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The End Of The Millennium (as We Know It)

Winter 2000 | Volume 15 |  Issue 3

AS SOON AS THEY LEARN TO RECOGNIZE numerals, most children notice an enigma that presents itself every time they visit a store: Why do so many prices end in 99? Some children shrug it off as one of the unaccountable mysteries associated with grownups, like cauliflower or social studies. Others ask an adult and are told that $5.99 is supposed to look cheaper than $6.00, even though the ruse is apparent to a small child. In fact, every shopper mentally rounds off such prices to an even dollar amount. And that’s our suggestion for ending all the talk over when the century and millennium will end: Round it off, and 1999 is 2000 already.

Way back in 1998—getting a jump on things however you call it— Life magazine named Thomas Edison its Man of the Millennium, a distinction that the Thomas Alva Edison Preservation Foundation cites in pleading the importance of the Edison National Historic Site in East Orange, New Jersey. “We can turn on lights, listen to music, watch movies, and even use computers,” the foundation points out, “largely because of his inventions.”

Are we there yet? Controversy rages across the nation, and today’s friction matches that of a century ago. And speaking of friction matches…

That may be putting it a bit strongly. Still, when the foundation says, “We can’t imagine a life before the technologies that allow us to do these things,” it is on solid ground. The National Inventors Hall of Fame, however, is more hyperbolic. After announcing its plans to induct the inventors of the microwave oven, Velcro, Prozac, fluid catalytic cracking of gasoline, and the electret microphone (which is found in cellular phones), it echoes the Edison claim by saying, “We can scarcely imagine life without them”—an assertion that will come as a surprise to anyone over the age of 30.

The trouble is that in today’s world there are a lot of people who truly can’t imagine life without microwave ovens and cellular phones. That’s why historical perspective is so important in understanding the impact of technology. On the last day of 1899, The New York Times reviewed the events of the nineteenth century (after admitting that it still had a year to run). “What characterizes the nineteenth century more than all else,” it said, “is the vast strides in scientific discovery and the application of the forces of nature to the service of man.”

All the expected advances of the Industrial Revolution were listed: industrial power plants, textile machinery, steam navigation, railroads, electricity, the telegraph, photography. Yet the first item on the Times list was one that is often forgotten today: friction matches, introduced in their modern form in 1827. For somebody to whom the electric light was as recent an innovation as the VCR is to us, the instant availability of fire on demand had indeed been one of the greatest advances of the century.

A hundred years ago the sterile debate over when the century would end raged just as fiercely and inconclusively as it does today. “The question is sweeping over the country like a plague, leaving estranged families and friends and disordered minds in its wake,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution in mid-December 1899. Go back another century and you will read much the same thing. On the first day of 1801 the Boston Columbian Centinel declared: “There are some disputes which for want of satisfactory evidence will probably be everlasting. Such, for example, is the daily altercation known as the Century Dispute.” Meanwhile the Connecticut Courant rhymed: “Full many a calculating head / Has racked its brains, its ink has shed / To prove by metaphysics fine / A hundred means but ninety-nine.”

So some things never change. Still, one element that is (thankfully) absent from the debate this time around is dialect humor. Barring a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions, we all will be spared the likes of the dogmatic “Pa” (“Ennybuddy what Has haff as mutch Sents as thay are in a little Red mouse trap ot to no the twentyeth sentcherry Can’t Begin only Wunst and that is nineteenth Hunderd and Wun”) and the philosophical “Petie Quinn” (“They soit’nly is trubbles enough whitout scramblin’ yer gray matter about whether this is one century or another. … Yu can’t git anny more drinks fer a dime in th’ twenny’th than in th’ ninesteenth”), both of whom shared their wit with the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899. A look back at these two commentators provides the most incontrovertible evidence that things have changed for the better in the last hundred years.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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