When did the modern begin ?

Over the past twelve or so months my obsessions have changed, it used to be classical and early modern history as can be seen in the Sighelm obsession, but more recently I’ve returned to an earlier interest, that of the Russian Revolution, and also to events in Manchuria – as evidenced by my recent blog posts, in part because of a renewed interest in my family’s history and connections with what used to be known as the far east, and in part because, having learned Russian many years ago I still retain a fascination, similar to a nostalgic affection for one’s first girlfriend, for the drama of the end of the tsars and birth of the Soviet regime.

So recently I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Russia, the Allied Intervention, Manchuria, and the foreign concessions in China. And buried in among this is another topic – the birth of the modern world.

If, for example, one looks at life at that start of the nineteenth century as represented by the books of Jane Austen, it is quite different from life today, circumscribed, cut off, and incredibly fixated on marriage and status.

Travel and communication was difficult, you had to make do with what was available locally, and anything from far away, teas, silks etc were impossibly exotic. People were also limited to their social circle – it has been suggested for example that Wordsworth possibly had an incestuous relationship with his sister purely because she was the only female of the right class of his acquaintance in Grasmere. Likewise Darwin, despite being a well travelled man, married his first cousin in part due to the smallness of his social circle.

By the late nineteenth century things are quite modern – there are electric lights and trams, and not just in the cities of Europe and America, but in east Asia as well, an efficient postal service, railways and steamships ensure efficient communication and advances such as the telegraph meant that news could be sent from London to Sydney in a few hours. When Burn-Murdoch travelled to Burma, he did it by a combination of steamship, train, and riverboat.

And again this is reflected in the literature of the time – for example in Erskine Childers’ ‘Riddle of the Sands’ one of the protagonists not only orders bits of boat gear by telegraph, but executes a complicated ruse by dint of the railway timetable.

It is world that is recognisable to us. Yes, details are different, but not that different. For example in Burn-Murdoch’s day there were no airlines but his asides on the merits of travelling on various shipping lines uncannily echo our debates over the merits of Etihad versus Qantas.

Even the lack of electronic technology does not make that much of a difference. For example when, at the end of the seventies, I was a research student, you were treated as an embryonic academic by Blackwell’s bookstore.

You went in, opened an account, they discreetly checked that you were who you said you were and in a couple of days sent you a nice letter with your account number. They sent you information about books they thought you might be interested in, and when you ordered a book you simply sent them a note quoting its ISBN and your account code. The book would arrive in due course, as would your monthly bill.

In terms of business analysis no different than purchasing a book from Amazon or Abe.

Likewise journal articles, one filled in a postcard and sent it to the library, and again it appeared in a day or two if they held the journal, or if not in a couple of weeks if they had to get it from elsewhere – a situation not too different from today with electronic journal delivery.

So, the world may have been slower, but all technology has done is improve the speed of execution of business processes. Just as the advent of the typewriter freed people from the need to write legibly, and the word processor from the tedium of revision, the world of the late nineteenth/early twentieth was not that different from our own, but very different from that of the early nineteenth century.

Some years ago I blogged (the actual blog server has long since turned up its toes):

C19 changes – how modern world 1.0 came about

posted Fri, 13 Oct 2006 18:07:42 -0700

1) Cheap universal postal service

coupled with literacy postal service made it easy to order and send items to remote locations including overseas.

Additional functions such as post office savings bank, postal orders and (perhaps) telgraphic transfers made it easy to send money for payments etc.

Allowed mail order catalog shopping – p commerce. Particularly important in US and Canada – Sears Roebuck etc.

2) Railways & steamships

pervasive enough in many countries (Europe, US, Australia, NZ, India etc) that they provided easy access to transport. Allowed goods to be moved from one location to another, allowed easy and quick distribution of postal material including mail order items

Allowed distribution more widely of newspapers making it economic to print in large quantities and sell cheaply, hence also making them attractive for advertisers to advertise and sell their goods

Allowed cities to grow by providing commuter services – cf Metroland and growth of certain London suburbs with expansion of Metropolitan railway line.

3) Bicycle

Provides cheap reliable individual transport, providing autonomy and allowing people to live further than immediate walking distance from work

Allows people option to go to areas of their choice and visit recreational things of their choice

In rural areas allowed people to reach railheads if they did not live in immediate vicinity. Allowed rural farmworkers (eg in NE Scotland under the fermtoun system) to visit nearest local town rather than spend six months holed up on farm

to which could be added electric light, which allowed people to extend their day, and the advances in sanitation which meant that people could live longer lives with a significantly reduced risk of disease.

However, when did modern begin? I personally tend to date it to sometime around 1880 due to the rise of the advertising poster. Enough people increasingly had disposable wealth that manufacturers had to get the message out and could not simply rely on word of mouth to spread news of their products, which previously would only have been available in the local area. By the 1880’s there were trains or ships to most places and the advent of the safety bicycle in 1885 turned cycling from something for a few rich young sportsmen to a mass means of transport that anyone could learn to use.

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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3 Responses to When did the modern begin ?

  1. Pingback: Not just travel writers | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. Pingback: Telling stories with technology | stuff 'n other stuff

  3. Pingback: The lost digital decades | stuff 'n other stuff

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