I recently came across an anecdote featuring one of our redoubtable Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin. It seems that while old Ben was visiting London he saw for the first time a hot air balloon floating tranquilly above the city. He watched mesmerized, but one of his companions, a jaded Brit I suppose, remarked that a balloon was nothing more than “a frivolity, a mere gewgaw, a bauble. Of what use is it?” To which Ben replied, “Then pray tell me, Sir, of what use is a newborn infant?” Touché! Game, set, and match to the American.
That day in London, Father Franklin saw a future that his companion couldn’t even begin to imagine. Balloons today, space travel tomorrow, although that concept might have been a stretch even for wise old Ben. It begs the question of what today we think of as but a gewgaw or bauble might tomorrow cure cancer or leap human knowledge forward with a kangaroo-size bound.
We’ve always lived on the brink of progress, even though we often can’t see it. In my own lifetime, a myriad of new inventions have touched and changed our lives, sometimes for worse, but more often than not for better. And as the future continues to unfold, I wonder which of today’s many fanciful little gewgaws and baubles will take our future into a new and unimaginable unknown.
It would be easy to be as jaded as Ben’s London companion. Progress can often be unsettling or difficult, sometimes even unmanageable. We yearn for old ways, for simpler times. But stasis is a slow death—just ask a dinosaur if you can find one. The trick, of course, is to distinguish between the innovations that move us all forward and the gewgaws and baubles that seem so shiny but only keep us stuck in worn-out old ruts.
The very first patent granted in the United States was for a steam-driven locomotive. It was issued on July 13, 1836 to John Ruggles. One-hundred forty years later, the US Patent Office issued its four-millionth patent. By 2011, only thirty-five years after that, the number of issued patents had doubled to eight million. This year, the United States surpassed the ten-million mark, an acceleration of new ideas, innovation, and technology that surely would have stunned even Poor Richard.
But while the pace of progress is undoubtedly astounding, its effects sometimes send mixed signals or have unintended consequences. Yes, we are healthier and living longer, more productive lives, but we are also under a lot more stress and are more vulnerable to a whole host of new infectious diseases. That’s a sad truth we’re learning every day this year and while new vaccines show promise, the tragic loss of life in 2020 casts a grim and lasting shadow over the year to come.
No wonder Ben was so mesmerized when he saw his first hot-air balloon. London at the close of the 18th Century must have seemed a wondrous city, more fantastic than anything in that new world across the ocean. People in straw baskets dangling from gigantic balloons gayly floating over the city! Sorry, friend: those delightful balloons weren’t just gewgaws and baubles; they were the newborn infants of space travel!
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com