Ours is a time of unparalleled progress, or so it would seem to anybody who’s never lifted a history book. In fact, we’re still cashing in on the extraordinary achievements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few short decades of radical innovation in every field — science, technology, economics, art, literature, religion.
These breakthroughs rewrote our textbooks and rewired our cities. According to Steven Cassedy’s engaging new book, they also revised Americans’ self-image. As the 20th century dawned, people could no longer imagine themselves as isolated creatures, beholden perhaps to family or church but otherwise quite independent and self-determined.
The new technology bound us to one another through electric wires, water and sewer pipes, and transcontinental railroads. The new biology revealed deep genetic ties that bound all people to one another and to all living things. The economics of global trade put every workingman in direct competition with European and Asian rivals. As surely as present-day city dwellers logging onto Google from their Roxbury living rooms, the Americans of a hundred years ago learned to think of themselves as wired into a series of networks.
It’s a fascinating notion, though one that plays less of a role in the narrative of Cassedy, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, than I’d expected. Sometimes it seems he harps on the concept mainly to give an overarching theme to his lively work of scientific and intellectual history. Still, he’s on to something. While every human society has always been made up of social and economic networks, the technical innovations of a century ago bound us to brand new ones, while revealing longstanding connections we’d never noticed before.
As he surveys a 40-year period of relentless change, Cassedy divides his book into three sections to show how the new networked way of thinking first transformed our understanding of our own minds and bodies, then the economic system, and finally our view of culture and society.
The work of Charles Darwin demonstrated that humans, far from being unique, were biologically bound to all other living things. Apart from the challenge this idea posed to traditional religion, evolutionary biology led to new ideas about human relationships. On the plus side, Darwinian ideas encouraged humanitarian movements aimed at the uplift of people of every class and nation. But the same ideas led progressive thinkers like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger to embrace eugenics, the idea of purifying the human network by preventing the birth of the “undesirable.”
Luckily, most of the new network effects cited by Cassedy were far more benign. He shows how a new understanding of public health resulted in the complex water, power, and sewer systems we take for granted today. National railroad networks drove the development of a single national standard of timekeeping to ensure that trains could avoid slamming into one another. In the process, the railroads brought new consistency to the measurement of time and encouraging and making possible the precise synchronization of human activity — commercial, political, and personal.
Meanwhile, the expansion of US economic and military power connected the nation to new networks of worldwide trade. Globalization is an older phenomenon than you might think. Cassedy reminds us that by the early 20th century, American consumers routinely purchased products from every region of the earth — ivory from Congo, wool from Australia, bananas from Panama. We were learning to take for granted the benefits of life on an interconnected planet.
Cassedy regales us throughout with unexpected insights. There’s his observation that the late-19th-century trend toward shorter hemlines began as a public health measure to prevent long dresses trailing unsanitary dust from city streets. Or the revelation that Americans got a head start on the sexual revolution, with one-fifth of the nation’s high schools offering sex education courses as early as 1920.
Indeed, this book is best read as a sprightly survey of social and technological transformation set in an era that makes our current high-tech age seem relatively dull. America probably changed more between 1880 and 1920 than at any other time in the nation’s history. Cassedy does a fine job of showing us how and why.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.