Comments on our last exciting episode discussed, among many other thread drifts, the concept of an Accelerando, a speeding up of technological progress that is presumed, in many circles, to culminate in the Singularity. (See the comment thread, starting around #180.)
I will argue - and I've made this argument before - that the real Accelerando happened roughly a hundred years ago, say in the period from about 1880 to 1930.
The Industrial Revolution began a hundred years earlier, but most people in 1880, even in industrialized countries, still lived essentially postmedieval lives. (Cribbing from my own comment follows:) Railroads and steamships had transformed long distance travel, but on a day to day basis people walked, or if they were quite well off they used horses. They lived by the sun; the only artificial lighting was candles or oil lamps, the same as for centuries. A few large cities had gaslight; reputedly it made Paris the City of Lights.
By 1930, millions of people were living essentially modern lives. They drove cars to homes with electric lighting, talked on the phone, streamed entertainment content on the radio or played recorded media on the phonograph. To a person from the pre-industrial world a hand-crank telephone and an iPhone are equally magical; to a person from 1930 the iPhone is an nifty piece of 'midfuture' technology, not remotely magical. (Gee whiz, Tom, a wireless telephone with moving pictures! And it all fits in your pocket!)
Militarily a good part of the Accelerando played out in the course of World War I; people went in with cavalry and came out with tanks and aircraft. Commenter Tony handily expanded on this theme:
Murray and Millette made this point in their operational history of WWII, A War to be Won. They pointed out that a lieutenant in 1914 had little in common with the colonel that he himself had become by 1918. Yet that same colonel would have easily recognized the overall form, if not the detail, of war in the 1990s.How do you measure an Accelerando? One handy benchmark is human travel speed. Here the Accelerando actually began a bit before the Industrial Revolution. Stagecoaches could maintain a steady speed of about 15-20 km/h by combining advanced carriage design with the infrastructure innovation of fresh horses for each stage. Ordinary travellers could thus maintain human running speed for hours.
The first steam locomotive ran in 1804. General purpose steam railroading began in 1825-30, and a locomotive appropriately called The Rocket reached 47 km/h in 1829. Rail speed data in the 19th century is amazingly sparse, but I would guess that locomotives exceeded 100 km/h by midcentury. The next doubling was reached in 1906 by a (steam!) racing car. The next doubling after that, to 400 km/h, was achieved in 1923 by an airplane.
Mach 1 was reached in 1947, and then of course things got wild. Yuri Gagarin reached orbital speed, a shade under 8 km/s, in 1961, an accelerando of 25x in 14 years, with another bump up to lunar insertion speed of 11 km/s in 1968.
Things have settled back a shade since then. Most of the 500+ human space travellers have piddled along at orbital speed, while since the retirement of Concorde the civil standard for long distance travel is high subsonic.
In this particular case the period 1880-1930 actually falls between stools - steam railroading was already pretty well developed by 1880, while aviation in 1930 was just starting to combine low drag airframes with high power engines.
Other technologies would give different results. Some, like computers, are still in the rapid transition phase of railroads around 1840 and airplanes around 1950. The overall Accelerando of the Industrial Revolution is a sort of weighted average of many individual and interrelated tech revolutions. And sometimes an older, mature-seeming tech gets a new power jolt, as has happened with railroad speed since the Japanese bullet trains of the 1960s.
Science fiction is the literary child of the Accelerando, and emerged as a distinct genre of Romance in just about the period 1880-1930. Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865; Hugo Gernsbach launched Amazing Stories in 1926.
In 1800 no one speculated about the world of 1900, because no one imagined it would be all that different from the world they already knew. And in 2000 there was only limited speculation about the world of 2100. Indeed the future has gone somewhat out of style, replaced in part by the enchantment of retro-futures.
The future has lost its magic not so much (if at all) because our technical progress has reached a 'decelerando,' but because we have learned to take technical progress for granted. It is a lot harder to get a Gee Whiz! reaction these days, a sort of psychological decelerando. As I've suggested in the last couple of posts, the challenge of interplanetary travel is not how to do it but why to spend the money.
(As a far more modest example of psychological discounting, where in this holiday retail season are the iPad rivals? Did Apple blow everyone else's tablet devices back to the drawing board, or has everyone else decided that tablets are a niche market they'll leave as an Apple playground? I haven't a clue.)
This is where I am supposed to wrap my arguments neatly in a bow, but I am not sure what the summation should be. So instead I will toss the question out for comments.
The image of a North American train c. 1900 comes from a public library site in Kansas.