On the last day of 1903, The New York Times published a long editorial that expounded on all the momentous things that had happened during the year.
Under a section titled “Invention and discovery,” the editorial board said the year had been “less distinguished than many” and contained “no announcement of a world-controlling invention.” It then went on for a while about radium and its possible future uses.
Then it made this stunner of an observation: “Transportation has profited little from … the persistent attempts at aerial navigation, in which no useful progress has been made or can be considered in sight.”
No useful progress? Kitty Hawk, anybody?
Exactly two weeks before New Year’s Eve, the Wright brothers had made the first successful heavier-than-air flight, which was destined to change the world.
But of course, not many people had noticed. They were too busy looking to the usual important sources for momentous achievements, not toward two young bicycle enthusiasts from Dayton, Ohio, who had never gone beyond high school.
Humans have a quaint history of missing the important things that happen in obscure places. That’s not only endearing, it’s a great reason for hope after enduring everything 2020 threw at us.
On Dec. 31, 1976, the Deseret News editorial page contained this sage wisdom: “Momentous events that shape history frequently have inauspicious beginnings.”
That is a true statement, and the paper, along with virtually every other news outlet, went on to prove it by missing the biggest story of that year, which happened in the garage of a modest house in Los Altos, California. That’s where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had been working on developing a home computer. They had officially formed the Apple Computer Co. in April of that year.
That, along with what Bill Gates and Paul Allen were doing a few hundred miles to the north, would change the world, too. But the pundits of the day were focused on the nation’s economic woes and the new administration of Jimmy Carter — things unimportant to people today as they sit in front of computer screens.
My point here isn’t to castigate members of my own profession. I’m just as guilty as any of missing all the little experiments and inventions happening in basements and garages and on windswept beaches in December. So are you, I might add. No, the point is to celebrate the hope those things bring for the future. They are a sign that things are not all wrong in the world.
In recent days, 2020 retrospectives were filled with stories and photos about the pandemic, unrest in the streets and a divisive election. These, quite properly, cataloged the things that occupied most people’s time and shaped their lives. It was a year unlike any other.
While the world wallowed in gloom and hid in socially distanced isolation, a lot of people believed enough in the future to work on things to make life better and more prosperous.
And yet, the number 399,055 may actually have been more important than all that. That’s how many patents were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office during the fiscal year. It set a record.
While the world wallowed in gloom and hid in socially distanced isolation, a lot of people believed enough in the future to work on things to make life better and more prosperous. That ought to make you smile.
Yes, I know many of those patents were granted to large corporations with huge budgets for research and development. IBM had nearly 10,000 patents alone in 2019. But amid Nike’s new golf glasses (track your ball and process possible outcomes of your swing!) and Amazon’s new super delivery drone, history suggests some sleepers on the list could change the world for the better in ways we never imagined.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in dusty archives looking at New Year’s predictions with amusement. The only spot-on piece I have found was one authored by Ronald Reagan in an op-ed in January of 1978. He predicted that bureaucrats, the programs they run and their budgets would continue to multiply in the future.
But really, that’s like predicting grass will grow in the spring. It hardly counts.
Today, people focus on the perfection of self-driving cars or the promises of medical discoveries when peering ahead. Those things may indeed soon bless our lives.
But, as the folks in 1903, 1976 and many other years eventually learned, we often don’t really see the present until it’s in the past. The things we don’t see, the surprises lurking in unexpected places, ought to fuel our optimism and push us forward with anticipation. Perhaps the real story of 2020 has yet to be written.