When the urge to gripe arises, consider that no matter what dark clouds may loom on the horizon, you threaded the needle of human history. Imagine what life would have been like had you been born not so many years ago. This Thanksgiving note offers a few things to think about and be thankful for. Some of them have their dark sides; the automobile and the television are as much a curse as a blessing. But for all our problems, this is the best time in human history to have ever lived. We have the best communication, the best tools, the best toys, the best travel options, the best medicine, and the best opportunities of any generation that has ever walked the planet.
I’m not unmindful of the fact that we have plenty of work to do. We have inequalities to deal with. We haven’t gotten rid of war yet. Guns and politics stink. The environment is a big concern. Too many people still don’t have access to luxuries we take for granted. But if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country during this tiny slice of the 20,000-year span of human history, be thankful—even for some of the things you probably complain about. You are incredibly lucky.
Have you ever prevented or cured an infection? It wasn’t until the 1940s that antibiotics (Penicillin) became widely accessible to the general public.
In 1900, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), and diarrhea and enteritis, which (together with diphtheria) caused one third of all deaths. Of these deaths, 40% were children aged less than 5 years. The 1918 influenza pandemic resulted in 20 million deaths, including 500,000 in the United States in less than one year—more than have died in as short a time during any war or famine in the world.
- Before antibiotics, 90% of children with bacterial meningitis died. Among those who lived, most had severe and lasting disabilities ranging from deafness to mental retardation.
- Strep throat was sometimes fatal.
- Common ear infections sometimes spread from the ear to the brain, causing severe problems.
- Other serious infections from tuberculosis to pneumonia to whooping cough were common. They were caused by aggressive bacteria and led to serious illness and sometimes death.
I am grateful.
Have you ever had a broken bone set, a tooth drilled, a wound stitched, or a surgical procedure? Had you been born earlier, you might not have had such a painless experience. Though opium, ether, chloroform, and cocaine were used as anesthesia throughout much of human history when available, Novocain wasn’t invented until 1905. The hollow hypodermic needle wasn’t invented until 1898. Intravenous anesthetics were introduced in 1929. If you’ve ever benefited from modern anesthesia, be thankful.
Thanksgiving: Electricity and Lighting
Isn’t it wonderful to walk into a dark room and flip a switch? Click: Instant illumination! Electricity didn’t become common in American homes until the 1930s—less than a century ago. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Air Travel
If you fly for business, vacations, or to visit friends and family members, consider that not long ago, a steam ship would have been your only option for comfortable and safe long-distance traveling. The airplane was invented in 1903. The first commercial airline flight happened in 1914, but air travel was expensive for a long time. A ticket on TWA in 1955 from Chicago to Phoenix cost $138 round-trip. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1,168. Air travel didn’t become affordable until the late 20th century when jumbo jets became popular. I still like window seats on planes; too many generations never had the chance to look down on the clouds.
Thanksgiving: The Internet
If you shop, plan your schedule, research information, promote your business, sell products and services, or communicate online, consider that the World Wide Web didn’t become popular and commercial until the 1990s. Amazon opened on July 5, 1994. EBay opened on Sept 3, 1995. This amazing stuff is all new and recent. I am grateful.
What would life be like without your smartphone? Motorola became the first company to produce a handheld mobile phone on April 3, 1973. Today, millions of people are lost and out of touch without one. The first true smartphone—the Simon Personal Communicator—made its debut in 1992. It was created by IBM more than 15 years before Apple released the iPhone in 2007. The first Symbian phone, the touchscreen Ericsson R380 Smartphone, was released in 2000. It was the first device marketed as a “smartphone.” My phone has a GPS, an endless array of useful apps, a web browser, email, messaging capability, etc. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Clean Running Water
Turn on the tap and enjoy a drink of fresh water. Only about five percent of the American population had running water at the close of the Civil War in 1878. By the late nineteenth century that figure had increased to 24 percent. The entire urban American population didn’t have access to running water until the 1930s. In rural areas, access to running water came about fifteen years later. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Flush Toilets
Had you been born not too long ago, you might be using an outhouse or living in a smelly urban environment that harbored dangerous bacteria and diseases. Flush toilets were introduced in the 1890s. A lot of infrastructure had to get built before sewer lines and waste treatment plants were commonplace. Before that, waste disposal was unsanitary and inconvenient. Gotta go? There’s a bathroom down the hall. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Home Computers
Do you complain that your computer is too slow? Home computers didn’t become common until the 1980s. I bought my first Macintosh Plus in 1987. It had 1MB of RAM, no hard drive, a 640×480-pixel black and white screen—and it was the most powerful personal computer available. I paid $1799 for it—about what I paid for my 27-inch iMac. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: The Automobile
How old were you when you got your first car? How many miles do you drive every week? How much of your life will you spend at the wheel? At the beginning of the century the automobile entered the transportation market as a toy for the rich. The Ford Motor Company produced 1,700 cars during its first full year of business. Henry Ford produced the Model T to be an economical car for the average American. By 1920 Ford had sold over a million cars. Before that, horses, ships, and good old-fashioned walking were your best options for travel. As much as I hate traffic, my car is a tool, and what a privilege to fly down the highway at 70MPH! I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Paved Roads
Have you ever stopped (sorry for the pun) to appreciate how wonderful it is to live in a time when you can drive on smooth, paved roads from your driveway in Key West to your friend’s house in Anchorage, Alaska? America’s First Transcontinental Highway, the Lincoln Highway wasn’t officially dedicated until October 31, 1913. It stretched from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Only decades earlier, the trip required a train ride. Not long before that, wagon trains crossed through hostile Indian territory as part of the Gold Rush of 1849. US1 is slow and congested, but I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Traffic Signals
We all curse traffic and traffic signals that are oblivious to the fact that while you’re waiting at a red light, nobody’s driving the crosswise direction. But imagine what traffic would be like without automated lights and signals. These are relatively recent inventions. The world’s first, manually operated gas-lit traffic signal was installed in London in December 1868. It exploded less than a month later, killing its operator. The first automated traffic control system was patented in 1910. It used the words “STOP” and “PROCEED”, though neither word lit up. The three-colored traffic signal first appeared in Detroit in 1920. On February 5, 1952, the first “Don’t Walk” automatic signs were installed in New York City. Red light cameras are evil, but I am grateful for traffic lights and signs.
