He lived in a period of almost unprecedented change for all classes of people. Around the industrial and commercial centres of the country, London, Manchester, Liverpool, etc. there had already been an increase in urban living, but this was to proceed apace during this period. In rural Sussex this early phase would seem to have passed comparatively unnoticed.
Then the application of technology to agriculture occurred. Stationary steam engines were used for threshing and winnowing and in pairs on either side of fields for ploughing. This, coupled to some years with poor harvests, lessened the demand for labour in the countryside and with the increase in manufacturing in towns and cities, migration to urban centres would have been noticeable even in Sussex. None of this is commented on directly by NPB, and maybe it is only with the hindsight that it is clearly apparent.
What I do find interesting is the technological changes he does mention.
In travel, firstly the train and then the motor car. He talks of his grandfather riding to London, but by train he gets there in a couple of hours and he can do the journey even when he is not well! Then we hear about getting to Arundel and back and we really know how ghastly travelling by horse and carriage could be. Then, while writing about his present day, he also alludes to how the lanes are no longer so safe for horseback riding in the early C20.
The journey to Arundel, also tells us of an almost unimaginable darkness on these lanes, one that I find hard to envisage in these days of omnipresent street lights and blazing car headlights. I bet he could see more stars than we can today, with the fainter ones masked by urban glow. He would have seen the Downs as a darkness outlined against a starry backdrop, instead of a murky orange glow.
He was alive when man first took to the air in powered flight, but hardly surprisingly he makes no mention of it. It would have been completely irrelevant to his every day life. I guess if I was writing reminiscences of my daily life today, I would hardly find it significant to mention space flight!
Naturally, what he does take notice of, are the changes in medicine. And what changes! His great-uncle Harry Blaker (b.1784) was one of the 300 original surgeons of the Royal College of Surgeons. By Nathaniel's time it was an established body with recognised qualifications important to a Surgeon's career. He makes mention of "quack" doctors and I would guess that these must very nearly have died out by the end of his life. (There always seem to be one or two charlatans around, even today). His lifetime encompassed the general acceptance of vaccination for small pox, the first understanding of the importance for cleanliness and antiseptic methods, the introduction of anaesthetics for operations and the more complex procedures this permitted, and an appreciation of existence of "germs".
Since his death, small pox has been eradicated from the world population, cleanliness has become so important that some people say that cleanliness in our homes might be a contributing factor to childhood asthma and there is a mega-multi billion dollar industry world-wide producing smells and disinfectants for domestic use. Since the second world war we have seen the general use of antibiotics and their overuse leading to the appearance on "super-bugs". Anaesthetics has become a specialist branch of medicine, and their use locally permits patients to stay awake for certain operations (e.g. at the dentist). Organ and joint replacement operations occur throughout the world - procedures that NPB, I am sure, would have found fascinating and incredible. I am sure he would recognise many of the instruments in use today, but he would be astounded by the technology that electricity permits. X-rays had started to be used in his day, but what would he have made of ultrasound and NMR scanning and the application of computing? I am sure he would appreciate the benefits of specialised electric lighting in the operating theatre, but what would he have made of the use of lasers?
Almost invisible, due to their total acceptance, are the present day drainage and sanitation systems of the western world and we rarely question the supply of fresh, clean water, hot and cold, except to worry about the amount of chemicals added to purify the water or for the benefit of our teeth. And what would NPB make of our modern diets? Burgers for children? Highly spiced Indian curry? Mexican chili? He talks of the adulteration of bread - in his day this probably meant the addition of chalk to whiten the sub-standard flour that was not infrequently used. Nowadays, we have minerals and vitamins added, and a move to wholemeal flour. And there is the organic food movement - I have a feeling that NPB would have been a supporter - but what would he have thought of GMO's?
I suppose that the ease and rapidity of communication we have today could be the most significant innovation of the last 85 years. Telephones existed in NPB's adult life but were not very widespread. He mentions the significance of the advent of the penny post and the expense of newspapers, things that have become very commonplace in the last 85 years. The last 85 years have seen the worldwide availability of radio, while television is a completely new technology. The applications of telephony allied to computing power, as anyone reading this has to be aware, are amazing. I get the feeling the world can be as small as the reach of my computer - that is the whole of planet earth potentially - rather than as far as I can walk or ride in a day as it was in NPB's day.
And what of the next 85 years? I might realistically expect to live through about half of this period. Space tourism might well be within the reach of well-off people. Medicine will make still greater advances - perhaps cloned body parts for replacement surgery, an understanding of how the brain works? Maybe we will see safe fuel efficient transport that is les polluting than the many beasts of burden that used to be the engines of our transport. Food, education and how to bring up children will, I am sure, continue to be points of contention.
I am not good at crystal-ball gazing but I am fairly optimistic; I want to believe that life will be as much better in 85 years time than it is now, as today is to 85 years ago. I imagine things will be as complex as ever for those living through it and many will look back with great nostalgia to the "simple" lives of their grandparents, much as we do to the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Will they appreciate our research efforts? Ah! for that crystal-ball...
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