The Roots of Progress

Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

In reading stories of progress, one thing that has struck me was the wild, enthusiastic celebrations that accompanied some of them in the past. Read some of these stories; somehow it’s hard for me to imagine similar jubilation happening today:

The US transcontinental railroad, 1869

The transcontinental railroad was the first to link the US east and west. Prior to the railroad, to travel from coast to coast could take six months, whether by land or sea, and the journey was hard and perilous. California was like a foreign colony, separated from the life and industry of the East. The railroad changed that completely, taking a six-month journey down to a matter of days.

Here’s how the western cities reacted, from Stephen Ambrose’s book Nothing Like It in the World:

At 5 A.M. on Saturday, a Central Pacific train pulled into Sacramento carrying celebrants from Nevada, including firemen and a brass band. They got the festivities going by starting their parade. A brass cannon, the very one that had saluted the first shovelful of earth Leland Stanford had turned over for the beginning of the CP’s construction six years earlier, boomed once again.

The parade was mammoth. At its height, about 11 A.M. in Sacramento, the time the organizers had been told the joining of the rails would take place, twenty-three of the CP’s locomotives, led by its first, the Governor Stanford, let loose a shriek of whistles that lasted for fifteen minutes.

In San Francisco, the parade was the biggest held to date. At 11 A.M., a fifteen-inch Parrott rifled cannon at Fort Point, guarding the south shore of the Golden Gate, fired a salute. One hundred guns followed. Then fire bells, church bells, clock towers, machine shops, streamers, foundries, the U.S. Mint let go at full blast. The din lasted for an hour.

In both cities, the celebration went on through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

The Brooklyn Bridge, 1883

The Brooklyn Bridge did not connect a distance nearly as great as the transcontinental railroad, but it too was met with grand celebrations. An excerpt from David McCullough’s The Great Bridge:

When the Erie Canal was opened in the autumn of 1825, there were four former Presidents of the United States present in New York City for the occasion—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—as well as John Quincy Adams, then occupying the White House, and General Andrew Jackson, who would take his place. When the Brooklyn Bridge was opened on May 24, 1883, the main attraction was Chester A. Arthur. …

Seth Low made the official greeting for the City of Brooklyn, the Marines presented arms, a signal flag was dropped nearby and instantly there was a crash of a gun from the Tennessee. Then the whole fleet commenced firing. Steam whistles on every tug, steamboat, ferry, every factory along the river, began to scream. More cannon boomed. Bells rang, people were cheering wildly on every side. The band played “Hail to the Chief” maybe six or seven more times, and as the New York Sun reported, “the climax of fourteen years’ suspense seemed to have been reached, since the President of the United States of America had walked dry shod to Brooklyn from New York.”

Not only did they celebrate, they analyzed and philosophized:

What was it all about? What was everyone celebrating? The speakers of the day had a number of ideas. The bridge was a “wonder of Science,” an “astounding exhibition of the power of man to change the face of nature.” It was a monument to “enterprise, skill, faith, endurance.” It was also a monument to “public spirit,” “the moral qualities of the human soul,” and a great, everlasting symbol of “Peace.” The words used most often were “Science,” “Commerce,” and “Courage,” and some of the ideas expressed had the familiar ring of a Fourth of July oration. …

… every speaker that afternoon seemed to be saying that the opening of the bridge was a national event, that it was a triumph of human effort, and that it somehow marked a turning point. It was the beginning of something new, and although none of them appeared very sure what was going to be, they were confident it would be an improvement over the past and present.

The celebrations culminated with an enormous fireworks show:

In all, fourteen tons of fireworks—more than ten thousand pieces—were set off from the bridge. It lasted a solid hour. There was not a moment’s letup. One meteoric burst followed another. …

… finally, at nine, as the display on the bridge ended with one incredible barrage—five hundred rockets fired all at once—every whistle and horn on the river joined in. The rockets “broke into millions of stars and a shower of golden rain which descended upon the bridge and the river.” Bells were rung, gongs were beaten, men and women yelled themselves hoarse, musicians blew themselves red in the face.

