Here’s a high-level outline of the six-week course:
We start with the big, historical phenomenon that motivates the course: the dramatic rise of global living standards since about 1800. We look at what life was like for our prehistoric, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and for those living in the ancient and medieval worlds. Then we contrast with life in the modern world.
Most of the rest of the course explores the challenges of daily life and work, and how we solved them.
First, we look at three basic problems of daily life that humans have faced since our hunter-gatherer days: making things, feeding ourselves, and getting around. Or: manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation. We cover the history of iron and steel, the automation of textile processes, crop rotation and synthetic fertilizer, how canning and refrigeration transformed our food supply, and the invention and growth of railroads.
Then we pause to examine a fundamental challenge underlying all of these: energy, including steam, oil, and electricity.
After that, we look at two more areas that have greatly improved in the last few hundred years: infectious disease, and handling information. Topics include water sanitation and its role in health, the origins of vaccines, the birth of electronic communications, and the rise of computers and the Internet.
Finally, we address the question of safety: where risks come from and how we deal with them. We look both at hazards of nature and of technology itself.
We conclude with the future of progress. In this section, we encourage students to look at the present moment as connected to the past, with a trajectory into the future. We discuss big remaining problems and exciting frontier technologies that are creating opportunities for the future. And we encourage students to think about what they want their role in progress to be.
At the end of the course, students will appreciate modern living standards as a gift from our ancestors, rather than taking them for granted. They will know many of the major problems that were solved, across several areas of the economy, and the inventions and discoveries that solved them. They will be able to see themselves as the recipients of a legacy, and also as the next generation to pick up the torch of progress and carry it forward.
Our guest speakers include experts on the history of science, technology, and industry, as well as those on the frontier. It’s open to all—sign up for our mailing list to get event invitations.