A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
We live in a marvelous age. We carry the sum total of all knowledge in our pockets or our purse. We can communicate around the world with the tap of a finger. We can travel across time zones like a striding colossus and enjoy the styles and flavours from half a world away at a whim. And even though we don’t do it, we have the ability to feed, clothe and house every person on this planet — 3, 4. 10 times over. In short, we are the masters of our universe and sovereigns of all we survey. Yet even though we live in a techno-Disneyland, our society is based on three simple inventions that haven’t fundamentally changed in well over a hundred years.
The Piston Engine — Find something that moves on this planet and chances are good it’s propelled by a piston. Whether it’s internal combustion, hydraulic or steam, the piston is the thing that drives our world. Trucks, buses, cranes, boats, trains and all the other mighty machines that shape our destiny (including the ubiquitous automobile) are all piston-powered. Yet the contemporary piston mechanism hasn’t changed that much since James Watt radically improved the design of the steam engine in 1775. Even that all-powerful genie in a fragile jar, nuclear power, is actually nothing more than the fuel that heats the water of a very conventional piston-powered steam engine.
The Dynamo — Turn the up-and-down motion of a piston in a cylinder into rotating motion by the use of a camshaft, and not only can you move things forward, but that same spinning rod can literally turn magnetic fields into electricity. Michael Faraday discovered this in 1831, and by the late 1860s, industry had perfected his rudimentary dynamo to produce usable electricity — and the basic mechanics of that hasn’t changed since. Today, 99.99% of all electrical energy on Earth is generated by some modern version of the 19th century dynamo. And the simple fact is without electricity, our society would collapse within hours.
The Flush Toilet — It’s impossible to imagine modern megacities without the flush toilet. The logistical nightmare of waste disposal without an automatic system would make contemporary urban life inconceivable. In fact, the flush toilet was the product of the first megalopolis, London. In the mid 19th century, London (like all cities in England) was a cesspool — literally. Human waste was handled by “night soil men” who collected it, carted it through the streets and disposed of it in huge evaporation fields — or simply threw it into the river. The whole place stank, and disease was rampant. The flush toilet changed all that, and more importantly, forced governments to build modern sewer systems. Today, every home has a flush toilet (sometimes 2 or 3) but the actual mechanism that makes it work is virtually the same as the ones perfected by Sir Thomas Crapper (and others) 150 years ago.
And the moral of the story is if you want employment in our contemporary world, forget the ever-changing technology market and go be a mechanic, an electrician or a plumber. Those jobs are going to be around forever.