We could us a little optimism; here's some


Last updated 10/26/2022 at 9:16am

A century ago, people in the Western world were excited about the future. The automobile was coming online, and the Wright brothers put an internal combustion engine on their flying machine and were performing demonstrations flights for crowds of enthusiastic people in France, Germany, and the United States.  The demonstration flights drew crowds of 200,000 thrilled spectators.  The automobile offered the freedom of easy mobility, and the airplane’s defiance of gravity sent people’s imagination to soaring heights.

Flying was deemed to be so completely impossible that people ridiculed the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, for their attempts to build a machine that could fly. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, not gods. But they were diligent bicycle mechanics. They made 1,000 glider flights before they installed an engine, each time experimenting, adjusting, and learning.

Some 3,000 start-up companies attempted to build an automobile. Few succeeded. Henry Ford’s assembly line production system made the automobile affordable. During the early part of the 20th century, telephones, electric lights, and radio added sparkle, utility, and entertainment to our way of life. It seemed like springtime for humanity.

Neither the invention of the automobile nor the invention of the airplane would have been possible without the previous invention of the internal combustion engine. And that engine development waited for the discovery of petroleum fuel. Petroleum is a “dense” energy; so much energy in a small portable portion that it can be used to power aircraft as well as automobiles. The development of heavy and powerful farm and construction equipment soon followed, a necessity for development of a modern economy.

We now know that the fossil fuel that powered the 20th century produced some unforeseen consequences. But we also have an array of modern sciences and a lot of contemporary Wright brothers and sisters who can deal with the issues.

The century saw other dedicated and determined citizens making breakthroughs in many fields, including medicine. As the century advanced, it was no longer necessary to live with the fear of many debilitating and deadly diseases, e.g., polio, smallpox, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, typhus, scarlet fever, and typhoid fever. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever at age 45. Life expectancy in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century was 47 years. At the beginning of the current century, it was 77 years.

The excitement and optimism of a century ago seems to now be replaced with grumpy attitudes. Why are we — or some of us — so disenchanted? Dr. Jamieson Webster, a clinical psychologist, reports that there has been a 54-percent increase in the suicide rate among the 10- to 24-year-old age group during the first part of the current century. Civil war is an ominous term that has appeared in the news media in recent years.

The planet is host to four times more people than it supported just a century ago. Greater population and increased wealth and technology cause a society to become more complex. It requires more rules and more restrictions. Gaining agreement is more difficult.  Just getting automobiles through an intersection, safely, requires regulations. And, there is the undisciplined, unedited social media where unhappy people can find other unhappy people to reinforce their unhappiness, and angry people can find confirmation for their anger. Truth is optional on social media. As expressed by Dr. Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, and paraphrased here: We are flooded with information; what we need is wisdom.

During the previous century, Americans endured a major influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and two world wars without losing their optimism.

A 21st century dose of gravity defying optimism would be a welcome lift for America’s spirits. 

Jack Stevenson is a retired infantry officer, civil service and private corporation employee who now reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary from his home in Pensacola, Florida.


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