The Industrial & Scientific Revolutions

The Enlightenment ushered in profound change across Western society. People became increasingly free from authoritarian religious regimes and free to ponder openly what it means to be good, free, and ethical. But the monumental changes of the time were about more than liberty and justice. For many, in myriad ways, day-to-day life was getting vastly easier and safer as the technologies and knowledge at our disposal grew and grew.

London in the mid-1880s was the largest city in the largest empire in the world. It was at the leading edge of cultural “refinement” and technological innovation. It was also disgustingly filthy. The streets were littered with horse feces. The Thames was so replete with human excreta that it led to an event in the summer of 1858 now infamously known as “the Great Stink,” in which the pungent smell of human waste wafted across the entire city for weeks on end. Human feces was constantly tainting drinking water supplies leading to what now would be unthinkably high rates of death and disease.

But this all began to change. Scientists came to better understand the link between germs and health. The toilet – what some now consider the most important invention of all time – was developed and implemented far and wide. City authorities began to create systems to contain and manage waste and separate it from drinking water. Over the course of a few decades, London became the sanitation capital of the world. The Thames started returning, even if modestly, to its former state. Countless lives were saved. People rose out from a life in which they were inundated with filth to one of relative cleanliness and dignity.

At the same time, the first factories began sprouting up across the countryside. Now-essential products became available to a wider range of the population than ever before. Medicines like penicillin were discovered and made available to the masses. Electric light started shining the way through homes and streets. Skyscrapers started rising into the skyline. Before long, the Wright Brothers would take flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Metaphorically and quite literally, humanity rose up from its former squalor. The “Dark Ages” were no longer. Every year brought clear and obvious steps toward “modernity” and away from our lowly past. Every year, humanity ascended to new heights.

At least for the privileged in the Western world, “modernism” and The Story of Progress were in full swing.

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