Choices, Change, Technology, and Using Our Brains

Currier and Ives: 'The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat'. (ca. 1876)
Currier & Ives: “The progress of the century…”. (ca. 1876)

This week I’ll be looking at:

  • Parts of that “…Progress of the Century…” lithograph
  • A few lines from three poems by Tennyson
  • What’s changed over the last couple centuries
    • What hasn’t

I’ll also explain why I don’t “believe in” Progress with a capital “P”.

On the other hand, I’d rather be living today than in 1923 or 1823.

That’s partly because we’ve made considerable progress, lowercase “p”, on the technology side of our lives. And some remarkable lowercase progress on the social side, too.

I’ve been running a fever this week, so the discussion of Progress and progress is a whole lot shorter than I’d planned. Which may be a good thing.

This week’s post may be a trifle more digressive than usual. You have been warned.

Mottoes and Viewpoints

Detail of telegraph tape, Currier and Ives: 'The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat'. (ca. 1876)
“…Peace. Good will….” These were good ideas the 1870s, and still are.

That Currier & Ives lithograph’s full title is “The progress of the century — the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, the steamboat”. All four new technologies were making a difference in people’s lives.

But they’re not what the mottoes on that telegraph tape are about. It reads, top to bottom:

(Currier & Ives: “The progress of the century…”. (ca. 1876))

First of all, and briefly, about that first line. It’s an abbreviation of this bit from Luke:

“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“‘Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'”
(Luke 2:1314)

Much as I’d like “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” and “on earth peace” to mean, in practical terms, the same thing — I’m pretty sure that God’s favor doesn’t entirely rest on everyone.

Not if “favor” means something like “approval”.

I know that sounds “judgmental”, but think about it.

If God ‘favored’ — gave approval to — everybody, then I’d have to try believing that God’s stamp of approval was on what everyone did. Like, for example, both on feeding the poor and on killing folks because they have the ‘wrong’ ancestors.

I can sympathize with folks who chucked “Biblical morality” because ranting loonies said rock and roll music was “Satanic”.

But I’m sure that some actions are wrong, no matter how I feel or what the circumstances, that “legal” and “right” aren’t the same thing, and that’s another topic. Topics.

Basically, I don’t see God as a senile but cheerful grandfather.

“…By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. and by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception….”
(“The Problem of Pain“, III Divine Goodness, C. S. Lewis (originally published 1940) via Samizdat University Press, Québec, used w/o permission) [emphasis mine]


Alfred Gale's 'Pictorial Illustration of the Cause of the Great Rebellion' and 'Pictorial Illustration of Abolitionism.' (ca. 1865) via Library of Congress, used w/o permission
Alfred Gale’s Broadsides (ca. 1865) via Library of Congress, used w/o permission.

I figure that the Currier & Ives telegraph tape’s next two lines, “liberty and union … one and inseparable”, were inspired by relief that the American Civil War was over. And had been for about a decade.

I suspect that this particular Currier & Ives lithograph was more popular north of the Mason-Dixon line.

But maybe by the mid-1870s, more survivors in the Confederate states had started seeing advantages to being part of a Union. Or maybe not.

Back when I watched coverage of national political conventions, at least a half-dozen or so delegates would say something like ‘the sovereign state of [non-New England state] casts its vote for…’.

The balance of state and federal authority has been shifting in my country since day one.

I see advantages in having, for example, a national highway system and currency that’s good in all 50 states. But I’m also glad that energy and road repair policy here in Minnesota isn’t entirely decided by folks living on the east coast.

Basically, I think state’s rights can make sense. Even though that’s apparently a controversial idea. Which brings me to our only internal war.

The main reason for the American Civil War was the noble North’s abhorrence of slavery.1 At least, that’s what I’ve read. It’s probably true, but I strongly suspect the situation wasn’t nearly that simple.

I also suspect that religious whack jobs of the 1860s weren’t limited to the Confederacy.

“…Abolitionism made the war by electing a sectional President on a Sectional Platform. Its avowed object was to take away the rights of the Slave-States expressly guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
(“Pictorial History of the Cause of the Great Rebellion,” Vol. II, Alfred Gale (1865) via Library of Congress, used w/o permission)

And that’s yet another topic.

One more point.

Slavery is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. Ever. Even if it’s legal. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1903, 1950-1960, 2242, 2414, and more)

Steam, Reform, and Poisoned Candy

Detail of locomotive, Currier and Ives: 'The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat'. (ca. 1876)
Currier & Ives: “The progress of the century…”, detail, locomotive with spark arrestor. (ca. 1876)

Amédée Bollée's L'Obéissante steam vehicle. (1875)Not all “locomotives” ran on rails in the 19th century. At least some self-propelled road vehicles were called “locomotives”.

