Today, do I dare to celebrate progress? 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.
Historians dislike the word
progress. It grows murky when we ask what
we're progressing toward — what outcomes we're
willing to accept as progress. Constant change
surely is a mark of the human lot, but to identify
change as progress, we need to see some resulting
improvement of the human condition.
As an extreme example, ask if the development of
the atomic bomb was progress. In the short term it
may or may not've been responsible for ending
WW-II. In the long run, we wish it didn't exist
because it does far more collateral damage than
sane people are willing to inflict.
But negative consequences follow all technologies
and yet their net effect is that we live longer and
fuller lives. An article in an 1889 Scribner's
Magazine set me to thinking about all this. It's
about railway mail service and it is a pure paean
to progress. The new railroads had been delivering
mail for fifty years, but by the end of the Civil
War the system was still casual and haphazard.
The article tells how one George S. Bangs created
rapid, and efficient rolling post offices during
the early 1870s. And it explains how they work. The
U.S. Post Office had finally placed its own mail cars
on commercial trains. Commercial railways were, by
the late nineteenth century, the primary mode of
cross-country travel, and they'd become very
reliable. Those postal cars combined their own
enormous efficiency with that of the railways.
Postmen in the cars received bags of
mail earmarked for the states along their routes.
During the trip they sorted and subdivided the
mail. They were equipped with devices for snagging new sacks of mail
as they whistled past towns without stopping, and
for dropping sacks off. The success of the system
depended, in no small part, on creative incentives
for attracting and keeping really good people who
could work with focus and
Fifty years later I was a young boy. For three
cents I could get my box tops across the country in
two or three days, and receive my
Captain Midnight decoder ring in a week. By
then, you could pay much more for airmail, but it
wasn't a whole lot quicker. Not until we had email
would we make significant improvement over those
old postal railroad cars.
So this really did look like progress. Now email is
demanding a massive new social adjustment. We'll
struggle before we learn to use it with equanimity
and grace. But our grandchildren will surely
overlook all the problems, and look back upon email
as marvelous progress in its time.
I'll keep dodging talk of progress. I'll wear my
doubts like a shield against excess. But do I
believe in progress? Well, I wouldn't
think of it. Never mind that I've far outlived my
life expectancy at birth, that I really do like my
TV and air conditioning, and that being with you
all on a modern radio is a great joy.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. L. James, The Railway Mail Service. Scribner's
Magazine, Vol. V, No. 3, March 1889, pp.
258-277. I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, UH Library,
for providing a copy of this article and suggesting
an episode based upon it.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.