I have often been asked, “What invention has made the largest change in our world?” And, “How has your life been changed by what we often call progress?” Those are very big questions without easy answers. Change sometimes happens quickly and sometimes it takes centuries. Often it takes place in spurts, especially when, after a long period of inactivity, one change affects another.
I like to separate changes into categories: Communication and travel/transportation and medical/surgical. Lesser changes have taken place in the areas of food and clothing.
Changes have been around for as long as time exists and we are now at a point in time where we can look back into ancient history and forward into the future.
Communication probably began with language, spoken and later on, written. To communicate over longer distances, fires, smoke signals, drum beats, and messengers were used as well as a variety of signs such as rocks piled in a certain way had a certain meaning. When electricity was harnessed, that led to the invention of the light bulb and the telegraph key. We still use red, yellow and green lights to direct traffic. I remember when a police officer would stand in the middle of a busy intersection with a hand operated stand that he rotated from “Go” to “Stop.” In an emergency, an officer used a white gloved hand to direct traffic around the scene of an accident.
The communication of today is all about the Internet, electronics, E-mail, texting, and cell phone. They have replaced the uniformed Western Union telegram delivery boy on his bicycle. We have already talked to a human being on the moon. What’s next? Mental telepathy?
Travel and transportation have seen many changes. I wonder who was the first to think of a better way to get from point A to point B? Must have been some guy with sore feet from walking all the time. Riding on an animal’s back or having an animal pull a wagon, must have been revolutionary ideas, except that building a wagon or a cart first required the invention of the wheel. Even then, dragging something heavy would be better than carrying it.
When I was growing up, there were mounted policemen, horse drawn wagons, electric streetcars, the United States Cavalry, and steam driven trains. I remember when basements were excavated using a horse and a metal scoop. The term “steam shovel” meant just what it said: A big shovel powered by a steam engine. Same as the term “steamship.” Automobiles have replaced horses and trains, and airplanes are replacing trains. Now we have people transported into space by the power of a rocket propelled ship.
Earlier this week I watched as the International Space Station sailed across the sky at an altitude of more than 120 miles and a speed of 38,000 miles per hour. It takes its crew of astronauts on a complete orbit of the Earth in just 90 minutes. People are already signing up for vacation trips to the moon or Mars.
In the medical/surgical field, I remember when my grandma broke her arm. She did not go to a hospital. There were no X-rays taken. The doctor used two wooden boards held in place by cloth bandages to immobilize the arm and after about six weeks it was as good as new. I remember when a doctor would write a prescription and the druggist would fill it just like a recipe for lemonade. A little of this and a little of that in a 4-ounce bottle of flavored syrup. “Take a teaspoonful every four hours.”
Powdered roots and chemicals were dispensed as powders, then compressed into pills and now we have patches that deliver medication through the skin. The biggest changes have been in surgery. It was once thought that touching the heart would cause it to stop, permanently. Now, a heart can be removed from a donor, dropped on the floor, washed off, and implanted in the chest of a recipient hundreds of miles away, and it beats.
Organ transplants, joint replacements, magnetic imaging, and vaccinations, have changed the lives of many patients. I have an implanted pacemaker. Will there someday be an implantable artificial heart?
Changes in the food we eat are less dramatic. We eat the same kind of foods, except now many food items that were available only “in season” are available anytime. Frozen foods allow for buying a complete meal that can be stored and eaten later. That is very different from the days when a chicken dinner began with catching the chicken.
Natural fibers like wool, silk and cotton have been somewhat replaced by synthetics, but hemlines will probably always go up and down.
Editor’s note: Straka can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.