Pretty much lost in the media tumult over the presidential race has been the fact that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of America’s entry into space with unmanned satellites, first with Explorer 1 and then, a couple months later, with Vanguard 1. For those of us who remember that era of Von Braun and Van Allen Belts, it was a particularly exciting period, when our entire lives seemed to be changing because of new technology.
Two years after Explorer, Echo 1 shot into orbit as the first communications satellite, primitive as it was, and communication was never the same. In 1960, the first of the Transit satellites was being tested in orbit. The Transit devices served as the Navy’s navigation satellite system until the development of the Global Positioning System that we now carry around in our pockets and forever changed the way we navigate through the world. Contemporaneously, Tiros-1 was orbited as the first weather satellite; and since then we’ve saved millions of lives, improved agriculture and planned successful cookouts using the images and data communicated to us from satellites observing weather patterns.
Half a century ago, technology was totally reconfiguring the way we communicated, the way we entertained ourselves, the way we worked, the way we traveled. Wait—isn’t that what’s happening now? Isn’t that what we’ve said has made the 21st century so distinctive in our history? The Internet, e-mail, cell phones, Zunes and all the other gigs we bite into these days? Maybe this isn’t such an unusual era after all.
Just for grins, I checked back 50 more years—to 1908. According to “ Timelines of History,” it turns out in that year the first passenger flight in an airplane occurred (and the Wright Brothers registered their device for a patent), the first Model T Ford was produced (on the new-fangled “assembly line”), a subway linking Brooklyn and Manhattan opened, Count Zeppelin revealed plans to carry 100 passengers in his airship, a wireless message was sent long-distance for the first time from the Eiffel Tower, and—wonder of all wonders—the ball took its first drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. How spectacular all this technology must have seemed to my grandparents.
So which era of technological development has impacted our lives most profoundly? Which innovations have been the most important? The airplane? The automobile? Mass transit? Communications satellites? Weather predictions? The Internet? Smartphones?
The argument is pointless. Rather, it’s important to understand that we repeatedly reinvent our lives through technology. And, as we do, we revolutionize the way we communicate—whether we travel to meet face to face, phone a colleague, or Twitter our way through the day. Each of us builds on centuries of such mini-revolutions, placing all of us on the front lines of change. Each of us communicates change across our own generation and on to the next. We can be assured that in 2058, our grandchildren will be looking back at this year and exclaiming, “Can you imagine how different life would be without those early-millennium pioneers who figured out modern communications?”