Four Generations of Changes

I lived through a period where:

  • The only way to get to Europe was on an ocean liner — like the SS Normandie — where SS stood for steamship which was coal fired. It took about five days to make the journey. The only other way passengers could get across the Atlantic was in a dirigible — a passenger zeppelin — until the Hindenberg blew up in Lakehurst, NJ in 1937. And by Pan Am’s flying boats, the Clipper Ships, that landed on water. They flew from 1939 until WWII.
  • Planes had props. There were no jets.
  • It took three days to go from New York to San Francisco — by train.
  • Sound had just come to the movies. They were in black and white, no color.
  • Speaking of black and white, there was Jim Crow.
  • Speaking of colored, the rest rooms in southern train stations were “colored” and “white”. The first time I came south it was on the Southern Crescent in 1942. When I raised the shade of my Pullman berth around Richmond, VA, and saw “White” on the side of the railroad car. I thought it was the name of the car, which at the time were named for famous people.
  • Automobiles had stick shifts. There were no automatics until the Olds Hydra-Matics in the 40s.
  • Gasoline was five gallons for a dollar.
  • There were no interstate superhighways — no I-95 just US 1 and no I-40 just Route 66.
  • There were no tractor-trailers, materials handling equipment or containerization. All of which led to a massive reduction in transportation and communication costs along with an expansion of markets, first in the US and then worldwide — aka globalization.
  • Trees were felled with axes and two-man saws and not chain saws. Lawns were mowed with hand-powered lawn mowers and rakes — a job I hated as a teenager — and not riding mowers, weed-wackers and blowers.
  • Washing machines had just come into fashion with wringers attached. Clothes were hung on the line. Dishes were done by hand and dried after every meal or stacked in the sink and done later.
  • The only way you saw images of what was happening around the world was though pictures in newspapers or magazines or on the Newsreels just prior to the double features at the movies.
  • The news came to us in the daily newspaper or over the radio. The radio is how we heard about Superman, Batman, the Shadow and the Green Hornet. Eventually these characters became comics and as soon as I woke up on Sunday morning I’d grab the newspaper on the front step to read about them, along with Dick Tracy, Lil’ Abner and Mickey and Minnie Mouse and all the other Disney characters. Later these characters showed up in movies.
  • At first pictures were in black-and-white. Then there were Kodachrome slides, Kodacolor, Polaroids, digital cameras and cell phones that took pictures that could be shared virtually instantaneously with friends on Facebook.
  • There were no TVs — the first one I saw was at an exhibit in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Small screen black and white TVs became popular after WWII.
  • There were no satellites with the GPS. People got around using maps and directions. Data was stored on paper and not in the “cloud”.
  • The business machines were the typewriter, desk calculators and, later,  the IBM Selectric with its type-ball and punch-card sorting machines.
  • The boss dictated letters and memos to his secretary, who took notes in shorthand on a stenopad.
  • Phone numbers had a name — like, Circle 6-5000. That later became   CI-6-5000, then seven and then ten digits. When your child answered the phone you at least knew where they were, even if you didn’t know what they were doing.
  • To make a long-distance call you had talk to an operator — a real person — and not a computer.
  • There were no computers, no cell phones, no iPhones or the like.
  • In 1952-53 there were only five computers in the world. They were powered by cathode ray tubes and not transistors, were housed in very large air-conditioned rooms and none had the capacity of your cell phone. While at the FTC, I was asked to assess the competitive effects of the proposed acquisition of the one at the University of Pennsylvania by Remington Rand. It was the second largest business machine company with just 10% of the market. The only other one was IBM.
  • Important letters were delivered via airmail. Urgent messages came in Western Union telegrams that were delivered by a boy on a bicycle. They were sent over the wire or wireless radio signals in Morse code — a series of dots and dashes that I learned as a Boy Scout.  It was the precursor to the World Wide Web, the Internet, e-mail, texting and Twitter. Here are some examples:

dot-dot-dot/dash-dash-dash/dot-dot-dot

SOS

or

      dot-dot//dot-dash-dot-dot/dash-dash-dash/dot-dot-dot-dash/dot//dash-dot-dash-dash/dash-dash-dash/dot-dot-dash

I love you

  • There was Prohibition. Alcohol flowed behind locked doors in illegal bars — called Speakeasies. That lasted until it was repealed by a Constitutional Amendment in 1933. That is much like the way recreational marijuana is treated in all but two States today.
  • All fibers were natural — cotton, wool, silk, linen. Then came DuPont’s rayon and then the acrylics and synthetics — nylon, dacron and the others. Leather and fur came from animals. There was no synthetic leather or fur or vinyl. The new materials followed up on DuPont’s slogan, “Better things for better living through chemistry.”
  • There were no plastic containers, only bottles and cans.
  • Silk stockings were made of silk, not nylon. Nylons were not available because it was the material used to make parachutes.
  • Plumbing pipe and fittings were made of galvanized iron, copper and lead. There was no PVC.
  • Agriculture was done on small farms, not by large-scale agribusiness. Some farms had tractors, others used mules and horses. None had massive, powerful, expensive agricultural equipment with few laborers.
  • Lobbying was on the part of small farmers or labor unions — not by huge corporations that attempt to manipulate the political system for their private benefit. They even take it a step further and try to convince everyone through the media that they are serving the public interest. For more about corporate attempts to influence the government, see “The Economics of Government”.
  • The contemporary view was that the only jobs that were suitable for women, other than being wives and mothers, were secretaries and nurses.
  • Jews were not admitted to Country Clubs.
  • Few if any ever admitted that there were gay and lesbian relationships.
  • During the Great Depression NRA stood for the National Recovery Act —  not the National Rifle Association — and CCC for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • Aside from this brief reference, let’s not talk about the significant changes in M&Ms — the Military and Medicine.
  • Atomic, nuclear, wind turbines and solar power did not exist.

In my lifetime what we did have was the Great Depression. Also Hitler took over Germany and the Nazis tried to take over the rest of Europe, leading to World War II. When “the Japs” attacked Pearl Harbor the US joined the war effort. The war ended with the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. That was followed by the Bretton Woods conference and the establishment of the United Nations. Then there was the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all the other wars and conflicts that have occurred since. Most came before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech in 1963. You are more likely to be familiar with the many important changes that came after these events.

All technological, economic and cultural changes require adjustments. Old organizations and institutions are replaced by new ones. Old ways of doing are replaced by new ways. In the process there are some winners and some losers. New products are produced, new skills are required, new jobs created and the old ones fall by the wayside.

And those are just a few of the technological, economic and cultural changes that occurred.  Importantly, major changes create stress on the system and can alter our way of life. They require what economists call a reallocation of resources. Having lived through all those changes gives me understanding and insights that I would like to share with you. I hope you find them worthwhile and helpful.

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