Innovation— when has it had the greatest impact on American lives? The New York Times focuses on three decades, each 50 years apart. The survey of fundamental changes in the modes of transportation, the uses of electricity, the kinds of food consumed, waste disposal and sanitation, for example, and their far-ranging consequences is a fascinating story:
We thought a better way to understand the significance of technological change would be to walk through how Americans lived, ate, traveled, and clothed and entertained themselves in 1870, 1920, 1970 and the present. This tour is both inspired by and reliant on Robert J. Gordon’s authoritative examination of innovation through the ages, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” published this year. These are portraits of each point in time, culled from Mr. Gordon’s research; you can decide for yourself which era is truly most transformative.
In the Northeast, air conditioning made heat waves bearable, but in the South it transformed the economy and its cities. New means of processing and transporting fresh food radically changed the American diet. The replacement of horses in cities by the motorcar and mass transit, together with the advent of indoor plumbing, made city life cleaner and healthier. (The average horse produced 40 to 50 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine daily, all of it dumped on the city streets.)
But are we better off in 2016? In some ways, undoubtedly. In others, not so much.
Once you factor in the time it takes to arrive early and get through security, flying from New York to Chicago takes about the same time, and costs about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it did in 1936; modern planes are faster, but then one could show up at the airport 10 minutes before the scheduled flight time and hop on the plane.