How much of your life is rendered in pixels? How many channels do you have? How many hours do you spend staring at a screen?
After World War II, black-and-white TV broadcasting became popular in the United States and Britain, and television sets became commonplace in homes, businesses, and institutions. During the 1950s, television was the primary medium for influencing public opinion. Color TV was invented during the 1950s, but flat screens didn’t become popular until the 2010s.
I’m a film buff, and I especially love animation. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: The Microchip
How many of your toys, gadgets, and tools depend on microchips? The transistor was invented in 1947. In April 1960, Texas Instruments announced multivibrator #502 as the world’s first integrated circuit available on the market. It was offered at US$450 per unit or US$300 for quantities larger than 100 units. However, sales began in the summer of 1961, and the price was higher than announced. Before that, electronics were heavy, expensive, and full of vacuum tubes. I love my digital toys and tools.
How comfortable are you during the summer months? Not long ago, electric fans and open windows might have been your only relief from the relentless heat of September in Miami. During the post-World War II economic boom, residential air conditioning became popular. More than one million units were sold in 1953 alone. During the 1970s, central air was introduced. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: The Microwave Oven
Need lunch heated fast? The microwave is a historical newcomer. A large 220-volt wall unit was marketed as a home microwave oven in 1955 for a price of US$1,295 ($12,000 in 2016 dollars), but it did not sell well. In 1967, Amana introduced the first popular home model, the countertop Radarange, at a price of US$495 ($4,000 in 2016 dollars). By 1986, 25 percent of households owned a microwave. I don’t use mine much, but when I do, I am grateful.
Open the fridge and grab a cold one. Help yourself; there’s plenty of ice. Most people born before you didn’t have this convenience. The first commercial ice-making machine was invented in 1854. In 1913, refrigerators for home use were invented. In 1923 Frigidaire introduced the first self-contained unit. The introduction of Freon in the 1920s expanded the refrigerator market during the 1930s. A 1926 Kelvinator cost anywhere between $350 and $600—that’s $4721-$8,093 in today’s money. Widespread implementation of the familiar-looking refrigerator did not take place until the 1940s, particularly after the end of World War II. Though I lived without refrigeration during my sailing days, that experience makes me all the more thankful whenever I need something kept cool.
Thanksgiving: The Digital Camera
Point, shoot, and take a picture. There are over 4-billion digital cameras in the world. You may be on-camera as you read this. In 1986, Nikon introduced the first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. In the mid-to-late 1990s, DSLR cameras became common. By the mid-2000s, DSLR cameras had largely replaced film cameras. My digital photo collection includes tens of thousands of images that didn’t require film to be developed and paid for. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Textiles and Availability of Clothing and Fashion
If you live in the US, you’ve probably never sewn your own clothes, but why bother? You have access to an endless variety of fashions and styles. French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first workable sewing machine in 1830. Along with the simplification of fashion styles and the increase in the number of women who worked outside the home, by 1910, the industry of ready-made clothing was established in America. Before that, sewing was an important life skill. And before machine-woven cloth became available during the 1800s, animal skins were probably our best option. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: Recording Technology
Thomas Edison worked with recording sound on wax cylinders back in the 1870s, but consider what recording technology grew into during the past few decades. Not only has sound quality improved remarkably, the sheer volume of music recorded since the 1930s—much of it by people who are now dead—has left our generation with a library of recorded musical history to enjoy and learn from. You will never get to hear Beethoven perform any of his own compositions, but you can hear Sergei Rachmaninoff, and your children will be able to hear The Rolling Stones (assuming Keith Richards doesn’t live forever). Even better, we can stream this immense library to our phones and computers. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: The Wilderness
I have climbed mountains, sailed a wooden boat across the Atlantic, and swam with humpback whales. The environment needs our attention, but this world is still full of amazing and inspiring natural settings. I am grateful.
Thanksgiving: You Are So Lucky
If we round the span of human history to 20,000 years and assume you’ll live a hundred years, your life occupies only one-half of one percent of that time. Regardless of how lucky you are to have landed on Earth at this particular time, what are the odds that you are here at all? That’s one more thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.