The sense that an era was passing must have been profound in 1901, when the death of Britain's Queen Victoria ended a reign of 64 years. That same year, the President of the United States was murdered by a terrorist.
Global transportation would soon change dramatically. Plans were nearing completion for a canal through Panama that would subtract 18,000 miles from the journey between New York and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, information technology took a leap. The telegraph was the breakthrough of the previous century, making it possible for news to travel without a human messenger. Many subsequent developments would come, the first of which was proven in 1901, when a telegraph signal was broadcast with the futuristic technology of radio.
This month's issue focuses on the future (specifically, the future of machining). And yet here I am talking about the past.
My point is simple. The dawn of the 21st century holds no monopoly on dramatic change. The dawn of 20th century, to give just one example of another period in time, was also pretty dramatic.
When we think of the future, we are always tempted to believe that the changes today are significant, and that we live in a uniquely important time. In part, there is vanity at work here. The present moment must be important, we think, because it's the moment containing us!
But there's more to it than that. There is also an illusion about the past created by the fact that its story is settled and done. Because we are so familiar with the events and eras of history, we forget that people of the past didn't have our perspective. The person alive on January 1, 1901, had utterly no idea what would happen on January 2. Their tomorrows were as unknown as ours.
It is awe-inspiring to consider that we may be living in dramatically uncertain times, but I find another outlook to be more awe-inspiring than that. What if times have often been dramatic? What if times have always been uncertain?
If our civilization stands upon a foundation that is at all stable, and if we were born into a society that has knowledge and resources we can use to confront the challenges of our own time, then that can only be because those who came before us faced their own uncertainties with enough wisdom and courage to secure these prizes.
The challenge is not to witness remarkable times, or even to participate in them. The challenge is greater—to honor the memory of those who faced remarkable times of their own, by trying to do as well as they did.