We often take our modern standard of living for granted. But by understanding our history, we can be more grateful for our progress.
This is particularly important in an era when we tend to nitpick and complain over the slightest inconveniences.
Incontestably, we are living in the most remarkable period of human history. A significant proportion of our contemporary comforts can be traced back to the Industrial Age. Although those times might seem bizarre by today’s standards, it’s plausible that in two hundred years, our own era might be viewed in the same light. It’s all a matter of perspective!
My aim in this discourse is to help you acquaint yourself with our industrial history. This will not only enable you to appreciate the advancements in our current technologies, but it will also guide your thinking about the future.
1. A time when horses ruled the streets
In our current age, vehicles are instrumental in connecting us in ways that were previously unimaginable. This is especially true in the U.S., where large distances separate towns and cities. But before the advent of vehicles, horses were the primary means of transportation. The horse-drawn carriages you often see in classic Western films were the reality of the time.
In 1890, thousands of horses filled the streets of New York City, hauling streetcars and aiding in deliveries. Estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000 horses inhabiting the city, so let’s consider a staggering 150,000.
Now, to give you a perspective on the waste produced, an average horse weighing around 1,000 pounds generates about 31 pounds of manure and 2.4 gallons of urine every day. This equates to:
- 31 pounds x 150,000 = 4,650,000 pounds (2,325 tons) of manure produced daily
- 2.4 gallons x 150,000 = 360,000 gallons of urine produced daily
Annually, this would be:
- 2,325 tons x 365 = 1,700,000,000 pounds (848,625 tons) of manure produced yearly
- 360,000 gallons x 365 = 131,400,000 gallons of urine produced yearly
This staggering amount of waste led to:
- Pervasive odors filling every street
- Swarms of flies constantly buzzing around
- The necessity for cleanup crews to regularly clear streets and remove dead horses
- The need for tens of millions of acres of managed farmland to feed these horses
- Public health crises due to the spread of diseases, with a 1908 report from Appleton Magazine stating that 20,000 New Yorkers died annually from diseases spread by horse waste
- Restricted mobility due to waste littering every corner of every street
Back in the day, horses were a critical part of life. It was all folks knew, so they endured the challenges they brought along. Yet, this reliance led to a multitude of issues. Thousands of horses were pushed beyond their limits, resulting in their untimely deaths. Reports from 1880 indicate that New York City had to remove a staggering 15,000 dead horses from its streets. Clearly, the romantic vision of horse-drawn carriages comes with a grim reality.
2. Life at sea: The reality of sailing ships
Life during the age of sail in the 1800s was harsh. Imagine braving the relentless open seas for weeks on end, wet and cold, with living conditions that were cramped and unhealthy, food that was subpar, and diseases that were rampant.
Outbreaks of life-threatening diseases like measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis were frequent. The youngest passengers often suffered the most, and it was not uncommon for infants and children to perish during these voyages, leading to a somber mood on board ships.
Today, airplanes are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 9% of such emissions from America’s transportation sector. But how many people would choose to travel overseas by ship, even a modern one? Not many I know. We all want our quick mode of transportation.
Yet, we still complain about 12-hour flights in climate-controlled cabins.
3. Housework challenges: Then and now
Before the convenience of modern technology, housework was genuinely a full-time job.
I don’t mean to discount the efforts of today’s homemakers, but their ancestors had it on a whole different level. We’re talking about a time when simple comforts like plumbing and electricity weren’t around – conveniences we can’t imagine living without today.
Back then, manual labor wasn’t just part of life; it was a matter of survival. Here’s a quick glance at what keeping a house meant in those days:
- Cooking: You would have to fetch clean water from the well for drinking and cooking, and then lug the dirty water back outside.
- Food: Hunting and growing your own produce were commonplace. Lighting fires in the house to cook was a daily ordeal. More often than not, families used coal, transforming the kitchen into a stuffy, smoke-filled, stinky mess.
- Clothes: Ready-made clothes were a luxury that few could afford. Most had to sew their own garments.
- Laundry: Clothes were washed by hand, one at a time, and then hung up to dry.
Fast forward to today, our modern kitchen and cleaning appliances are like robotic servants, doing the laborious tasks that entire families once spent all day tackling.
4. The quest for freshwater
In earlier times, clean, filtered water wasn’t readily available, leading to rampant water-borne diseases. Cholera was a major threat, able to wipe you out in less than 24 hours. Throughout the 1800s, this disease claimed millions of lives.
It took a savvy scientist named John Snow to find the connection between water sources and disease outbreaks. Snow discovered that contaminated drinking water, due to unsanitary water pump practices, was causing widespread sickness. He also found that chlorine effectively purified water, making it safe to drink.
As city populations exploded, the need for clean water grew, prompting the construction of dams. These structures not only generated power but also supplied crucial water to cities during dry periods.
