From the distant past, to our lifetime and into the distant future.
Technology can change the world in ways that are unimaginable, until they happen. Switching on an electric light would have been unimaginable for our medieval ancestors. In their childhood, our grandparents would have struggled to imagine a world connected by smartphones and the Internet.
Similarly, it is hard for us to imagine the arrival of all those technologies that will fundamentally change the world we are used to.
We can remind ourselves that our own future might look very different from the world today by looking back at how rapidly technology has changed our world in the past. That’s what this article is about.
One insight I take away from this long-term perspective is how unusual our time is. Technological change was extremely slow in the past – the technologies that our ancestors got used to in their childhood were still central to their lives in their old age. In stark contrast to those days, we live in a time of extraordinarily fast technological change. For recent generations, it was common for technologies that were unimaginable in their youth to become common later in life.
The big visualization offers a long-term perspective on the history of technology.1
The timeline begins at the center of the spiral. The first use of stone tools, 3.4 million years ago, marks the beginning of this history of technology.2 Each turn of the spiral then represents 200,000 years of history. It took 2.4 million years – 12 turns of the spiral – for our ancestors to control fire and use it for cooking.3
To be able to visualize the inventions in the more recent past – the last 12,000 years – I had to unroll the spiral. I needed more space to be able to show when agriculture, writing, and the wheel were invented. During this period, technological change was faster, but it was still relatively slow: several thousand years passed between each of these three inventions.
From 1800 onwards, I stretched out the timeline even further to show the many major inventions that rapidly followed one after the other.
The long-term perspective that this chart provides makes it clear just how unusually fast technological change is in our time.
You can use this visualization to see how technology developed in particular domains. Follow, for example, the history of communication: from writing, to paper, to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, all the way to the Internet and smartphones.
Or follow the rapid development of human flight. In 1903, the Wright brothers took the first flight in human history (they were in the air for less than a minute), and just 66 years later, we landed on the moon. Many people saw both within their lifetimes: the first plane and the moon landing.