Category Archives: Innovation

The Dark Ages Weren’t so Dark, and Neither Is Modernity

I’m currently reading Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells, which is a mostly successful attempt to rehabilitate the Dark Ages’ dismal reputation. The written sources are mostly from the Roman perspective, so one understands their rampant pessimism. Wells, an archaeologist, prefers a different historiographical method: archaeology. There is more to history than mere texts.

Roman inventions such as concrete were lost, and though literacy did not disappear, it wasn’t anywhere near where it was in Roman times; there was decline. But civilization did not die. International trade stayed alive, and with it the swirling exchange of ideas, customs, religions, and inventions that accompany commerce. Artifacts from as far away as India, Sri Lanka, and China have been found in Dark Age sites in Sweden and Ireland.

The visual arts remained vibrant, even if the written arts didn’t. Of course, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells provided their own vibrancy, even if in their illustrations and not in their actual text.

All in all, Wells has not persuaded me that early medieval Europe was the technological and cultural equal of the Roman Empire. But he has certainly vanquished the myth that the Dark Ages were as dark as the popular imagination believes.

Much as I love history, the real reason for this post is to point out just how well we moderns have it. In chapter 12, Wells writes the following about one of the 8th century’s greatest scholars:

The most prominent scholar of this period was Bede, a man of Anglo-Saxon origins who was born in northern England about 672 and died in 735. At the age of seven he entered the monastery that was based at the neighboring sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in Northumbria, just at the time that this monastic complex was reaching its apex of cultural achievement. The library at the monastery contained some five hundred books, making it on of the most extensive in Europe at the time.

Let’s put this in context. My Kindle e-reader, which fits in my hand, can hold more books than the finest library in all of 8th-century Europe had to offer. Just imagine what a mind of Bede’s caliber could accomplish with today’s intellectual resources.

That’s not all. Now think about today’s 7-billion-strong global population, and compare it to the fewer than one billion people alive in Bede’s time. There are at least an order of magnitude more people alive today with Bede-level intellects. And most of them have access to university libraries and the Internet. What will they accomplish?

We truly live in amazing times.


Innovation Is Cool

Amazon is on the cusp of offering same-day delivery.

Innovation Is Cool

A small food company in Canada has grown an apple that doesn’t turn brown after being sliced.

Not everyone thinks it’s a great idea. A representative for incumbent apple growers told The New York Times, “We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the apple industry of the United States to have that product in the marketplace at this time.”

This translates roughly to, “We think consumers will prefer this product to ours, and will hurt our bottom line. Therefore regulators should keep these things off the market for us.”

I’d rather consumers decide on the non-browning apple’s merits, thank you.

Innovation Is Cool

Ford predicts self-driving, traffic-reducing cars by 2017

Innovation Is Cool

Someone invented a machine that can install sidewalks automatically, sparing the knees and backs of bricklayers. Click the picture to enlarge; original image here.

Clarence Birdseye: An Unsung Hero Gets His Due

Modernity is amazing. We are surrounded by innovations, gadgets, and ideas that make life better. And just as a fish doesn’t notice the water he swims through, we are often oblivious to the incredible things that surround us. For example, we used to only be able to eat certain foods when they were in season. If your grandparents had a hankering for asparagus when they were young, they could only satisfy it if it was April or May. If they wanted a tomato, they’d have to wait until summertime.

Today, we can eat whatever we want, when we want. People don’t really appreciate it, but for most of human history, that just wasn’t possible. It takes all kinds of technologies to make that happen. Faster transportation is one of them. Trains, planes, automobiles, and boats with engines rather than oars make it possible to ship fresh food from all over the world to supermarkets.

Think about that for a minute. Julius Caesar and Napoleon’s armies may have lived nearly two millennia apart, but they moved at the same speed limit: no faster than a horse. Just two centuries after Napoleon – one tenth the temporal distance between him and Caesar — people can cross oceans in a matter of hours. So can their food.

Refrigeration is another key technology. By preventing food from spoiling, people need to grow less of it to stay fed, and it extends the useful life of food. The sanitary and culinary benefits are incalculable.

Which brings us to Clarence Birdseye. He’s the fellow who invented fast-freezing, and before today I hadn’t heard of him, either. Most people admire politicians or athletes, or entertainers. Many athletes and entertainers have their virtues, but more people should look up to unsung heroes like Clarence Birdseye. After all, he changed the world for the better.

Refrigerators can keep food fresh for a week or two longer than in the open air. But to enjoy fresh food out of season, it takes more than refrigeration. It even takes more than regular old freezing. It takes fast-freezing, done in a very particular way.

Birdseye spent a long time perfecting the process. But when he founded Bird’s Eye Frosted Foods in 1930, it was a revelation. Abigail Meisel writes in her review of a new Birdseye biography by Mark Kurlansky, “For the first time, June sweet peas and summer blueberries could be savored, in close-to-fresh form, in the dead of winter. By the mid-1940s, Americans were eating over 800 million pounds of fast-­frozen food a year.”

People talk a lot about helping other people and making their lives better. Clarence Birdseye actually went out and did it.

Hopefully people will pick up Kurlansky’s book and learn how remarkable are the little things are that we take for granted every day. There are a lot of people like Clarence Birdseye in the world. They deserve a round of applause.

Innovation Is Cool

Steve Horwitz is amazed at how external hard drives have progressed over the last six years. So am I.