In essence, chlorine and dams became city growth’s lifeblood. Just like today, freshwater was and remains as valuable as any fuel source.
5. Energy: Burning through the past
Before the advent of renewable energy and electricity, people resorted to burning all kinds of unrefined solids for cooking and heating, such as:
And they were doing this indoors, too. Can you blame them? Harsh winters were brutal, and the choice to burn these materials was often the difference between life and death. But can you imagine the pollution and toxicity levels inside those homes?
Making matters worse, burning wood releases more CO2 than oil, gas, and even coal for the same amount of heat. And many homes didn’t even have proper chimneys or ventilation to clear the smoke out.
6. Medical advances: Vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitizing chemicals
Just over a hundred years ago, infectious diseases were the grim reapers of the era. If you were lucky enough to survive, there was a high chance you’d be left disabled.
Before the 1900s, having a big family was the smart move because child mortality was alarmingly high. Parents hoped at least some of their children would make it to adulthood and contribute to the household.
Fast forward to the present, and we’ve made incredible strides. The mortality rate in America has plummeted a whopping 74%, with vaccines and antibiotics playing the lead role in this health revolution.
Consider these life expectancy stats:
- 1860: 39.4 years
- 1900: 48.2 years
- 1950: 67.2 years
- 1980: 73.3 years
- 2020: 78.8 years
7. Plastic: A blessing and a curse
Have a look around your house. I’m willing to bet you’ll find plastic in your cupboards, fridge, tucked away in your closets, and every nook and cranny of your home. It’s cheap, lightweight, water-resistant, durable, and can be molded into just about any shape.
But here’s a fun fact: before plastic, we used to rely on animal parts. Things like bones from large whales, tortoise shells, and animal horns and antlers were in vogue in the 1800s. These animal parts were considered luxurious and were reserved for the elite. Unfortunately, this craving for opulence led to the near extinction of many species.
It’s insane to think that we slaughtered thousands of elephants just to make billiard balls. We nearly drove one of the most majestic creatures on Earth to extinction for a parlor game. For each set of billiard balls, American manufacturers killed at least two elephants.
It wasn’t until Michael Phelan, a big shot in the billiard industry, realized that elephants were facing extinction that he decided to do something. As a savvy businessman, he knew that the price of tusks would skyrocket due to basic supply and demand. So, he put up a $10,000 reward (which is around $200,000 in today’s dollars) for anyone who could find a substitute material.
Six years later, in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic plastic.
8. Crop protection: From toxic to tolerable
Ever stop to think that without pesticides, pests and parasites would have a field day with our food crops? It’s mind-boggling to think that without them, we’d be left with little to nothing to eat.
But before the advent of modern pesticides, farmers used some seriously toxic stuff to guard their crops, including arsenic and hydrogen cyanide!
In the late 1800s, caterpillars wreaked havoc on fruit trees, and farmers had to find a way to save their harvest. Their solution? Mix lead and arsenic and spray it on the fruit trees. It worked for a while, until the caterpillars became resistant and farmers had to increase the use of lead arsenate.
This led to the soil becoming contaminated with lead and arsenic, both of which are toxic and don’t break down quickly, remaining dangerous for decades.
Back in the day, though, they needed these dangerous substances to feed everyone, especially since rough winters came round every year and food wasn’t easy to come by.
9. Fertilizers: Feeding the masses
Ever wondered how many people it takes to feed the entire U.S.? Back in 2019, we had a whopping 328 million folks, with 157 million of ’em busy working.
Now, picture 78 million of those working on farms. Crazy, right? But believe it or not, that’s how it used to be.
In the early 1900s, almost half the workforce was slaving away on farms, putting food on our tables. Thank heavens for synthetic fertilizers that keep our soil fertile. Without ’em, many of us would be going hungry. Farming can wreak havoc on the soil, so we need these fertilizers to keep our lands healthy.
It’s important to remember that everything about our modern way of life comes at a cost. It’s a constant balancing act, and we’ve got to keep that in mind.
Each of these developments forms the backbone of the life we enjoy today. Simply put, we couldn’t have the life we do without ’em.
Understanding our past helps us grasp why we can’t just snap our fingers and solve all of the world’s problems instantly.
Real life ain’t like in the movies, folks!
The complexities of our world today can make your head spin. It’s tough trying to understand all the trade-offs that come with our technology. Let’s take a page from the past and appreciate what we’ve got now.
At the same time, we’ll keep aiming to develop better tech as we progress. Remember, though, change can seem slow when you’re living in the present. That’s why folks often wonder why we’re still burning coal in the 21st century.
But when you look back, the change is pretty obvious. Just like the jump from horses to cars in our history, which seems like a mere blip now.
What’s your take on the evolution of our modern standard of living? Do you think a better understanding of the past would make people more appreciative of what they have now?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.