Earth image

I recently found myself thinking about the changes that have occurred during my lifetime, not the personal changes though there’s been quite a few of those, but the big ones, those that have changed mankind. The industrial revolution had that effect on civilization, nothing was ever the same after that. The changes that I’m thinking about are on that scale, world changing events that have all  happened during in my lifetime. It’s unbelievable that the world could change so dramatically in such a relatively short period. The photograph above couldn’t exist before WW2.

So how about WW2 for starters, I lived through it and was affected by it. When I say ‘world changing’ I mean exactly that, there was an English invention that was promptly given to the Americans, who described it as “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores” it was the resonant cavity magnetron, The forerunner of radar.

Consider the aircraft of the WW1 – 1930’s era, fabric bi-planes, and then consider the Lancasters, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and B-17 Flying Fortress’s of a decade later, an unbelievable aviation evolution!

Then consider the evolution of the jet engine, it happened simultaneously in Germany and England during WW2, Frank Whittle developed the jet engines that were used by the RAF in WW2 in the Gloster Meteors that I flew in. In Germany the Messerschmidt Me 263 outflew anything the allies had but by then it was too late. But they were also experimenting with rocket propulsion, in the Messerschmidt 263 and the V2. Similar liquid fueled rocket research was happening in the US, USSR and Germany simultaneously but Germany had a definite lead, it all was confiscated by the US in 1946, spoils of war.

The Manhatten project led to the atomic bomb which was being developed in the later stages of WW2.

The confiscated V2’s led to a total research program being established in White Sands New Mexico which in turn evolved into the US space program, ICBM’s, [of course with nuclear warheads] NASA, Moon shots et al.

But beyond  the ability to launch rockets into space it led to a whole new previously unimaginable world; Space stations, communications satellites, navigation satellites weather satellites, research satellites, and espionage satellites. Plus the Hubble space telescope and man on the moon.There’s currently over a thousand satellites circling the earth!

All of which of course have given us GPS, cell phones, smartphone, satellite phones, satellite TV and accurate mapping.

And then there’s computers and the internet. The computer also evolved from WW2 as a result of the German Enigma coding machine with it’s unbreakable codes, it’s widely believed that Alan Turing at Bletchley Park was responsible for breaking the codes by creating a primitive computer and look what that started.

And now there’s CERN and soon we’ll all know how it all began.

Christ, what a lifetime!

Did I miss anything apart from recording tape, digital audio, LP’s, CD’s, mp3’s, VHS, DVD, lasers, barcodes and digital cameras.  Google, Wiki, social websites, and of course the total pop music revolution that began after WW2 and continues today?


  1. I can’t add much to the inventions mentioned above, but in the UK the post-WW2 National Health Service undoubtedly changed people’s lives for the better. My sister-in-law is coming up for 100 this year (100!) – she has outlived her first husband and her only son; also most of her immediate family. I can’t imagine the changes she has lived through.

  2. Great post GF! Even in my much shorter life, the changes have been pretty unbelievable. When I try to explain to 18 year old university students that I don’t have any photos of myself at university because digital cameras didn’t exist, they look at me as if I’m 100 years old (I’m only 39!)!!

    You missed all the social changes (it still blows my mind that homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967), but maybe that’s another post…

  3. A couple of corrections. The German jet fighter was the Messerschmitt 262. The 263 was a development of the earlier Me 163, which was rocket-powered. I expect that you just made a typo, though.

    Technological change is an interesting subject, especially the pace of such change. It is a clear example of Sir Isaac Newton’s comment that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.“. In other words, technological change is a cumulative process, but one that requires a lot of preconditions to happen.

    If we look at Europe at the time of the Renaissance, in real terms, technology was pretty much (with minor differences) at the same level as it had been at the time of the end of the western half of the Roman Empire, but from around 1450 onwards we see an almost constant rise in the complexity of technology and the application of technology in more and more areas of life. Much of this was driven by the rise of the nation state and the growth of education and scientific study. Those things were driven by specific circumstances, not least the Reformation and the opening up of Atlantic trade routes (which in turn forced the pace of ship building and navigational technology). It is also a sad reflection on human nature that much of the development of technology has been driven by military imperatives. The corollary is also true; technological changes have driven militarism and warfare, leading to what we know as a succession of arms races. Can I recommend a short story by Ambrose Bierce, “The Ingenious Patriot“?