I don’t know when we started having different words for (railroad) locomotive, tractor, truck, and so on.

Anyway, the 1800s is when folks worked the bugs out of steam engines, and began building continent-spanning railroad networks.

Earlier this week, I made an incomplete list of 19th and 20th century tech developments:2

  • 19th century
    • 1802: Trevithick’s Coalbrookdale Locomotive
    • 1803-1805: Morphine isolated
    • 1816: Francis Ronalds (static) electrical telegraph (among others)
    • 1832: Schilling telegraph
    • 1834, 1840, 1848, 1849, 1854, 1856, 1871, and other: telephone
    • 1843: Lightning steam press
    • 1848: Float glass
    • 1849: Corliss steam engine
    • 1852: Giffard dirigible
    • 1853: Otis safety elevator
    • 1854: Rickett of Buckingham steam car
    • 1854: Internal combustion engine
    • 1856: Bessemer converter (maybe 1851, or some other time)
    • 1857: Phonautograph
    • 1866, 1877, 1879: Stapler
    • 1872: Commercial liquid-fueled internal combustion engine
    • 1874, 1880: Incandescent lamp
    • 1879: Cholera vaccine
    • 1879-1883: Cash register
    • 1884: Steam turbine
    • 1886: Linotype machine
    • 1890: Tabulating machine
    • 1894: Medical glove
    • 1894: Electric refrigerator
    • 1897, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1906: Powered flight (Which year? Take your pick)
  • 20th century
    • 1910: laparoscopy
    • 1923: Diphtheria vaccine
    • 1926: Pertussis vaccine
    • 1926: Liquid-propellant rocket
    • 1927: Tuberculosis vaccine
    • 1927: Tetanus vaccine
    • 1935: Yellow fever vaccine
    • 1938-1970s and beyond: hip replacement
    • 1940-1941 Penicillin
    • 1947: Defibrillator
    • 1958: Pacemaker
    • 1958: Integrated circuit
    • 1961: Cochlear implant
    • 1963-1972: CT scan
    • 1960s: Antiviral drugs
    • 1963: Lava lamp
    • 1980: Flash memory
    • 1981: Scanning tunneling microscope
    • 1983: Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet
    • 1986: National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET:forerunner to the Internet)
    • 1989: MCI Mail, CompuServe email
    • 1990: World Wide Web
    • 1995: PHANToM system (Personal HAptic iNTerface Mechanism)
    • 1996: USB ports
    • 1997: Hybrid vehicle

A Long-Overdue Change

Detail of steamboat, Currier and Ives: 'The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat'. (ca. 1876)
Currier & Ives, “The progress of the century…”: a steamboat. (ca. 1876)

Edward Windsor Kemble's illustration for 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn': 'She Hugged Me Tight'. (1885)On the ‘up’ side, steam engines helped folks get more done, move goods and people faster, and even provide power for telegraphs that helped us communicate faster than we had in the 19th century’s ‘good old days’.

But they didn’t make us understand that human beings are people, no matter who our ancestors are.

“‘…We blowed out a cylinder-head.’
“‘Good gracious! anybody hurt?’
“‘No’m. Killed a [redacted]
“‘Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt….’
(“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Part 2 (1885), Chapter XXXII, Mark Twain; via

More than a century after “Huckleberry Finn” began offending folks, it’s easier to say that non-Anglos are people: and get taken seriously. Shift the vocabulary a bit, though, and ethnicity still seems to matter. And that’s yet again more topics.

New York Daily Times(?) advertisement: (March 25, 1854 (?))As for me, I look “Anglo”, but I’m not. Not by some standards, at any rate.

And “Anglo” or not, I’m Catholic: so seeing everyone as “people” is a must. That’s everyone, no matter where the person’s from, what he or she has done: everyone. (Catechism, 360, 1700-1706, 1932-1933, 1935, 2258, 2268-2283)

Which reminds me of something good that happened during the 19th century.

Like I said earlier, slavery is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. Ever.

But slavery has been both a cross-cultural tradition and a vital part of the economy at least since we started keeping records, several millennia back.

This ancient tradition started unraveling recently.

Slavery as an institution was first regionally criminalized during the 12th century. The pace picked up considerably a few centuries back. My country’s nation-wide ‘no slavery’ laws got traction around 1804 and took hold in 1865.

But wealthy Americans with employees living in slavery-like conditions are a recurring news item. And slavery is still legal in some parts of the world.3

What impresses me is that it’s become unfashionable. At least here. That’s a start.

