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Technology Moves At Different Speeds

Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of historical restorations (e.g., Willamsburg, Virgina) and a lot of house museums and other buildings that are meant to recreate a specific era. The better ones recognize that the target year is only an end date. Unless people have specifically thrown away or lost all of their possessions in the very recent past, they pretty much never have everything that is the same age. I’m writing this blog post on a five year old computer, at a 25-year-old desk, sitting on a 35-year-old chair, and that’s a minor example. My older relatives have furniture and other possessions – jewelry, books, art – that range in age from new to sixty or more years old. If someone attempted to recreate our home as it was when I was a child, in say 1970, and furnished it with items only from 1970, it would look horribly wrong. This aspect of history is, I think, reasonably well known.

The same is true of changes in technology. When I started my own practice in 1992, I had a PC (1990s tech) for most of my work. I also had a fax machine (1970s tech), and a typewriter (1890s tech as upgraded to electric power in the 1950s). Which brings us to the photo above, lower Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn Heights. The Library of Congress page says 1905 to 1910, but if we look closely…

…there’s the Singer Building under construction, with the frame having been recently topped out, and the City Investing Buidling next to it with the steel still being erected. This is most likely from late 1907, maybe early 1908. By 1907, the city was becoming recognizably modern New York, with a subway, New-Law tenements, and high-rises. But this picture shows the mix of technology of different eras. In the close-up above, we have early-1800s wood-joist-and-brick-wall warehouses (facing South Street in front, between and to the left of the Mallory Line’s piers 15 and 16) a few blocks away from Singer, soon to be the tallest building in the world. Even better, in the foreground…

…we have more old warehouses with the multiple chimneys indicating they were built before coal-fired boilers became common. The most obvious example of different generations of technology co-existing is on the river. The main traffic of the port had moved away from the East River to the greater width and slower currents of the Hudson long before 1907, but smaller ships for coastal freight and passengers were still docking here:

In the background we have a pier for the New Haven Line – why take a train 80 miles when you can take a steamer? – and in the foreground, a small freighter docked on the Brooklyn side. In between, a schooner of the type that were the mainstay of local shipping in the first half of the nineteenth century. Someone still thought they could compete economically with steamships using that boat.

So, interesting contrasts. But mainly, I like the photo and wanted to use it.