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No. 149:
One Generation's Change

Today, we wonder how much things change in one generation. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The other day, Don Ham, who produces this series, wondered what technology he'd miss if he were back in the '60s again. How much change has he adapted to, unconsciously? It's an interesting question.

When Don was a kid in the early '60s, he'd never seen color TV, microwave ovens, personal computers, or even pocket calculators. The '60s seem like yesterday to me. Did I really survive them without a word processor? We didn't have digital displays, touch-tone phones, VCRs, or cable TV. Orbiting satellites didn't speed our communications. There was no electronic banking. Airline tickets were written by hand. I try to remember not having cassette tapes -- not being able to carry my own music in the car.

Yet many things have hardly changed at all. Automobiles may be more comfortable, but they don't get us around any faster. How much has air travel changed since the first jets flew in the '50s? The technological revolution that has occurred has been focused on manipulating information. We have control over our knowledge that was unimaginable three decades ago.

From my childhood in the '30s until the early 60s, I saw a lot less new technology that was life-altering. Medicine came a long way, of course -- dentistry left the stone age between the '30s and '60s. Air transport settled into an established pattern of jet traffic. The national highway system came of age.

But go back a generation further still. Then you'll find real change. My father was born in 1893 -- born into a life without telephones, autos, radios, airplanes, electric lights, or electric power. The major technologies that came into use at the beginning of this century were large-scale systems that involved power. They were the spawn of the industrial revolution. Those technologies rewrote American life during my father's youth. And, as a child, I was acutely aware that I'd been born into a changed world. The fabric of things had really been ripped out and rewoven.

But today's information revolution has yet to show its full force. We're just finding out what it means to control information. The control of knowledge means control of resources, elimination of waste -- control of our material world. It means we'll have to find new ways to relate to the products of our own minds. Like my father, your young children won't grow up on the same planet that their parents did.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1757.