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John Glenn And Geezer Talk

The Mercury Seven are now gone.

John Glenn, the first American and third human to orbit the Earth (that we know of) passed away overnight.

I was seven months old when Glenn took his historic four passes around the Earth.  Glenn was one of the two Mercury Seven (Gus Grissom the other) that I never met.

This got me to thinking about history and the connections we all have to it that we rarely think about or take advantage of.

My personal connections and first- and second-hand memories span three centuries.  My grandfather and great aunt shared stories that began in the 1890s.  My grandfather grew up with Jesse James in Independence, Missouri, and my great aunt vividly described coming to Texas in a covered wagon.

From the various adults around me in my childhood, I heard first-hand recollections of World Wars 1 and 2, the Great Depression, the Dawn of the Age of Automobiles, Telegraph, Telephones, Jets and Space Travel, the Age of Radio and Television, and in my own direct experience, the Computer Revolution and the Information Age.

When one considers how fast technology has developed in the past 150 years, and how much of that history we've experienced directly, or through direct contact with people we have known, it is rather mind-boggling.

When my great aunt Tish was born, the Transcontinental Railroad was just 30 years old, the Telegraph was still an amazing new technology, and radio communications were just being discovered in the lab.  The telephone and light bulb patents were filed in the decade before she was born.

This is stunning to me because for most of human history before Aunt Tish's birth, little changed from one century to the next.  Perhaps a few decades brought revolutions to the arts and sciences, beginning with movable type and the Renaissance, but how many people actually experienced it in their daily lives?  Most of that technology only affected the intelligentsia and took quite a long time to filter down into the consciousness of the average human.  The same with the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment, though by now its diffusion had sped up considerably.

When Eli Whitney developed mass production of arms, suddenly things started to take off.  The availability of cheap, quality rifles and handguns empowered a vast number of people practically overnight.  When Henry Ford applied the techniques to transportation, instantly everyone could own a car much cheaper than buying a horse.  Jethro Tull's seed drill and hoe revolutionized farming and food production, and the pace of life started to pick up considerably.

The changes from vacuum tubes to transistors to silicon chips was practically overnight in historical terms.  Mechanical labor to analog to digital was about as fast.  The conquest of time and space went from the speed of a horse to a little over 35,000 mph (the New Horizons probe) in just over a century.  What's more, most of this technology is available to humans in the daily lives, though many suspect there are far more amazing technologies still to be revealed (I say revealed advisedly).

In my great aun't lifetime, humans went from 500-mile trips in covered wagons to the Moon and back, and those trips to the Moon were witnessed worldwide live on television (a debate for another time).

Just within the confines of my career, I have seen video equipment shrink from wildly expensive rooms full of humming machinery and piles of 1" videotape reels, to my laptop.  I haven't even seen a videotape in several years.  My first trip abroad involved calling home from the telegraph office on a line with a 2-second delay.  Now I can make video calls from just about anywhere on Earth in real time from my handheld devices.

Aunt Tish told me about hiding under the bed during Halley's Comet's 1910 pass, and even gave me a bottle of Comet Pills widely sold at the time to stave off the ill effects.  In 1985, when the comet came through again, I made a pilgrimage to Big Bend in Texas, to watch the spectacle from a gloriously unsullied sky.  If I live to 100 exactly, I will have the chance to experience the comet for a third time, either first- or second-hand.

It was 200 years from Columbus to colonies in the New World.  It was 52 years from John Glenn to SpaceShipOne.  Imagine where we'll be tomorrow.

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