    Here is a link to the story – http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/IngPat.shtml

  4. …and after the centuries of exponential development of technology and understanding of the universe, underpinned by rational analysis and rigorous scientific methodologies, humans still retain their infinite capacity for self-delusion, blind prejudice and belief in unproveable theories and illogical phenomena.
    We’re so clever and so stupid, all at the same time. It’s almost like we’re building the most sophisticated and technologically advanced banana skin that we possibly can…..

  5. Carole: Of course you’re right, It was the 262 and the 263 was rocket powered. Thanks for the input re. the post Columbus era, it’s also one of the most fascinating periods of English history. A favorite book of mine is ‘The History of very nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson, he devotes a lot of space to all the British scientific giants; I’ve often wondered why it was us and why France, Spain, Italy et al didn’t really contribute.
    There is another aspect that Panther hints at: when I was in school we were taught that the population of the world was 2.5 billion, it’s now 7.5 billion, it’s tripled in my lifetime. If it continues at that rate there could be over 20 billion by the year 3000, and they’ll all need food, water, sewage facilities etc, god help us!
    I think this relates to Chris’s comment about the nature of mankind.
    And then there’s climate change!

    • Interesting that you say that “ I’ve often wondered why it was us and why France, Spain, Italy et al didn’t really contribute.“.

      This is one of those multi-faceted issues. The first point to make is that history written in English and from a British (and also American) perspective has long been dominated by what historians call Whig historiography, which basically means a historical narrative that has been designed to tell the story of the inexorable rise of Anglo-Saxon world power via parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The Wikipedia article – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whig_history – explains it reasonably well. Although the Whiggish Narrative has been pretty much discarded in serious academic historical life, it still holds sway in virtually all popular history written in English. It is one of my bugbears that this essentially constructed hindsight view, written to create a specific socio-political narrative, is taken as the unvarnished truth in the minds of the public (insofar that most people ever think of history at all).

      The second point, and this is a more historical one, is that to see how England (and later Great Britain) came to dominate certain areas of technological development, one has to understand how the flow of European history proceeded from the 1450s until, to pick an arbitrary end point, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. We need to look at the way that the Reformation influenced the development of different societies in Western and Southern Europe and the way that the monarchies and other political systems of the different states were moulded by a range of factors.

      I would argue that the geographical location of England, the Dutch Republic and France enabled those countries to compete with Spain and Portugal in opening up global trade, while Mediterranean trade became a less important generator of wealth. At the same time, we need to look at how the Counter Reformation worked in southern, Catholic Europe, compared with how the various Protestant versions worked in northern and western Europe. We also need to consider the effects of the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries upon the development of the different nations, not least in how the outcomes of those wars affected the rise (or not) of absolute monarchies and more democratic governmental systems. We also need to understand the differences between the societies of France, Spain, Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia (to name the Great Powers of the 18th century).

      We need to remember that neither Italy or Germany existed as unified states until the second half of the 19th century.

      It is a huge topic. I’ll stop now.

      • And Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Holland all used their technological advantage to exploit all the non-European cultures of the world, riding on this apparent example of ‘European superiority’ to treat them as inferior and thus ripe (and ‘divinely destined’) for domination.
        Recent times are showing us the ultimate effect of the European powers’ habit of drawing lines on a map to allocate these ‘inferior’ peoples to ‘countries’, irrespective of context. The inevitable conflicts, exacerbated by our inept meddling, are generating death by the bucketful and refugees by the boatload coming from the Middle East. Our earlier efforts have combined to ensure the continuance of fiefdoms, nepotism, corruption, cruelty, disease and poverty in Africa, from which people are also desperate to escape.
        Our response to these legitimate reactions? ‘Go back to where you came from’. If only the places and peoples we exploited had been able to say that.

      • Carole: We obviously see this subject from different perspectives, mine is more singular. When I think about it what comes to mind are names like Newton, Rutherford, Darwin and Faraday, and in a slightly different realm, Bessemer, Stephenson, Alexander Bell, Brunel, James Watt and Fox Talbot. All men who’ve made enormous contributions to world civilization. I’m not dismissing all our European neighbors but I’m aware of how numerically superior the English were. Germany is the only one that comes close and Germany certainly leads in terms of music.

        • You have to ask the question, though, about what conditions allowed these British people to develop, learn and make their contributions? What was it about British intellectual and cultural life that created the conditions for them to flourish? Also, are you not guilty of cherry-picking names? How about the scientific contributions of Pierre and Marie Curie, Pasteur, Van Leeuwenhoek, Mendel, Ampère, Niépce, Gallileo, Copernicus, Lavoisier or countless others?

