Want to see REAL transformation in the workplace? Too late, you missed it.

It’s easy to think that there’s lots of innovation going on in the workplace. Computers continue to get smaller and cheaper, everyone has a smart device in their pocket… it seems that the pace continues to quicken every day. But to see real, profound change you need to take a look backwards in time.

In his recent book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, author Robert J. Gordon did that and found that the “True Great Inventions” have already been made. He considers recent innovations to be mostly iterative and lists what he considers the True Great Inventions:

1. Electricity
2. Urban sanitation
3. Chemicals & pharmaceuticals
4. Internal combustion engine
5. Modern communications

To put this in perspective, Gordon notes that, “…life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940. Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses.” Here are more excerpts from the book’s introduction:

When electricity made it possible to create light with the flick of a switch instead of the strike of a match, the process of creating light was changed forever. When the electric elevator allowed buildings to extend vertically instead of horizontally, the very nature of land use was changed. When small electric machines attached to the floor replaced huge steam boilers that transmitted power by leather or rubber belts, the scope for replacing human labor with machines broadened beyond recognition.

Transportation is noteworthy for its potential increase in speed in little more than a century, from the first primitive railroads replacing the stagecoach in the 1830s to the Boeing 707 flying near the speed of sound in 1958.

The Mason jar, invented in 1859 by John Landis Mason, made it possible to preserve food at home… processed foods, from Kellogg’s corn flakes and Borden’s condensed milk to Jell-O, entered American homes. The invention of a method for freezing food, was achieved by Clarence Birdseye in 1916, though his invention had to wait for decades to become practical at home until in the 1950s the electric refrigerator had finally progressed enough to be able to maintain a zero temperature in its freezer compartment.

Public waterworks not only revolutionized the daily routine but also protected every family against waterborne diseases. The development of anesthetics in the late nineteenth century made the gruesome pain of amputations a thing of the past, and the invention of antiseptic surgery cleaned up the squalor of the nineteenth-century hospital. X-rays, antibiotics, and modern treatments for cancer were all invented and implemented in the special century.

Not a single household was wired for electricity in 1880, nearly 100 percent of U.S. urban homes were wired by 1940, and in the same time interval the percentage of urban homes with clean running piped water and sewer pipes for waste disposal had reached 94 percent. More than 80 percent of urban homes in 1940 had interior flush toilets, 73 percent had gas for heating and cooking, 58 percent had central heating, and 56 percent had mechanical refrigerators. In short, the 1870 workplace was isolated from the rest of the world, but 1940 workplaces were “networked,” most having the connections of electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer.

Working-class jobs in the city required sixty hours of work per week—ten hours per day, including Saturdays. More than half of teenage boys were engaged in child labor, and male heads of households worked until they were disabled or dead. But by 1970, the whole concept of time had changed, including the introduction of blocks of time that were barely known a century earlier, including the two-day weekend and retirement.

These innovations pertain to all facets of life – including the workplace. Innovation in the last 50-60 years pales in comparison to the ones listed above. Think about it: in the late 1800s you rode a horse (or walked) to work, did your job next to a gas lantern and used an outhouse when necessary. But since those things were replaced, life really hasn’t changed that much. If you walked into an 1880s workplace you’d be completely lost; on the other hand, if you went to a 1940’s business, maybe you’d miss your internet-connected computer, but you’d recognize everything else and know how to use it. So fundamentally, things really aren’t that different.

More changes will of course come to the workplace – but will they really be as profound as the “True Great Inventions?”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (PD)

Frank Kenna III
April 19, 2016

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