Some historians say it is not, that looking at inventions from the distance history provides is like trying to judge the speed of an observed train at a distance without knowing the distance; from farther away, be they historically or in proximity, things appear slower. But this answer is, to me at least, just waving off the preponderance of evidence for an invention acceleration as simply not worth considering.
Back in college, I suggested it was education. More and more are getting more and more education. Could that be it? Perhaps, but this answer simply pushes the question down the road; why are more and more getting educated at greater rates? In other words, what changed in our education system from previous years?
Very recently, I think I've stumbled upon the answer, and I'm not sure I like the implications. More are educated today, more invention happens today, and more of us do less strenuous work today for the same reason that prisoners today are able to serve their time without turning big rocks into smaller ones.
Prisoners of the past—and the present, outside the riches of the west, where blue collar workers have the luxury of typing on an electric communications device on their Saturday off work—were doing needed things on these devices most regard as torture.
It's a stereotypical, even cartoonish view of prison life, that of the striped swinging hammers at rocks. At one point, though, this was a reality.
And this was not done just as a form of atonement for one's crimes, either. There was a very real need for this back-breaking work. Likewise, there was a need for the work provided by this device, the treadwheel:
Of course, on one's own, don't expect the wheel pictured above to be of much use. Monotony—and torque—loves company.
Exercising on a treadmill often feels like torture, and that’s not exactly a coincidence.
In 1818, an English civil engineer named Sir William Cubitt devised a machine called the “tread-wheel” to reform stubborn and idle convicts.
Prisoners would step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. (Hence the eventual name treadmill.) In grueling eight-hour shifts, prisoners would climb the equivalent of 7,200 feet. The exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness. . . .
Over the years, American wardens gradually stopped using the treadmill in favor of other backbreaking tasks, such as picking cotton, breaking rocks, or laying bricks. In England, the treadmill persisted until the late 19th century, when it was abandoned for being too cruel.
And here is the portion of this post I consider worrisome. Why did the treadwheel and other practices of the past persist "until the late 19th century"? Wouldn't the apparent cruelty of any given situation be, well, apparently cruel well before almost a hundred years had past? Why was such cruelty tolerated at all?
I just finished Andrew Nikiforuk's The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the new Servitude, where I found the disturbing answers. Nikiforuk observes, "Every day nearly a million students learn that markets, money, and math, along with a good dose of greed, dominate economics. Thick textbooks and prestigiously degreed financial analysts tell the great story of minimizing costs and maximizing profits." As often happens, mythology obscures reality:
But this neoliberal model, whether used by monetarists (Big Markets Rule) or Keynesian economists (Big Government Rules), is a hydrocarbon comic book and an increasingly bad one. . . . In insisting that labor, markets, and technology make the world go round, neoclassical economists have ignored the primary source of all wealth: energy. They have disregarded several thermodynamic laws and abused much math. They have also mistaken the creation and exchange of money for the production of real wealth. Oil has powered an unprecedented set of illusions: that exponential growth is normal; that self-interest is always rational; and that capital is disconnected from material resources. . . . The ecologist Charles Hall puts it simply: "The abundance of oil allowed [economists] not to think about energy."
(Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the new Servitude, Greystone Books, 2012, pp. 130-131.)
Energy. The prisoners were supplying needed energy through forced work. The treadmills were lifting water and crushing grains, the hammers were making gravel. And here we should consider words that bear more weight than most, those of Oscar Wilde:
The fact is that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly horrible uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.
—Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man under Socialism," 1891
Wilde's words should be considered carefully simply because six years after writing these words, Wilde himself was imprisoned and forced to walk not the treadwheel of earlier years pictured above, but an improved one that more resembles today's treadmill exercise machines. The labor, again along with less-than-desirable living conditions and diets, greatly diminished Wilde's health, and certainly curtailed his cultured contemplations.
And here we can consider why outlawing the "torture" that nearly broke Wilde could be delayed until so late after its introduction:
By the 1880s, the output of the world's steam engines totaled 150 million horsepower. Running but a sixteen-hour shift, these machines collectively exerted the work of more than 3 billion humans. . . . In just on hundred years, coal-fired machines added 3 billion invisible slaves to the global economy.
