Today, a magazine looks at the century past, and
the one to come. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I'm reading a 1900 magazine,
The World's Work. First, book reviews:
Conrad's Lord Jim, they say, is told "with
remarkable literary art." Alice of Old
Vincennes is "a cheerful book of action, of
little literary art and no permanent value, but a
rattling story for a passing day."
Not-yet-president Theodore Roosevelt's biography of
Oliver Cromwell is "attractive less for its
literary quality than for its direct grip in the
larger aspects of his subject."
A year later we'd make that Rough-Rider our
president, exactly because of his grip on the
larger aspects. And we're reminded that the
bespectacled Teddy Roosevelt was a serious scholar.
America had recently carved out her place as an
industrial power. Now she was establishing herself
as a political power and as an inventive power.
Another article describes "A notable Advance in
Color Photography." We're told,
It is now possible [to take a snapshot in China
with an] ordinary camera fitted with a newly
perfected screen, to send the negative to New York,
and there have the picture reproduced in all its
original colors, ...
The negative in this Brasseur/Sampolo process has
tiny horizontal strips. Each strip reproduces one
primary color, red, yellow, and blue. When the
strips are superposed they give the image. This is
the first color photography fast enough to record
moving subjects. Rudimentary
color photography had been around since the
1850s. But it wouldn't be on the market until 1907.
It wouldn't be commonplace until the '30s. This is
a way-station in that evolution.
Another article casts 19th-century political
changes as a struggle between liberalism and
nationalism. The century began with Napoleon's
conquests. Smaller countries reacted by forging a
new concept of national unity. The scattered German
and Italian states had each banded into unified
nations. But the other protection against forces of
conquest was the voice of a free people. Liberalism
rose up after mid-century, only to be drowned out
at the century's close by voices of national
interest and land-grabbing.
Another author asks, "Are young men's chances
less?" Business had grown into such a monolithic
force by 1900 that it threatened to block the next
generation. The author doesn't see that the young
who'll go far will do it by riding the fast horse
of emergent technology. Henry Ford was only 36. The
Lockheed brothers were young. The new pioneers of
radio, automobiles, and flight would all be drawn
from the ranks of the young.
This old magazine offers a touching view of people
peering into the darkness of a future wreathed in
change too rapid to handle. It's a view of
ourselves as we stand on the threshold of the 21st
century. Now, as then, technology is the wild card
in a game of poker we're bound to play through to
some unexpected outcome.
One last article sums it up. Mark Twain, at 65, has
everyone terrified. He claims he's writing his
opinions of all his contemporaries in an article
not to be published -- until a century hence.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds