I have long held the belief that the 1880s were probably the most innovative and transformative decade in human history. We are still reaping the [diminishing] returns of the innovations of the Second industrial revolution – electricity and the internal combustion engine foremost among them – without which the digital revolution would not have been possible.
Silicon Valley tech evangelists have a tendency to exaggerate the progress of the modern era and underestimate the dynamism of the late 19th century West.
Microsoft-founder Bill Gates has published a note on the latest book of his favourite author, Vaclav Smil, and interestingly he seems to endorse Smil’s unmodern view that the 1880s might indeed be the most consequential decade in human history:
“The 1880s were miraculous; they gave us such disparate contributions as antiperspirants, inexpensive lights, reliable elevators, and the theory of electromagnetism— although most people lost in their ephemeral tweets and in Facebook gossip are not even remotely aware of the true scope of this quotidian debt.”Vaclav Smil
Gates has previously been at odds with younger tech moguls who seem to believe that Internet connectivity will solve all the world’s problems:
“I certainly love the IT thing. But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition.”Bill Gates
If the 1880s were indeed an era of faster progress than the 21st century, what conclusions might be drawn?