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telegraph wires    packard thirty 1909    electric light 1895

The Century the World Expanded: 1820-1920


"A new world of inventions -- of railways and telegraphs -- has grown up
around us which we cannot help seeing; a new world of ideas is in the air
and affects us, though we do not see it."
-- Walter Bagehot (British historian), Physics and Politics (1871) --

   In spite of the Victorian reputation for stagnation and stodginess, the century before 1920 was a vibrant wonderland of new things being discovered, invented, developed into useful forms, and made available to all but the poorest and most rural people. For many individuals, more and more of the world was accessible, in reality or in imagination, than ever before.

   At the root of this change in outlook were inventions affecting transportation and communication. Steam brought the world within reach. Steamships cruised the wealthy and near-wealthy back and forth across the Atlantic, took adventurers to little-explored corners of the globe, brought steerage-loads of immigrants from Europe to the United States. Steam locomotives made vacations and visits to far-away relatives possible for the middle and working classes, sent vaudeville performers rapidly from one town to the next across the whole country, and speeded up the mail. The telegraph and then the telephone sent messages for miles at the speed of electricity. News travelled faster, commerce grew by leaps and bounds; more information and goods became more available to more people more cheaply and quickly.

   Time also expanded. The day grew longer as bright-burning gas, and later, electricity, lit up streets, theaters and other public buildings, and homes. The past and future came within reach as cameras and sound recordings from player pianos and record players preserved lifelike transcriptions of people and events to be seen and heard long after the originals were gone.


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