Comparing this to another accomplishment we’ll return to below, McCullough writes:

In another time and in what would seem another world, on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Electric lighting, 1879

The electric light bulb was perhaps not met with parades or fireworks, but it did attract visitors from far and wide just to see the marvel. From Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth:

Few, if any inventions, have been more enthusiastically welcomed than electric light. Throughout the winter of 1879–1880, thousands traveled to Menlo Park to see the “light of the future,” including farmers whose houses would never be electrified in their lifetimes. Travelers on the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad could see the brilliant lights glowing in the Edison offices. The news was announced to the world on December 21, 1879, with a full-page story in the New York Herald, opened by this dramatic and long-winded headline: EDISON’S LIGHT—THE GREAT INVENTOR’S TRIUMPH IN ELECTRIC ILLUMINATION—A SCRAP OF PAPER—IT MAKES A LIGHT, WITHOUT GAS OR FLAME, CHEAPER THAN OIL—SUCCESS IN A COTTON THREAD. On New Year’s Eve of 1879, 3,000 people converged by train, carriage, and farm wagon on the Edison laboratory to witness the brilliant display, a planned laboratory open house of dazzling modernity to launch the new decade.

The polio vaccine, 1955

Rails, bridges and lights were celebrated in part because they greatly relieved the burdens of distance and darkness. Another burden was lifted in 1955 when the polio vaccine was announced.

Polio terrified the nation, much more so than diseases such as tuberculosis that were actually much bigger killers, for a few reasons. It struck in unpredictable, dramatic epidemics. The epidemics were relatively new starting in the late 1800s; it was not a disease that had been widespread throughout history, such as smallpox. It left many victims paralyzed rather than killing them, so its results were visible in the form of crutches, braces, and wheelchairs. It targeted children, striking fear into the hearts of parents. And it could not be fought with the new weapons of cleanliness and sanitation, which were successful against so many other diseases. This added guilt to the fear, as parents of polio victims obsessed over what they had done wrong in failing to protect their children.

So it’s understandable that the entire nation was eager to hear the news of a vaccine, and went wild when it was achieved. From Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk, by Richard Carter:

On April 12, 1955, the world learned that a vaccine developed by Jonas Edward Salk, M.D., could be relied upon to prevent paralytic poliomyelitis. This news consummated the most extraordinary undertaking in the history of science, a huge research project led by a Wall Street lawyer and financed by the American people through hundreds of millions of small donations. More than a scientific achievement, the vaccine was a folk victory, an occasion for pride and jubilation. A contagion of love swept the world. People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their traffic lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, forgave enemies….

The ardent people named schools, streets, hospitals, and newborn infants after him. They sent him checks, cash, money orders, stamps, scrolls, certificates, pressed flowers, snapshots, candy, baked goods, religious medals, rabbits’ feet and other talismans, and uncounted thousands of letters and telegrams, both individual and round-robin, describing their heartfelt gratitude and admiration. They offered him free automobiles, agricultural equipment, clothing, vacations, lucrative jobs in government and industry, and several hundred opportunities to get rich quick. Their legislatures and parliaments passed resolutions, and their heads of state issued proclamations. Their universities tendered honorary degrees. He was nominated for the Nobel prize, which he did not get, and a Congressional medal, which he got, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which turned him down. He was mentioned for several dozen lesser awards of national or local or purely promotional character, most of which he turned down.

Not all of this happened on April 12, 1955, but much of it did. Salk awakened that morning as a moderately prominent research professor on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He ended the day as the most beloved medical scientist on earth.

David Oshinsky adds more details in Polio: An American Story:

There had been celebrations like this for athletes, soldiers, politicians, aviators—but never for a scientist. Gifts and honors poured in from a grateful nation. Philadelphia awarded Salk its Poor Richard Medal for distinguished service to humanity. Mutual of Omaha gave him its Criss Award, along with a $10,000 check, for his contribution to public health. The University of Pittsburgh was swamped with thank-you notes and “donations” addressed to Dr. Salk. His lab was “knee-deep in mail,” a staffer recalled. “Paper money [went] into one bin, checks into another, and metal coins into a third.” (How much was collected, and who kept what, was never fully divulged.) Elementary schools sent giant posters—WE LOVE YOU DR. SALK—signed by the entire student body. Winnipeg, Canada, site of a major polio epidemic in 1953, sent a 208-foot telegram of congratulation adorned with each survivor’s name. A town in the Texas panhandle bought him two heartfelt, if comically inappropriate, gifts: a plow and a fully equipped Oldsmobile 98. (Salk gave the plow to an orphanage and had the car sold so the town could buy more polio vaccine.) A new Cadillac arrived and was donated to charity. Colleges begged him to accept their honorary degrees. Newsweek lauded “A Quiet Young Man’s Magnificent Victory,” insisting that Salk’s name was now “as secure a word in the medical dictionary as Jenner, Pasteur, Schick, and Lister.”