  6. Chris: Not sure that colonialism was based on technological superiority, I think it might have been more on wealth, which of course was related to technology. Wealth gave England the resources to create the greatest navy in the world, to be augmented by the greatest army. Both of these existed in large part to control the interests of wealthy landowners who chose to exploit tropical countries to grow exotic products like fruit, sugar and rubber from which they made more millions. Just look at the histories of Jamaica and India to see the scars that our military left behind and how the ‘natives’ were treated by our military.
    And now we’ve come full circle, the chickens are coming home to roost.

    • Colonialism cannot be disentangled from technology. It was the more advanced technology of the colonial powers that allowed them to dominate much of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

      I would not dispute that Britain had, for a long time, the greatest navy in the world, but certainly not the greatest army. British armies were always small when compared with their continental rivals and there are no examples of Britain acting alone in any land wars from the beginning of the early modern period until the 20th century. When you look at the continental wars of the horse and musket period, Britain was always fighting as part of a coalition of some kind and the well-known “British” victories turn out to involve huge numbers of allied troops. Look at Marlborough, all of his victories were won in alliances with the Austrians, various German states and Dutch and Wellington was similarly the commander of armies made up from many sources. Of course, when we look at the colonial period, Britain was able to dominate many non-European peoples, but that comes back to the technological edge, and even then there were always defeats, and we should not ignore the role of non-European troops in British colonial armies.

      • Carole: There’s too many issues here to deal with all of them, you’re interested in social conditions and I’m interested in results, whether they be scientific or inventions.
        I’m not concerned with the wars that the British army were involved with nor any of their allies, I’m more interested in the fact that many regiments were permanently stationed in India to protect the interests of the East India Company and to suppress the regular revolts by the indigenous populations. And they did so with great ferocity. The only technology involved was the rifles, pistols and cannons. And as you travel around rural Jamaica you’ll see remnants of the British army’s presence there also.
        A sad part of all of this was that the British army was recruited from otherwise unemployed working class men, often from the north of England, who were brainwashed into thinking that they were ‘English’ just like their officer class brethren and therefore superior to the ‘wogs’ they were being paid to kill.
        You ask ‘what conditions allowed these British people to develop, learn and make their contributions? I think I’ve already stated that I think it was class and wealth. Class = wealth and only the privileged were able devote their time to pursuing independent research. Many of them were of the clergy.
        Perhaps I am guilty of ‘cherry picking’, I may be suffering from a one track mind on this subject and I’m embarrassed that I overlooked Niepce and Daguerre specifically but also Galileo and Copernicus since I’m interested in all their contributions. Mea Culpa.

        • Ah, but someone with a background in history and a lifelong commitment to gaining as much historical knowledge as possible, I most strongly believe that one cannot disentangle “results” from “social conditions”, nor from environment, politics, geography and countless other influences.

          I would argue most strongly that one of the main differentiators in the development of European society is which side of the Reformation became dominant. What we see in the Protestant parts of Europe, which perhaps coincidentally are in the north and on the fringes of the continent is a more open attitude towards education, science and research from the 17th century onwards. These are certainly the areas where industrialisation developed the most. In the absolutist and Catholic parts of Europe industrialisation lagged behind, as did technological development. France is something of an anomaly, being a Catholic absolute monarchy until 1789, but we also need to remember that France was often in opposition to the Papacy (because of the huge political fault line between France and the Holy Roman Empire) and followed its own path with regards to scientific development. I would argue that the specific political, legal and cultural development of Great Britain from 1688 onwards allowed the development of an industrial society long before such things also occurred elsewhere in Europe. The deep political opposition to absolutism and Catholicism is intimately linked to the rise of the bourgeois mercantile and industrial class that drove technological change in the 18th and 19th centuries.

          I won’t go into the subject of India under Company rule, as opposed to India after 1857 because the subject is simply massive, but it is worth pointing out that most of the troops of the Indian Army were locals. Having said that, my paternal grandfather served in India in the years before the Great War, but the situation after the abolition of the Company Army was different to before the Mutiny.

          This is an interesting discussion, but a long way away from the main purpose of The ‘Spill, though.

  7. Colonialism was driven by a greed for wealth and enabled by technological superiority. A warship with cannon beats a canoe and spears.

    • Carole; I’m not going to respond again to the points in your argument that I disagree with, if I did this could go on forever, but I’d modify your last statement and say ‘Yes indeed, it is a long way from my original post which dealt specifically with changes since WW2′.
      An aside: what do you consider the main purpose of the Spill to be? I’d say conversation.
      Finally I’ll give Bob the last word;

      When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
      You can say it just as good
      You’re right from your side
      and I’m right from mine.

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