How the World Has Changed since World War I

By Barone, Michael | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, May 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

How the World Has Changed since World War I


Barone, Michael, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Over the past year, I've been reading books inspired by the centenary of World War I, a war with horrific casualties painful to contemplate. What helps in comprehending the scale of the slaughter is a book by one of Bill Gates's favorite authors, the Canadian academic Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact.

Smil leads the reader through the invention and development of electricity, oil production and distribution, the automobile, steelmaking, the telephone, the airplane and the production of synthetic ammonia -- to his mind the most important because without it agriculture couldn't feed the world's 6 billion people.

All these developments were in place and widespread when the world went to war in August 1914. The three American Progressive Era presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, all born in the late 1850s, were old enough to have memories of the end of the Civil War -- and of an America in which all of these technologies were unknown.

The same technologies, considerably redesigned and more universally available, were in place in everyday life in the mid- twentieth century nation in which today's older Americans grew up. New appliances, adapting technology available in 1914, were introduced after World War I -- the refrigerator and the disposal, automatic washers and driers, radio and television, air conditioning.

Americans today are inclined to think that information technology has transformed people's lives, and in some ways it has. Typewriters have become antique and laptops nearly universal; an array of entertainment is available in homes; air conditioning, uncommon in houses and cars back in midcentury America is regarded as a necessity today.

But surely, there was more change in the work and home lives of the Progressive Era presidents and their contemporaries than there has been in the corresponding years a century later. The experience of driving a car or riding in a jet airplane is not much different in 2015 than in 1965. The tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel was on to something when he said, "We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters."

One thing that has changed, however, is warfare. …

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