward to the state of things now existing, and therefore he thinks the doctrine was wrong; and he quotes Brooks, of South Carolina, to prove that our fathers then thought that probably slavery would be abolished by each State acting for itself before this time. Suppose they did; suppose they did not foresee what has occurred,—does that change the principles of our Government? They did not probably foresee the telegraph that transmits intelligence by lightning, nor did they foresee the railroads that now form the bonds of union between the different States, or the thousand mechanical inventions that have elevated mankind.

When studying the nineteenth century, especially in America, it is important to realize that to Americans then the pace of technological change they regarded as one of the key elements of their day, and unless we understand this, it is hard for us to understand them.

Published in: on October 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Age of Marvels  
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