It seems to me that the inventions my grandmother witnessed in the first five years of the last century were a lot easier to understand, a lot more practical and a lot more enduring than those we’ll recall from the first five years of the 21st century.
In 1901, the safety razor, the first successful radio receiver and the modern vacuum cleaner were developed. In 1902, it was the air conditioner, neon lights, the lie detector and the Teddy bear. The next year marked the birth of the airplane, along with the invention of crayons and windshield wipers. The teabag was devised in 1904, and the highlight of 1905 was Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—not easy to understand, but certainly a lasting principle of astronomy and astronautics.
What’s amazing to me is that we continue to use every one of these inventions a hundred years later, in a sometimes improved, sometimes cheapened form.
Now look at what the first five years of the current century has brought. The miniaturized artificial heart, the smart phone, the hybrid car and the portable media player, to be sure, along with Podcasting, the fuel-cell bike, self-cleaning windows, nano-textiles, the Date Rape Drug Spotter, a fireplace log made of coffee grounds, a self-adjusting sports shoe with built-in microprocessor, translucent concrete, and thousands of computer applications and hardware devices.
How many of these inventions will we be wearing, holding or clicking a hundred years from now? None, I’d venture to say. Innovation surges so rapidly that even the brightest invention today has the half life of a five-day-old banana. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. More than solving problems, like how to get rain off the windshield or dust off the carpet, today’s marketers “lead” the consumer, pulling us into better ways to work, to play and to live (whether we want to go there or not). Some have resisted and, as a result, find themselves in dire situations as companies reconfigure. Some have become so absorbed in their technology that they’ve shut off the world beyond their headsets and the computer screens. The rest of us go with the flow, adapting to and shaping technology as it evolves ever more rapidly.
As Airfoil passes its first five years as a high-tech PR firm, I think about how we would have communicated those amazing creations of a century ago and wonder if anyone then realized how integral they would become to our lives. Will the innovations of the past five years make an equally large impact in the next century? While they all will likely be relics, they will have laid the foundation for a way of life we can’t even begin to imagine today. And that’s what makes this era so exciting. What will be the technological legacy we leave for the future? We can only hope that our own grandchildren will say, “Can you imagine how creative people had to be back then to come up with the ideas that led to everything we do today? I just wish they could have explained the Theory of Relativity.”