It’s hard to believe how much society has changed in the last 150 years. I went sightseeing in Washington DC this weekend and got to witness this transformation secondhand.
My first stop was the National Gallery of Art, where the paintings showed a hardly changing lifestyle that started evolving dramatically in the 1850s.
There are small differences in the two paintings above, but they are mostly cosmetic. I doubt many people would notice if I switched the paintings without switching their captions.
The pace of change quickly accelerated during the middle of the 19th century. With the development of steam engines and manufacturing, the delicate buildings of the previous era were suddenly supplanted with steel trains, industrial-looking factories, and billows of smoke.
After walking around the Gallery of Art for a little while, I dropped by the Museum of American History. There I found several exhibits showcasing “American Firsts”: the first Singer sewing machines (1850s), the first typewriters (1860s), the first light bulbs (1880s), and the first cars (1900s).
It blows my mind that society can shift so rapidly and so suddenly. For me, thinking about the last 150 years through the eyes of my ancestors underscores the near-unfathomable progress of human civilization.
My grandfather’s grandfather was born around 1860, shortly after Darwin and Marx had published their major treatises. He grew up as the Civil War was beginning and the first transcontinental railroad was being built. He didn’t have any electric lighting and genetics was an unknown concept.
My grandfather’s father was born in 1885, just after the light bulb was patented by Edison. He grew up without cars, radios, or movies, although all of those things began hitting the mainstream as he got older.
My grandfather was born in 1927, around the time that the first commercial radio stations were beginning their broadcasts and just before the first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered. As he grew up, my grandfather witnessed the arrivals of talking movies, television, and commercial flight.
My father was born in 19XX (he doesn’t like to reveal his age), shortly after the atom bomb was dropped and the first computer was built. During his younger years, my dad lived through the discovery of DNA and the quick progress of man from Earth to Earth’s orbit and then all the way to the moon. It’s amazing to think that the computers inside of Apollo 11 could only be programmed with punch cards, and even more incredible to realize that modern computers hadn’t even existed until 25 years earlier.
I was born in 1981. Punch cards were no longer in wide use, my alma mater had only recently started accepting female undergraduates, and cars and intercontinental flights had become commonplace. I turned 30 last year, and the world has already changed so much since I was born: we’re starting to see electric cars, planning on sending people to Mars, and almost every gadget has a touchscreen and a CPU that put the computers of the 70s and 80s to shame.
Assuming I have kids one day, I wonder what new things they will experience as they’re growing up, and what their kids will experience, too. Will they know what a keyboard is? How about gasoline? Will they be reading their granddad’s 2012 blog posts while staying at a Martian colony? Will they even know what reading is, or will knowledge be something they can acquire more efficiently and directly? The last 150 years have brought unbelievable changes, discoveries, and inventions, and I’m really excited to see what the next 50-75 years will bring.
Okay, enough about the past and the future — it’s time to focus on the present. Here are some photos from this weekend’s sightseeing…
The ceiling inside of the Library of Congress. It had the look and feel of an old book illustration.
The Library of Congress is filled with many wonderful inscriptions, like this one.
Arlington Cemetery. There are over 400,000 graves here. =(
Arlington Cemetery with the Washington Monument in the background.
Albert Einstein Memorial. He looks characteristically playful.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with the ever-present Washington Monument in the background reflection.
Obligatory White House Photo
My first Quora meetup! This was in many ways the highlight of the weekend. It was a very nice get-together with great conversations and interesting people. I hope I have the chance to go more of these in the future.