About Time

Sometimes it feels as though technology is moving so fast that it's hard to keep pace.  Of course if we're talking about transportation technology, then that's often literally true — for example if you're sitting in a metallic contraption moving at more than 1,300 miles per hour — but you get the point.

Actually, planes are a good example.  In 1903 the Wright Brothers made the first successful powered flight.1  The trip was a whopping 120 feet in length, meaning the entire flight occurred over a shorter distance than the wingspan of a 747.  Less than 70 years later, Neil Armstrong put his foot down on the moon.  That's nuts.  But is that typical, or has the rate of technological progress actually been speeding up?

Maybe that's tough to answer on a 20th Century scale, so let's step back a bit.  Like way back.   By way of introduction, perhaps you remember being traumatized by this at some point in your life:

It's only a cartoon, but you can imagine how often this scene played out during the age of the dinosaurs: some poor Stegosaurus getting whooped on by a ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex.  In fact, it happened precisely zero times.  We have this vision of the dinosaurs roaming the Earth together, but they roamed the Earth for a really, really long time, and different species came and went along the way.  In fact, more time separated the Stegosaurus from the T. Rex than separates the T. Rex from us.

We can think of technology a little like we think of dinosaurs.  Humans have been inventing things for a really long time, and the progression isn't necessarily steady or smooth.  Here are a few timelines that show some of the important technological milestones.

Timelines 1

It took quite a while for Homo sapiens to figure out how to roll stuff around on circular bits of other stuff, but then things started heating up.  After the not-so-impressive 397,000 years it took us to construct a wheeled cart,3 we only needed a measly 5,000 more to safely rocket somebody to the moon.

So that's the big picture: kind of slow going at first, but we got better.  Let's focus on some developments from a more modern period.  Two categories of thing we like to invent are: (1) things to move us around, and (2) things to help us talk to each other.  So here are some advances in transportation and communication.

Timelines 2

Timelines 3

It took us almost 350 years to go from the mass printing of characters on paper to being able to send those letters as electric pulses, but then it was only another 84 years before we could send our actual voices using electricity.  And then only 44 years before we could send our voices out through the freaking air.  You get the picture.

Transportation is similar.  If the Wright brothers could have managed it logistically in 1903, it would have taken them 18 days to fly across the United States.  Only ten years later that time would have been cut down to a little over two days.  Fast forward 50 years, and you can go coast to coast in a paltry six hours.

In an era when the Next Big Thing seems to be coming ever more quickly, what do you think the next 100 years might look like?  It's hard to imagine, but think about people who were born in 1880 and died in 1980.  They would have been old enough to watch the very first automobiles roll down the streets, and they were still alive to watch as human beings routinely launched themselves into outer space.  It feels like almost anything is possible a century from now.

Teachers, want to have this conversation in class?  Check out our newest lesson, About Time!


1.  Well, Orville did.  They took turns piloting over the course of four successful flights that day, but Orville made the first one.  Wilbur, being the older brother, made the first attempt earlier in the week.2  He promptly crashed, necessitating three days' worth of repairs.  I like to imagine Orville saying something like, "Um, maybe I'll take this one, bro..."

2.  Actually, they flipped a coin to decide who would get to take the first crack at it.  Not all big brothers are jerks.

3.  Still only slightly longer than it takes to assemble the average Ikea coffee table.


One thought on “About Time”

  1. Like the timelines idea with application for use with integers ...very interesting for integers apps... Researchable for topics of movement, communication letters, to writing from Pony Express to email.

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