By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Marvels Of The Modern World

Overawed by the thought of a potentially massive response to these personal views and visions of mine which I've just started weaving into the invisible and apparently infinite fabric of the World-Wide Web  --  but restrained at the same time by a keen awareness of the fact that such a marvellous dream may not come true at all  --  I had concluded my initial comments in a sober mood as follows (Sept. 15):

     "..... I therefore embark on this trans-Cyberian voyage confidently, expecting that my reflections will pass the test of time and will be floating around the world for a long time to come.  I do earnestly hope that sooner or later they will be retrieved, read and quoted by at least a single scholar doing research in social history, mainly for whose benefit I shall be writing this column.  

     "But who knows, a million other people in a hundred countries may also discover it in due course....  and if that happens, it will be another miracle of the modern world!"    

      Reviewing the last thought I had expressed only a few days ago, and looking back at some of the scientific and environmental scenarios which have survived in my memory for more than half a century, I recall that one of the books which had made the most powerful and lasting impressions on my mind and imagination when I was a young student was a handsome volume called Marvels Of The Modern World.

Tempo of progress

     It belonged to a wonderful set of general-knowledge books published by the Home Library Club in London and imported into India just before the the Second World War.  Beautifully bound in brown or dark-green hard covers and containing hundreds of glorious black-and-white photographs, all those books (bought by my father who was a civil engineer) had given me a global vision of scientific and cultural progress which has governed my whole outlook and attitudes in related contexts to this day.    
     This was particularly true of Marvels Of The Modern World, which depicted, in lucid texts and graphic pictures, the evolution of engines and railways,  ships and submarines,  aeroplanes and automobiles.....   the development of telegraph and telephone, radio and gramaphone, radar and rockets.....   the building of roads and tunnels,  dams and bridges, dykes and skyscrapers.....  the exploration of oil fields, polar ice caps, and ocean beds..... the generation, transmission  and distribution of electricity.....    and so on.    

     A remarkable thing about the book was that even 30 or 40 years later it was a source of great fascination and inspiration for my two children who were schoolboys in India in the 1970's.  It is difficult to imagine any book on science and technology published 50 years after the Second World War having such equal and enormous appeal for parents and children alike!

     An important reason for such high durability of the pre-War book, I believe,  is the fact that although
the progress of science and technology during the half-century between 1940 and 1990 was no doubt spectacular compared to any earlier period in world history, it was much slower and far less turbulent than during the next 20 years from 1990 to 2010.  

Beyond the sound barrier
     Many specific examples can be lined up for illustrating this significant aspect;   but let me just
mention one of them here -- the sequence of land speed records broken and retained during the 20th century: 

     The first and last world records for maximum land speed rose from 39 miles per hour in 1898 to 763
mph a full century later in 1997.  It had crossed the landmarks of 100/200/300 mph in 1904/1927/1935.  

     My Marvels edition showed George Eyston as the glamorous record-holder, at 357 mph, achieved in 1938 with his famous car Thunderbolt.  That was overtaken by John Cobb in 1939 at  370 mph.

     It took another quarter-century for the 400/500/600-mph landmarks to be crossed (in 1964 and '65,  by Donald Campbell in a wheel-driven turbine car;  Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove in turbojet-propelled cars).  The 700-mph hurdle couldn't be passed during the next three decades;   but suddenly in 1997,  Andy Green shot through the sound barrier in a turbofan car, touching 763 miles per hour (Mach 1.016).

      Perhaps this record or the next one  will be the ultimate level beyond which land speed cannot be attained by any vehicles running on wheels,  even if they're equipped with still more powerful jet engines.  For even the most fabulous marvels of the ultra-modern world would seem to have an absolute limit somewhere  --  except, of course, the never-ending expansion of  the Internet's mysterious memory!   

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