(Optionally) Rational Animals

Detail of boy using printer's tools, Currier and Ives: 'The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat'. (ca. 1876)
Currier & Ives, “The progress of the century…”: a boy using printer’s tools. (ca. 1876)

Child labor, child labor laws, and letting kids learn marketable skills, is a tangled mess I won’t try sorting out this week.4 Or next, for that matter.

I think there was and is genuine exploitation of children, and that it’s a bad idea.

I also think children and parents are people, that we have responsibilities: and, I hope obviously, that children are not property. (Catechism, 2217-2230, 2378)

Exploding steam engines, seeing some folks as not-people, and those who treat kids like property — strongly suggest that all is not right with the world.

Which brings up a question.

Several, actually, but I’ll focus on one.

Once we all agree that something is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it, why don’t we all stop doing it?

For one thing, getting everyone to agree is often an issue.

For another, although we’re rational animals: acting reasonably isn’t hard-wired into us. We’ve got free will, so each of us can decide that thinking is too much work. (Catechism, 1730, 1951)

Deciding that avoiding bad behavior is worth the effort would be a whole lot easier, if it weren’t for original sin.

My native culture’s quirks being what they are, a clarification: humanity isn’t garbage, utterly and unalterably bad. That is not what “original sin” means. Not for a Catholic, at any rate.

We were and are basically “very good”, like all of God’s creation. But the first of us decided that “I want” mattered more than God’s “you should”. We’ve been living with consequences of that choice ever since. God did not, however, change our nature. We are wounded, but not corrupted. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 3:119; Catechism, 31, 299, 355-361, 374-379, 398, 400-406, 405, 1701-1707, 1949)

The Candy Man Could

John Leech's cartoon for Punch: 'The Great Lozenge-Maker. A Hint to Paterfamilias' (November 20, 1858)What happened on October 30, 1858, wasn’t criminal.

At least, that’s what British courts decided after tracing 20 deaths to candy sold from a stall in Bradford’s Greenmarket.

The verdict made sense, in a way.

Whipping up a batch of candy laced with enough arsenic to kill about 2,000 people was an accident: regrettable, but quite unintentional.

Here’s how it happened.

William “Humbug Billy” Hardaker, or maybe it’s Hardacre, I’ve seen it spelled both ways, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Anyway, Humbug Billy ordered humbugs, a sort of hard candy, from a candymaker.

The candymaker didn’t have enough plaster of paris on hand, so he sent one of his lodgers to a druggist. “Plaster of paris” is not a typo. Gypsum plaster, plaster of paris, was cheaper than sugar: and often used as a sugar substitute in ‘the good old days’.

The druggist was sick, so he told his assistant where to find plaster of paris. Which, as it happened, was in a barrel right next to an identical barrel containing arsenic trioxide.

I gather that folks had been getting fed up with food that wasn’t as-advertised and impromptu preparation of pernicious pharmaceuticals.

If that’s so, then the 1858 Bradford Halloween body count was the straw that killed the camel. Or something like that.

The Pharmacy Act 1868 set up rules for storing, handling, and selling poisons. That legislation was, at the time, a big deal. And quite arguably saved lives.5

“Forward!” — With Hope

A. Provost's 'Disaster on the Railway between Versailles and Bellevue, 8th May 1842'. (1842-1855)
“Disaster on the Railway between Versailles and Bellevue, 8th May 1842”, A. Provost.. (ca. 1850)

“If anything can go wrong, it will.”
(Murphy’s law)

“Murphy was an optimist.”
(O’Toole’s commentary on Murphy’s Law)

Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809, died in 1892, started writing poetry in his teens, and was England’s Poet Laureate from 1850 to 1892.

He’s among my favorite poets, which helps explain why I used this quote last week:

“…For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;…
“…Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
“There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law….”
(“Locksley Hall“, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835))

Tennyson was in his mid-20s when he wrote that. His narrator is fictional, and apparently not entirely on the same page as the young Tennyson.

But I suspect Tennyson shared some of his narrator’s hopeful outlook.

At the time, there were reasons for an upbeat attitude. Hobhouse’s Act (1831) and Althorp’s Act (1833) put limits on child labor. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 outlawed slavery everywhere in the British Empire.

Small wonder that Tennyson’s narrator saw a smooth (rail) road ahead.

“…Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range;
Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change….”
(“Locksley Hall“, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835)) [emphasis mine]

About those “ringing grooves of change”: Alfred Tennyson had seen a railroad train at the Liverpool and Manchester Railway’s opening.

