Grandma, the Twentieth Century and the iWatch

A banner headline on Apple’s web site announces, “The Watch is here.” Launch date for the iWatch was April 24, 2015 though only the earliest pre-orders could be fulfilled. There is buzz, there is hype, and there is momentum. The iWatch is a new gadget, but is it NEW? How many of the latest developments are NEW?

Take for example the pleasurable diversion of listening to music. To stay current we’ve migrated from 78’s to 45’s to LP’s to 8-track tapes to cassette tapes to CD’s to MP3 files. Each format change seemed cutting-edge, yet none was a groundbreaking advancement in an historical sense, none of them was NEW. They were only different formats to accomplish the same thing – transporting and replaying previously recorded sound waves.

phonographNEW was the phonautograph developed by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857 and regarded as “the first device that could record sound waves as they passed through the air.” Better known is the phonograph patented by Thomas Edison in 1878 that used a stylus to etch grooves in a soft material like wax or lead, and later vinyl.

Today we attribute much of life’s stress to the changes that come our way at lightning fast speed, faster than any previous generation.  Can we make that claim? How many NEW, ground-breaking technologies have hatched since the 1950’s? In November 2013 The Atlantic published an article describing the “50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” Of the 50 listed, only four have occurred in the Baby Boomer era.

In the mid-twentieth century, the semi-conductor provided the “physical foundation of the virtual world.” Anything with a computer chip uses a semiconductor – think microwaves, smartphones, computers, calculators, video games, TV’s, stereos and radios. Around the same time fertilizers, pesticides and specialized plant breeding dramatically increased world-wide food production, the Green Revolution. The final two, the internet and personal computer (PC), took the second half of the twentieth century by storm. The speed at which information can be processed, transmitted and communicated on a daily basis was only an electrical engineer’s dream fifty years ago.

All four are life-altering advancements, but my maternal grandmother born in 1899 knew NEW. During her ninety-plus years, Geraldine witnessed the automobile, airplanes, rocketry, air conditioning, the radio, penicillin, the combine, television, and electricity in individual homes.  She went from horse-drawn buggy to a car to a man on the moon, from phonographs to radios to televisions, from an outhouse with lime and Sears catalogues to a flush toilet. Funny thing is, I don’t remember her being stressed; she celebrated each as it came.

My uncle nicknamed her Lead Foot Annie, and she drove her enormous Buick like it was the only car on the road. Eavesdroppers on the party telephone line didn’t phase her, though she made me hang-up when I wanted to listen to strangers’ conversations. She was hooked on General Hospital and Days of our Lives, and the Lawrence Welk Show. Her work-load lightened substantially when the farmhouse was wired for electricity and chest freezers replaced canning as a way to store the farm’s produce,

She extracted the positives of each breakthrough and adapted them to fit her life; they didn’t take over. Rather than being stressed or anxious, she filled the time saved with pleasurable activities.  Now that she didn’t have to hitch up the horses to visit a nearby friend or talk the switchboard operator into putting her call through, she had more time to serve at her Methodist Church and participate in civic organizations like Altrusa and Daughters of the American Revolution.

Maybe it’s easier when a NEW first appears as there aren’t any expectations or the necessity of constantly adapting as the NEW morphs and changes formats. Prior to the phonograph, no one expected to be able to play music in their home, and only the wealthy could at first. Now nearly everyone in a developed country expects music to be available. When the NEW becomes normal, we can’t see how it makes our lives better or saves us time; it’s so integrated into our lives that we’ve lost a standard to measure it against.

Who knows how many more breakthroughs I’ll live to see, but I’ll refrain from complaining about the pace of change. Geraldine and her generation won that contest. She adapted, had fun, and took the time the changes afforded her to invest in what mattered to her. Using her approach as a model, I’m skipping the iWatch.



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