Disruptive technologies are Everywhere – or so it seems!

There is hardly a week goes by without some new invention or piece of technology threatening to reshape the world as we know it & causing many businesses & industries to teeter on the brink of extinction. In this environment, it is easy to believe that the amount of change in the early 21st Century is unprecedented.

But is this really the case?

Is the “Disruption” we are faced with any greater today than in the recent past? Importantly, what are the lessons that can be learned from this past that can help us, as businesspeople, to not make the same mistakes that have led to the failure of so many businesses (& some entire industries)!

They are questions worth exploring – so let’s do that by comparing the period 1850 – 1920 with 1950 – 2016. The results are quite surprising!

To set the scene, in 1850 the world had just come through the industrial revolution, which had started in Great Britain in the 1760’s and spread around the western world through to the 1840’s. This period of history is widely recognised as bringing about some of the most dramatic changes to the fabric of society since the discovery of fire, the wheel & the development of the printing press!

After being reliant on agriculture to drive the economy for more than a millennia, society moved to a reliance on industry & people migrated to cities in droves to find work. This “Event” provided the platform for a period of change over the next seventy years that is breathtaking in its impact.

Think, for a minute or two, about what life would have been like in the early part of the 19th century. At home, food was cooked over open fires or combustion stoves, lighting was still by candlelight or, if you were a middle class family, gaslight. Heating was provided from an open fireplace. Washing clothes was done by hand, preparing meals was time consuming as everything was made from scratch. Home entertainment consisted of reading (by candlelight!), parlour games & singalongs.

Getting around town wasn’t easy. There was no public transport – in fact, there were very few roads! Horses, carts & carriages were the main transport options, along with walking. Travel outside of your immediate local area just wasn’t viable. Unless you were one of the wealthier members of society, you didn’t own your own transport (horse or cart).

Keeping in touch with people outside of your local area was problematic. Even if you were able to read & write (90% of the population couldn’t), it would take days, weeks or months (if correspondence had to cross borders) to get messages to people. Local community was everything & the family unit was paramount.

Work consumed the week – 6 day work weeks & 12-14 hour days. Many families had to send their children to work in order to survive. Sunday was the only day of rest but the church took up most of that. There were no “Holidays” &, if you became ill, you simply did not get paid!

There was no publicly funded education – less than 12% of the population could read or write. Hospitals (if one even existed nearby) were places full of dirt & disease that were chronically overcrowded & understaffed. Local GPs didn’t exist – localised medical help was provided by priests & monks, as well as barber shops (the red & white pole of these shops represented blood stained bandages).

Life expectancy was between 40-45 years. Child mortality rates were between 30-40%

It’s not a pretty picture by our modern standards – is it?

So, against this dark but realistic picture of life in the latter stages of the industrial revolution things are about to change – and change radically. The period 1850 – 1920 spawned a number of innovations that would “Disrupt” the world & change its very foundations.

First, let’s see what events unfolded in the area of transportation.


By the end of the 1850s, passenger numbers in Britain had risen beyond all expectations. In 1854, 92 million journeys were made in England and Wales alone, on a network stretching 6,000 miles.

In the United States the impact was even more dramatic – as you would expect in a country where the tyranny of distance had, until this point, hampered the nation’s development. In 1827 there were just 23 miles of railroad tracks in the United States. But within 20 years there were more than 9,000, as the U.S. government passed its first Railroad Land Grant Act, designed to attract settlers to the undeveloped parts of the country.

Development of the steam engine continued to improve the performance of locomotives. The development of electrically powered engines in the late 1800s saw the introduction of rail & tram travel in the early 1900s & the development of the diesel engine (created by Rudolf Diesel in 1893) continued the improvement trend.

The magic of train travel had caught the public imagination, lessened transport costs for business and the rapid expansion of the iron road left few aspects of life untouched.

However, like all innovations with such impact, not everyone was positively affected. Horse & cart based haulage companies, stagecoach companies, farriers to name a few, would have felt their businesses shudder as patronage shifted to the new mode of transport.