But a whole lot of other folks were there, too. So many that Tennyson couldn’t see the train’s wheels. He got the impression that they ran in grooves.6

Tennyson wrote “Forward, forward let us range” in 1835.

Just over a half-century later, he wrote this:

“…Gone the cry of ‘Forward, Forward,’ lost within a growing gloom;
Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb.
“Half the marvels of my morning, triumphs over time and space,
Staled by frequence, shrunk by usage into commonest commonplace!
“‘Forward’ rang the voices then, and of the many mine was one.
Let us hush this cry of ‘Forward’ till ten thousand years have gone….”
(“Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After“, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1886))

I talked about why I won’t “hush this cry of ‘Forward’ till ten thousand years have gone” last week.

This week, I’ll make a guess or two as to why Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” sequel didn’t seem so optimistic.

These days, a standard-issue explanation for “Locksley Hall — Sixty Years After” is that the Industrial Revolution didn’t deliver on its promises. And, presumably, it took Tennyson five decades to notice.

There may be something to that.

Charge of the Light Brigade and a Poet Laureate

Photogravure/print, from Richard Caton Woodville Jr.'s 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' oil on canvas, commissioned by the Illustrated London News. (ca. 1895)
Print of Richard Caton Woodville Jr.’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. (ca. 1895)

But I suspect some of Tennyson’s apparent change in attitude stems from his having paid attention during the mid-19th century.

And from his having been England’s Poet Laureate for about a half-dozen years when he wrote “…Sixty Years After”.

A poet laureate’s job. basically, is writing poetry for special occasions: from the government’s viewpoint. There’s considerable prestige to the job.

But I can see a down side, too.

Take, for example, the Charge of the Light Brigade: a world-class military SNAFU.

The last I checked, academics are still debating how and why two British lords failed to obliterate a light cavalry unit. A unit that was on their side.

Despite being sent up and down a valley covered by artillery on three sides, Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade had several horses and riders at the end of the day. Apparently Lord Raglan wanted Lord Cardigan to send them somewhere else.7

“…Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
   Some one had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die….”
(“The Charge of the Light Brigade“, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1854))

I don’t blame Tennyson for presenting pointlessly suicidal bravery as a virtue. He was, after all, working for the English government: tasked with putting a positive spin on a debacle that’s still famous, make that infamous, more than a century later.

But I can see how that sort of thing could put a damper on youthful enthusiasm for cries of “forward! forward!”

Progress, Problems, Making Choices

Danijel Mihajlovic's photo: Parkland, artificial Super Trees and the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. (2019) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.I was going to talk about Progress with a capital “P”, but like I said: I’ve been running a fever this week.

So that’s not going to happen. Not today.

Instead, here’s a quick explanation for why I think Progress — the notion that the human condition will inevitably improve — no matter what daft, demented, destructive decisions we make?


Oh, boy. Fever. What’s been in my news feed. Moving along.

Basically, I can’t take the inevitability of Progress with a capital “P” seriously.

Mainly because I’m 72, and have been paying attention. I’m also, by training and interest, an historian: and know that humanity has been through the occasional speed bump.

But we’ve been through the occasional speed bump. And we’re still here.

Good grief, the Black Death didn’t do much more than slow us down. And, bad as it was, we fixed some serious problems while recovering. Folks in Europe did, anyway. Maybe elsewhere, but I’m not all that well-versed on that.

We can make stupid, self-destructive, choices.

But we also can use our brains, and look for solutions to problems. Preferably solutions that won’t make the problems worse: but I am not going to get conventionally gloomy.

See? That was me, using my brain and making a decision. And if I can do that, I figure pretty much anyone can. And that’s — still another topic. Several, actually.

Dik Browne's 'Hagar the Horrible:' 'It may be the end of civilization as we know it.' (February 25, 1973)

Stuff I see as related. Your experience may vary:

1 A (very) little American history:

2 Two centuries of new technology, a very incomplete list:

3 An ancient ill that’s being dealt with:

4 Emphatically not simple:

5 Two identical barrels, many deaths, and new rules:

6 Tennyson:

7 More Tennyson:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Choices, Change, Technology, and Using Our Brains

  1. I believe the keyword in that talk about Progress with a capital “P” is “inevitability.” Considering how God Almighty made us, that passivity is an expression of mediocrity. Some things, we have to be passive about, sure, but we weren’t made completely for that. Still, we also got reason for considering “hyperactivity” a negative term. So yeah, it’s not about making the same mistakes until we feel like we got lucky, but about bothering to learn and do our best as God wants from us beings He gave free will, intellect, and reason to.

Thanks for taking time to comment!