(Nikiforuk, ibid, p. 20.)
Prisoners could only cease in their labors after coal had taken up the mantle. Still, some jobs required more portability. Making gravel for roads was one. A coal-fired rock crusher was by necessity enormous, and could not be transported to where the gravel was needed, not with teams of horses at least. Hauling the gravel to the road site was likewise too great a task for horses. It took the introduction of big diesel trucks to retire the sledge hammers in prisons, and that only came decades after the turn of the last century.
Ever wonder why torque is measured in "horsepower"? James Watt developed the metric as a way to convince buyers of the value of his new-fangled steam engines–the design an improvement on earlier models, not a new machine entirely—to replace the teams of horses harnessed in circular gangs that walked in circles, driving the gears that did the work. Coincidentally enough, he made these measurements, these observations of a horse's power, in the same place and at the same time that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. Once again, economists and the real world came that close to getting it right.
Which brings us to the present. Consider a snippet from a BBC television show Bang Goes the Theory.
In a nutshell, 100 bicyclists were slaved to generators and made to power a typical 4-member household for 24 hours. They were paid only the promise that they would get to be on the telly. Conclusions?
It had taken twenty-four cyclists to heat the oven and eleven to make two slices of toast. Many of the cyclists collapsed. Several couldn't walk for days. Not only that—the peddlers actually consumed more energy, in food, than they generated.
The experiment crudely illustrated widespread consumer ignorance about energy spending. It also convinced one of the experiment's designers, Tim Siddall of Electric Pedals, that "volunteer slavery" (hordes of sweating cyclists) or old-fashioned shackled labor might be needed to power the future: "I have no doubt that slavery will return as the world's energy resources get increasingly scarce," the Guardian quoted him saying.
(Nikiforuk, ibid, p. 64, with my bolding.)
Back to Nikiforuk for a bit:
The Romans, good organizers and diligent builders, eschewed science and new technologies. With so many slaves available to do the work, the water mill and the harvester got scant attention.
(Nikiforuk, ibid, p. 8.)
And here we return to my 30-year-old musings about the pace of invention. Without energy to do the work, we wouldn't have had the time to go to colleges, to dream of gizmos, to build sillinesses like the gadget that is formatting these words or the geegahs that will transmit them to you or the whatchamacallits that will allow you to read them. We would have been busy doing what so many societies before us did, growing food and keeping house . . . or supervising those growing the food and keeping the house.
And now that energy extraction is slowing, we will have to return to some work that we have for quite a while farmed out to gadgetry fueled by dead dinosaurs. By what societal structure this work gets done is up in the air . . . but I am not encouraged.
Unless we do some careful planning and considering, we may be going back to a time like that of Rome: "Romans typically greeted each other with Quot pascit servos? ('How many slaves do you feed?'). The answer revealed a person's status, wealth, and access to energy." (Nikiforuk, ibid, p. 6.)
As a timely addendum and reason to post this further, Judge Andrew Napolitano kindly came to the Daily Show to debate a position of his that cuts to the very quick of this argument: the proposition that Lincoln was too draconian in starting the Civil War, simply because slavery was "on the way out," and had the president simply waited, slavery itself in these United States would have disappeared of its own accord.
Why the judge might have felt this way is obvious, given the context of the content above. Industrialization was transforming the way things were produced. As long as one had the fuel, one could do more with machines in many industries than one could do with human hands.
Ah, but industrialization did not replace hands altogether. More importantly, it did not change minds.
People who grew up with slaves and knew that slaves equaled power and wealth would not willingly give them up. Much of the Wild West's violence was the tension between people fighting to make what would become the Western states either slave or free. If one were an expert at growing food on a slave-powered plantation, no amount of mechanization would temp one to move away from what was known . . . especially if it meant selling a known human asset to buy the industrial equipment.
So, no, Mr. Napolitano, the government was not the evil entity you would like to assume it is. It was just people who happened to be in power at the time doing the best they thought possible.