Shipping goods overseas, importing from far away lands, travelling to foreign lands bound by oceans had always been carried out through sail powered vessels. These were both slow, heavily prone to the forces of nature & limited in terms of the size of the vessel.

This changed when steam powered technologies reached a level where a steam powered ships became viable. It was Isambard Kingdom Brunel who designed and built the first successful steam powered ship capable of an Atlantic crossing. His ship, the Great Western, was a paddle-driven steamship. It was built in Bristol, launched in 1837 and crossed the Atlantic in 1845.

The development In 1854 of the compound steam engine & the triple expansion engine (1891) and the quadruple expansion engine (1894), meant that one tonne of coal was now doing as much work as three tonnes had done in 1845.

In less than 50 years the cost of carrying goods by ship had fallen by over seventy percent. Furthermore, the speed of these vessels, combined with their independence from the forces of nature (wind), meant that journeys that once took months now took mere weeks – the world started to shrink & travel abroad to seek out opportunities became more than a pipe dream.

Again, there were to be losers in this windfall for society as a whole. A few examples; the “Tea Clipper” industry collapsed, sailing ship makers sank, sailmaking shrunk & timber merchants suffered as their respective industries became becalmed in this new, steam powered, world.


Yet another game changer!

The first working airplane was, designed, made, and flown by the Wright brothers. Their “Wright Flyer” was a fabric-covered biplane with a wooden frame, it flew for 12 seconds and for a distance of 120 feet (37 m). The flight took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA.

From there the pace of development was supersonic. In 1914 Tony Jannus conducted the United States’ first scheduled commercial airline flight on 1 January for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.

Where steam ships condensed travel times of months to weeks, airplanes condensed weeks to days.

What must it have been like to see these man made “Birds” take off and land for the first time in the history of human kind?


Getting from one side of the country to the other had improved thanks to the expansion of rail networks. Crossing oceans to reach other countries became easier thanks to steam ships but getting around town (& to places not on a rail line) was still difficult if you didn’t own a horse & carriage.

Enter the automobile. Karl Benz was responsible for the first petroleum powered automobile – which was marketed as a “Horseless carriage” – a quick Google search of that phrase will reveal images that attest to the appropriateness of the name!

It was not until the early part of the 20th Century, when more roads were sealed & vehicle acquisition costs came down (thanks to the likes of Henry Ford & his production line methodologies), that motor vehicles hit top gear.

Again, sectors of the community were adversely affected – many carriage makers ceased to exist (those that did saw the writing on the wall early & started making cars!), Blacksmith & farrier numbers dropped to the point of almost wiping out these trades, horse breeder numbers declined & horse feed suppliers starved.

After the earlier impact of the steam engine on these industries, the rise of the automobile was the final nail in their coffins. By the 1920s getting around town had become commonplace – even if you couldn’t afford your own car, taxis were plentiful & relatively inexpensive.

So, the way people moved around was fundamentally altered in the space of 70 years – but what about the way in which they communicated? Well, that was to undergo an equally impressive shift.

The telegraph

Railroads had improved the speed of written (postal) communication within the country – as had steamships when communication was to an overseas destination.

However, the big communication shift happened with the introduction (& widespread use) of the overland telegraph. The system was developed by a number of individuals, most notably Samuel Morse, in the 1830’s but really hit its straps after 1850 as more & more lines were built between cities. This provided almost instant sending & receiving of messages &, whilst it was expensive, it heralded a new age of information being transmitted across long distances.

The telephone

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell unveils the telephone which went a step further than a telegraph in that it allowed personal communication between people through talking – rather than a series of dots & dashes requiring decoding to understand the message. Whilst it would take 50 years to become commonplace, it’s impact on business communication was far reaching.


