Sixty years ago my father gave me a pocket diary that some business firm he dealt with had given him, and I began recording what I did each day. Well, some days.
Since then I’ve transcribed most of my old hard copy diaries into a database, and each day I look back to see what I was doing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago. Sixty years ago today I didn’t do much that was worth recording. But sixty years ago yesterday I went to the circus with Elizabeth Dods. She was 14 and I was 11, and she was crazy about horses, and used to come to ride ours. She eventually married Frank Hodgkinson (and her brother David married Frank’s sister Vanessa) and I lost touch with them.
And thinking about the differences between the 1950s and today, I think that graphic on the right is pretty accurate. The thing that was most inconceivable about today back then, the thing that never entered even our wildest dreams, was the personal computer, and the computing power now incorporated into cell phones.
Back then computers were enormously expensive machines that filled whole rooms. They operated with valves, because I think transistors were only developed in the late 1950s.
I remember standing in our cow paddock one night, probably in 1952 or 1953, looking at the rising full moon and the stars, and a friend, Eddy Viles, said, “One day soon a rocket is going to the moon.”
That was conceivable. And before the 50s were out, by the time I was 16, the first artificial satellite was launched, Sputnik I. It caused such excitement that we used to rush out of prep at school to see it fly over. And within 12 years a rocket had reached the moon, and much of it was controlled by computers, but personal computers were still unimaginable.
One of the things that still amazes me is the development of passenger airliners. In 1952 we had jet airliners, and three times a week the De Havilland Comet I used to fly over our house from Palmietfonein, south of Johannesburg, to the still uncompleted Jan Smuts (now O.R. Tambo) airport in Kempton Park. The runways at the old Palmietfontein airport were long enough for the Comet to land, but not long enough for it to take off fully loaded, so it had to fly empty to Jan Smuts and load up there.
Less than fifty years before the Comet, the Wright brothers had not yet made the first powered flight in a heavier than air aircraft. Compare their machine with the Comet, and ask what someone fifty years earlier might have imagined.
More time has passed since the Comet I began regular flights between London and Johannesburg and today than passed between the the Wright brothers and the Comet I, and in the 60 years since the Comet I the changes in aircraft design have been minimal. A Boeing 747 is bigger, but the main design difference is that the engines are in nascelles under the wings rather than in the wings themselves. The biggest changes are inside, not seen in the external view — in the navigational equipment, which brings us again to computers. I think the Comet I still had an astrodome in the roof, for the navigator to take sightings of the stars, and that was in fact a fatal flaw, for metal fatigue in some of the joints caused some of the early Comets to crash.
But looking again at the Comet, I think that people born the early 1890s saw more change in their life time than any generation before or since.
Someone born in 1893 would have been 10 when the Wright brothers flew, might have been a fighter pilot in the First World War, would have been 60 when the Comet flew, and might have travelled on it as a passenger. They would have been 76 when men first stepped on the moon, and might have used a personal computer before their 90th birthday.