Let's Give Thanks for 7 Essentials That Survived a Wonky Past

B Y   T O M   T O R T O R I C I

This Thanksgiving, let’s step way back and congratulate our species for the long way it’s come. From, say, picking berries in the woods, to picking out a complete holiday meal kit on our phones for delivery.

While the changes wrought by human progress have handed down some pretty cool perks, the journey has frequently been bumpy and slow due to forces of resistance. For example, entrenched political, social, and economic interests have naturally been disinclined to shake up the status quo.

Progress has also been stymied by smart and powerful people who simply lacked any vision beyond what they could see in front of them. Then there’s the general sense of comfort in sticking with whatever’s already familiar. Add a dose of chattering skepticism and misinformation based in ignorance and fear.

Time after time, though, the various progress resistors ended up enjoying the fruits of the advances that they had worked so hard to impede.

Here are seven gifts that progress has managed to bestow despite multiple obstacles. Their importance in our lives doesn’t keep them from being taken for granted. Perhaps they’ll provide some fresh material, as we all go around the dinner table giving thanks.

1  The Telephone  When the first phones appeared in the late 1800s, a society that stayed in touch by mail considered the new devices merely a passing fad or novelty, with no practical use. When Alexander Graham Bell tried to sell the patent, even titans of industry were blind to the possibilities.

Uninformed sources furthermore suggested that telephones were dangerous; people walked out of their way to avoid them in public, for fear of electrical shocks or explosions.

2  The Automobile  Early car owners would set out on family trips into the countryside, only to find rocks and bricks hurled at them by the locals. Cars in those days were loud, shuddering beasts, belching oily exhaust and kicking up dust. Apparently these intrusions of progress jarred the traditional sensibilities of rural folk.

Across the Atlantic, British officials feared that citizens would panic upon seeing the first gas-powered vehicles rumbling toward them. So they ruled that every automobile must be preceded by a man on foot, waving a red flag to warn villagers of the 4-wheeled monster coming down the road.

3  Recorded Music  Thomas Edison famously invented the phonograph, but danceable tunes weren’t on his mind. He sold it as a dictation device for executives to record their letters for later transcription.

Musicians found that they could use the machine to record and play back their practice sessions, to help spot mistakes. Soon, music lovers were offering to buy these cylinder-shaped records to listen to at home — unaware they had just established the American recorded music industry.

4  Bank Loans  The ability to borrow money has helped to fuel economies for the past 5,000 years. If a borrower in ancient Mesopotamia didn’t own property, they could just put their family up for collateral. If the loan defaulted, the man’s wife and children would be sold into forced labor, until the debt was paid.

Today, borrowing enables ordinary people to purchase homes and cars. However, that didn’t include the female half of the population until the 1960s. Even then, ladies needed a male co-signer for their mortgage or auto loan, or they were out of luck.

5  Public Education  In the early 1800s, it was often business associations, not local governments, that championed public education for working-class kids. Did those classes promote diverse academic scholarship to prepare the leaders of tomorrow? The curriculum actually emphasized discipline and obedience, the qualities that employers wanted most in their future laborers.

Meanwhile, parents organized among themselves, but not to support universal education. They were adamantly opposed to sending their children to school, since they’d have to pay for it through new payroll taxes.

6  Soap  Progress sometimes not only stalls, but goes into reverse. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had their own formulas for cleaning their bodies, clothes and utensils. With the fall of the Roman Empire though, that soapy tradition mostly went away – ushering in a thousand years of uncleanliness and bad hygiene, not to mention several deadly plagues.

In the 1600s, washing came back into fashion, as people finally made the connection between uncleanliness and disease. Local officials, though, decided to tax soap as a luxury item, sadly keeping it out of reach of ‘the great unwashed masses.’

7  Broadcast Radio  At an early London telephone exchange, phone lines were picking up interference – faint but annoying dots and dashes from nearby telegraph wires. Focused on their problem, engineers missed a more important discovery. If an electrical signal could jump across space between two wires, that meant wireless communication was possible.

One challenge later faced by ‘wireless’ operators was the inability to keep their private radio exchanges private. It took vision to turn that ‘flaw’ into opportunity: since everyone with a radio could listen in, we now had the unprecedented ability to ‘broadcast’ a concert, ball game or news report to people far and wide.

In each of these cases, progress prevailed. But how would things be different if the path of human achievement was a smooth upward curve, instead of such a historically crooked line? We’ll never know. Let’s just be thankful that washing is still in fashion, and we can afford as much soap as we need.


Feel free to share this article for an extra-thankful Thanksgiving.

Tom TortoriciAbout the Author:  Tom Tortorici is an Atlanta copywriter and web content writer who helps companies make a genuine connection with their audience. His classes and conference presentations have focused on how writing, strategy and design can work together to grab attention and interest even among readers with short attention spans. In addition to working directly with businesses, Tom regularly partners with web designers and marketing agencies.

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