Remember the Carousel of Progress at Disneyworld? I loved that attraction because it reminds us of how far human ingenuity has taken us. It's fun watching how things have changed over time. Some products we take for granted today like computers and cell phones, were just dreams on a drawing board back in the Fifties. Other everyday conveniences, like televisions and small appliances were around, but bore little resemblance to what we use today. Human creativity has improved our lives enormously, but that fact is hard to appreciate unless you remember where we came from. Let's board the Carousel and take a little ride back in time.
Let me illustrate. Making toast for breakfast is routine, right... just drop in your bread, select your darkness setting, and read the paper until it pops up, perfectly done. We thought our first toaster was a marvel. It had little doors that opened out, and you placed one slice of bread on either side. The bread was exposed to a heating element, but had no settings. It you didn't watch it, the signal that it was done was a kitchen full of smoke. I remember my grandmother, who lived with us, wanted no part of our new-fangled toaster. She made toast cave man style, using a long pronged fork to spear the bread and then holding it over the stove-top gas burner until it was done.
I saw a great old Honeymooners episode recently where Ralph Kramden took all his calls upstairs at the Nortons because he and Alice didn't have a phone. Believe it or not, the telephone was considered a luxury for many working families in the Fifties. When we finally got ours, it was a big deal. There it sat, big, black and ugly, with a rotary dial. I think for a month we loitered around hoping it would ring so we could answer it. There was no touch tone dialing, call-waiting, call forwarding or voicemail, but then again there were no telemarketing calls at dinner time either. We had seven digit alpha-numeric phone numbers in the dark days before area codes, and every neighborhood had a special "exchange" designation such as Murray Hill (MU), Melrose (ME), and Butterfield (BU) as in the movie "Butterfield 8".
Big advances have also been made in the last bastion of the suburban male, the barbecue pit. Modern grills look something like the Lunar Excursion Module, with multiple burners, storage shelves and instant-on ignition, all packaged in a shiny metal skin. The grills of the Fifties were much simpler, the barbecue equivalent of toasting bread on a stick. They were usually round, black affairs with a grill cover that you removed to pile on the charcoal briquettes. You then soaked the pile of charcoal with enough starter fluid to make a Molotov cocktail. After clearing out anyone in the immediate vicinity, you struck a wooden match and ran for the hills. The resulting whoosh and leaping flames left many a good man to finish cooking the burgers with no eyebrows.
Computers have undoubtedly changed our lives forever, whether for better or worse depends on who you talk to. The computer is a great tool, but it wouldn't be any fun without the doorway to the world it has opened for us...the Internet. Al Gore (a legend in his own mind) has tried to take credit for inventing the Internet, but in truth it was a number of much smarter people. I remember writing papers in college and spending days in the local library rummaging through yellowing card catalogs and dusty book shelves trying to do research. Today we just Google a subject and up comes all the research you could ever want. From the comfort of our homes we can shop, book vacations, listen to music, play games and a lot of other things thanks to the Internet. I guess the down side is that we become obsessed and spend hours in the house with the mouse instead of outside in the sunshine.
I wish I could be around long enough to see what the next 50 years will bring. Maybe someone will figure out that all this progress is really bad for us. We e-mail when a phone call is much more personal; we're getting fat because nobody walks anywhere any more, high school kids are committing suicide because of what cyber-bullies are saying about them on Facebook...when you think about it, progress has a price. I think I'll sign off and go for a walk. Then maybe toast some nice bread on a stick.
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