Hollywood wasn’t far behind. Three major studios—Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Twentieth Century-Fox—fought for the exclusive rights to Salk’s life story. Rumors flew that Marlon Brando was angling for the lead—an odd choice, most agreed, but a sure sign of box office pizzazz. Salk wisely told them no. “I believe that such pictures are most appropriately made after the scientist is dead,” he remarked, “and I’m willing to await my chances of such attention at that time.”

Politicians embraced him. One senator introduced a bill to give the forty-year-old Salk a $10,000 annual stipend for life. Another proposed the minting of a Salk dime, just like FDR’s. (Both ideas went nowhere.) Governor George Leader of Pennsylvania gave him the state’s highest honor—the Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service—before a cheering joint session of the legislature (which soon created an endowed chair for Salk at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with a princely stipend of $25,000 a year). On an even grander scale, the U.S. House and Senate began the bipartisan process of commissioning a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award. Salk would become only the second medical researcher to receive one, joining Walter Reed of yellow fever fame. The two men were in good company. Previous honorees included Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, General George C. Marshall, and Irving Berlin.

Hundreds wrote President Eisenhower to request a special White House ceremony for Salk. … On April 22 Jonas and Donna Salk, their three young boys, and Basil O’Connor arrived at the White House to meet the president. … The Rose Garden ceremony that day would not soon be forgotten. Few had ever seen Dwight Eisenhower struggle with his feelings in such a public way. “No bands played and no flags waved,” wrote a reporter who had followed Ike for years. “But nothing could have been more impressive than this grandfather standing there and telling Dr. Salk in a voice trembling with emotion, ‘I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.’”

… The banner headline in the Pittsburgh Press on April 12, 1955 had set the tone—POLIO IS CONQUERED. The stories that day spoke of mothers weeping, doctors cheering, politicians toasting God and Jonas Salk.

Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now, after quoting some of the passage from Richard Carter above, adds: “The city of New York offered to honor Salk with a ticker-tape parade, which he politely declined.” Speaking of which—

Historic flights, 1920s and ’30s

I looked up the history of ticker-tape parades in New York City. Wikipedia has a list. These seem to have been most common from about 1926 to 1965, with multiple parades a year in that period (except when the US was fighting WW2, when there were none), compared with less than one a year on average in the years before or since.

What was celebrated? Mostly politicians, military heroes, visiting foreign leaders, and occasionally sports champions. (There was one parade for a musician, Van Cliburn, after he won the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition.)

However, the 1920s and ’30s saw over a dozen parades celebrating aviation achievements, including Charles Lindburgh and Amelia Earhart:

Astronauts, 1962–71

During the early space program, there were also several NYC ticker-tape parades for astronauts—not just the Apollo 11 heroes, who went on a world tour after the Moon landing, but missions before and after as well:

And much later:

Apollo 11 parade
Apollo 11 parade Wikimedia / NASA

Recent celebrations?

I’m having a hard time coming up with any major celebrations of scientific, technological, or industrial achievements since the Apollo Program.

When I alluded to this on Twitter, some people suggested the long lines of consumers waiting to buy iPhones. I don’t count that in the same category: it shows a desire for a product. I’m looking for outright celebration.

It’s not that no one cares about progress anymore. Plenty of people still get excited by science news, new inventions, and breakthrough achievements—especially in space, which has a strong “coolness” factor. Noah Smith polled his followers, and ~75% of respondents said they “celebrated or got very excited about” the Mars Pathfinder landing in 1996. More recently, many people in my circles were excited about the SpaceX Dragon launch a few months ago. But a minority of geeks excitedly watching live feeds from home doesn’t compare, in my opinion, to the celebrations described above.

It’s also not that we don’t honor progress in any way. Formal institutions such as the Nobel prizes still do so on a regular basis. I’m talking more about ad-hoc displays of enthusiasm and admiration.

Some hypotheses

Here are a few hypotheses for why there haven’t been any major celebrations of progress in the last ~50 years:

What will happen for future achievements?

OK, you might say, bridges have become commonplace. What if it wasn’t a bridge, but the first space elevator? Would that be met with celebration? Or opposition? Or a yawn?

Or take a less sci-fi example. How will we greet the COVID-19 vaccine, when it arrives hopefully in the next year or two? Will people “ring bells, honk horns, blow whistles, fire salutes, drink toasts, hug children, and forgive enemies”? Will they “name schools, streets, hospitals, and newborn infants” after the creator?

Or what if Elon Musk succeeds with a manned mission to Mars? When the first Martian astronauts return, will they go on world tour like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins?

I don’t know. Maybe! It will be interesting to see.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

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