Not to be outdone by the magic of the telephone, a guy by the name of Marconi demonstrated an even greater communications breakthrough in 1895 when he broadcast the world’s first radio message. Radios became known as a “Wireless” & the broadcast announcements & entertainments quickly became the new “Thing” for the middle & upper classes (who could afford the high cost of a radio “Set”). Poorer folk gathered in radio “Halls” where broadcasts could be listened to in awe.

The world shrinks even further!


Amidst all the advances in transportation & communication, a number of additional developments added further impetus to changing the shape of society as it was then known.

Topmost amongst these was the roll out of electric power.

Primarily introduced to supply power for street lighting, as gaslight (developed in the 1790s) street lamps were considered relatively dangerous & expensive. Once Edison had shown the world his filament light bulb, electrical lighting was seen as the way forward. It wasn’t long after that before electricity was being cabled into homes.

By 1920, the momentum of homes dispensing with gaslight or candles, (reducing the high risk of fire) & replacing these with electric lamps, meant that homes could also power the new range of electric innovations (such as the radio).

Education was another area where dramatic improvements were required. Industry was realising that an illiterate workforce, whilst easier to control, was difficult to train (into being more productive) & so broader education opportunities were required. It is estimated that only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 17% of the world population remains illiterate.

Public health, In the mid 19th century, was not good – if you got sick there was little in place to get you back on your feet &, if you were really sick, hospitals were more likely going to make you sicker! However, over the next 50 years the medical profession became more professionalised, with a re-organisation of hospital management along more bureaucratic and administrative lines.

By the late 19th century, the modern hospital was beginning to take shape with a proliferation of a variety of public and private hospital systems. Hospitals also started to be seen as a place where medical knowledge could be expanded through clinical studies. Before the 1850’s the causes of illness, the spread of infection & the mechanisms of the human body were not well understood.

It was Louis Pasteur who discovered that germs cause disease around 1860. Before he made this discovery, doctors had noticed bacteria, but they believed it was the disease that caused the bacteria (the so-called theory of ‘spontaneous generation’) rather than the other way around.

On top of all of these gigantic leaps forward were a plethora of other inventions that were making their own contribution towards reshaping how society functioned.

These included:

  • Lightbulb – Edison’s break through accelerated the deployment of electrical power generation, which in turn allowed other innovations to flourish
  • Storage batteries – first came lead acid batteries and then dry alkaline batteries. Both were crucial in the development of other technologies – especially in making devices portable.
  • Gramophone – an advance on Edison’s phonograph, this device put the spoken word & music into everyone’s homes & provided much of the program support that was the key ingredient to the success of radio
  • Photography – now almost every family could afford portraits that were previously the domain of the aristocracy. Additionally, everyday life could be more easily & accurately captured as the technology became easier to use.
  • Movies – moving pictures were made possible because of advances in photographic technologies and, importantly, the development of cellulose materials such as celluloid. Silent movies were an instant success & the wonder of their time.
  • Elevator – without elevators modern cities would not look as they do today – who wants to walk up 60 floors worth of stairs?
  • The 8 hour day – by 1920 this had become a reality for much of the industrialised world. Without this, people would have had little time available for the array of leisure & entertainment advances that were being made.

I don’t know about you, but for my money this seventy year period is incredible in the depth & scope of changes that impacted on society. If you were to be an ordinary person in 1840 who was suddenly transported to 1920, you would struggle to recognise the world – airplanes in the sky, automobiles in the street, radios playing in the background, streetlights, movies – it would seem like an alien world!

Yet people lived through this period and experienced all of that & more – ln part two of this article we will see what us 21st Century folk have had to contend with!

If you would like to explore the complete timeline of disruptive technologies from 1850 that this article is based on, you can find it at: http://adventuresofadigitalnomad.com/?p=479&preview=true


Dennis is a “Digital Nomad” with an MBA in Marketing Management & has been involved in the online environment for over 15 years. He helps local businesses develop sustainable online marketing programs by applying a strategic focus to laser target what a business needs to be doing & when. He can be contacted at www.communicationcommando.com

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