Material Progress

Were one asked, “If one were to use a time machine to transport Julius Caesar from 44 B.C. to George Washington's time, what would most impress the Roman general?” I suspect that what Caesar would find most impressive was gunpowder, and perhaps equally the discovery that entire continents existed about which he and other ancient Romans knew nothing. He would likely be astonished at the relatively low-cost printed materials made possible by the printing press and at improved harnesses for draft animals, improved sails for seagoing ships, and looms powered by water.

Despite these changes, however, Caesar would nevertheless recognize the world of the 18th century and be familiar with its basic shapes and rhythms. He would not be surprised by the fact that the ...

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