The Colossus computer 1943
We are told that the pace of life today is accelerating exponentially, at a speed that is quite dizzying. Well, I’m not so sure. Let me explain.
Consider the amount of time it took to travel from London to Paris in 1066, 1466 and 1766. Leaving aside such unwelcome distractions as unfavourable weather conditions, highway robbery, war, pestilence and other acts of God, the reality is that there would not have been a significant difference. The mode of transport remained basically unchanged, either on horseback or in a horse-drawn chariot, cart or carriage. It took roughly three days to travel from London to Dover. Depending on tide and wind, a rough guess for a Channel crossing would be another day and then three more days to get from Calais to Paris. No doubt official couriers would manage it in less but for most travellers, the journey would take a week. Not much reduction in travel time down the centuries.
The Iron Horse changed all that, swiftly followed by the internal combustion engine and then the man-made Bird in the Sky. The world had shrunk to an extent that would have been unimaginable in bygone years
You might say that in the decades after the Second World War, we never had it so good. Actually, those were the words of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1957 and if you think about it, he wasn’t exaggerating. The number of labour-saving devices and gadgets of convenience - all affordable to most people - that became available is quite staggering: movies; television; colour film; washing machines; tumble driers; dishwashers; central heating; refrigerators stereos; transistor radios; fibre optics; cassette recorders…..and Wonderbra! The list is endless. In addition, there was the Mini, a symbol of Everyman’s new mode of transport, the car. The InterCity 125 was introduced in 1975, allowing the train to take the strain. The Boeing 707 was introduced in 1957, followed by its larger sister, the Boeing 747, the Jumbo Jet, in 1969, making long-distance flying almost commonplace. In 1969, man walked on the moon. Truly, it was an era of huge technological advance.
But since then? My wife and I were travelling north on the M5 the other day. Between Exeter and Taunton, the railway line runs adjacent to the motorway. A train heading in the same direction, travelling – I guess – at 100mph overtook us, who were travelling – of course – at a sensible 70mph. The thought struck me that transport has not greatly changed these past 50 years. The trains, wrong type of leaves notwithstanding, don’t go any faster. The speed limit on our roads is unchanged. I turned to my wife and made the following observation, “You know, Lin, air travel has not improved in the past five decades. In fact, in many ways, it has become worse.” We both reminisced about our first inter-continental plane journey in the early 1970s. The aircraft were new and the beef, medium rare, with a half-bottle of red wine as an accompaniment, was mouth-wateringly delicious. Last year, we made the same journey. The aircraft was the same; the meal was not. It was inedible. Furthermore, the hassle at either end was mind-numbingly tedious. The whole experience was no longer enjoyable; it was arduous and irksome.
In what ways is life better these days? In this context by ‘better’ I mean more convenient, a quantum leap in technological tools and appliances. Cars have improved in comfort, design and fuel efficiency but they are still…..well, cars. The average train journey today is no quicker than it was in the late Victorian years. Air travel briefly flirted with Concorde but then abandoned the project. Man went to the moon but then what? We still use washing machines, tumble driers, dishwashers and all the other domestic appliances – nothing fundamental has changed there. Computers have become smaller and smaller but they’re still computers. The technology has been refined but the principle remains the same. Mobile phones provide all the bells and whistles but they still look more or less the same as they did ten years ago. Driverless cars are still, to all intents and purposes, on the drawing board. Where are the machines that will whizz us from place to place in the air, programmed and automatic, never to collide? Where are the transporters answering to the command, “Beam me up, Scotty.”? Yes, Alexa can be very accommodating but she can also be bloody annoying at times.
It is said that England in its history has undergone five radical changes, when the country was transformed utterly and forever: the Norman Conquest (1066); the Black Death (1346-1353); The Civil War (1642-1651); the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840); the building of the first computer, the Colossus, during the Second World War. Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, England changed overnight, quite literally so. The Normans were now in charge. They built huge cathedrals and castles and the Anglo-Saxon populace was subjugated. The language of the court, of the nobility, of the law, of the church, of the ruling class throughout the land was now French. The Black Death wiped out over half the population and had profound effects on the social and economic stability of the country. The Civil War, aside from the bitter political bloodletting, accounted for about 190,000 deaths (4% of the population), including a king of England. The Industrial Revolution changed England from an agrarian to an industrial economy, with all those attendant benefits and upheaval. The development of computers has changed our world in ways that could scarcely be imagined hitherto. Since then?
As a general hypothesis, I would suggest that to most of us, the average Joe, the man in the street, Mr Everyman, the gentleman on the Clapham omnibus (I assume it still runs), the world doesn’t look that different from 50 years ago. Placing to one side the fashion excesses of that era, most things would look familiar to a traveller going back in time.
I am not a scientist and I am perfectly aware that there have been extraordinary advances made in recent years in myriad fields of science and technology, of which I remain only vaguely conscious. One area of technology that has advanced rapidly and for which all of us, at one stage or another in our lives, have been extremely grateful, is medical science. That is indeed a wonder.
I’m ready and waiting to be shot down on this. Responses on a postcard, please (a phrase that only goes to underline that I am probably stuck in a time-warp!).