I'm slightly more than halfway through "The Birth of the Modern", by Paul Johnson. It's a social/cultural/scientific history of the period between 1815-1830, when Johnson posits that the modern West was born. It's a fascinating book - kind of like the old PBS series "Connections" in the way it bounces from topic to topic, but in a more restricted time interval. Here's where the title of this post comes from - in a section on the rise of the Scientific method, Johnson writes:
In the years after Waterloo, scientific invention was of passionate interest to a rapidly expanding British and international public. That was the most important new factor. But it was still possible for a moderately well educated man or even a woman - a manual on chemistry was specifically written to appeal to ladies - to grasp the latest scientific developments. Indeed, an empiric engineer like Stephenson, who had no schooling, worked at the frontiers of technology alongside scientists like Davy. Physics and chemistry, science and engineering, literature and philosophy, art and industrial design, theory and practice - all constituted a continuum of knowledge and skill, within which men roamed freely. The notion of separate, compartmentalized "disciplines", later imposed by universities, did not yet exist.
Before someone gets their shorts in a bunch over the way he wrote about women there, recall that this is the early 19th century being discussed, not the modern era. The fascinating bit to me is that anyone with enough sense and curiousity could work at the bleeding edge back then - if modern knowledge is a staircase, people were still standing at the lower landing, peering up. It's certainly not like that now.
That's why the 19th century has such a romantic allure to it - it was, by and large, a time of piece in the West. Certainly there were large disruptions - the Civil War in the US, the revolutions (mostly abortive) of 1848 in Europe, the Franco-Prussian war. None of them swept the world though - there was nothing as huge as the wars or Napolean, or as large as WWI became. That meant that people were free to spend time, energy, and money on scientific and cultural pursuits. That's what happened.
There's a notion that science is advancing faster than ever before, but it's really not the case - the technologies introduced through the course of the 19th century and into the early 20th were far, far more disruptive. Consider communications technology, for instance. In reading about the negotiations at the Congress of Vienna, it was clear that the world hadn't changed yet - the ministers sent were mostly on their own, as dispatches from Castlereigh (of the UK) back to London took weeks going back and forth. Skip a few years forward and you had the telegraph - which brought instantaneous communication to the world. In 1815, it took months for the news of the volcanic eruption (which caused "the year without a summer") to reach Europe and the US. By 1883, when Krakatoa went up, it took a day or so. It's faster now, but not dramatically so.
Look at transport - with bad roads and horse drawn conveyances, it took days to travel from New York to Albany. With the introduction of the railroad, that dropped to hours. Sure, planes sped that up even more, and removed the need for the high cost railbed. The disruptive change in circumstances came with the rails though. Word of a news event could travel instantly (telegraph), and people could journey to and fro in hours, or days - instead of weeks and months. The coming of the steamship in the latter half of the century collapsed sea travel in the same way.
Now consider the changes we've faced since the 1960s, for instance. Computers and the internet? Well, computers existed back in the 60's, and we (at least in the West) were already attuned to the idea of changing technology. What we got was better and faster, not completely new. The PC and the laptop were incremental improvements, not wholly disruptive events. In the grand scheme of things, the telegraph was a bigger shock to the system than the internet was.