Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It’s a time to give thanks for the friends and family in your life, the blessings you have encountered in the past year, and all those little—and big—things we tend to take for granted. Let’s take a look at some modern conveniences that we should all be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
Electricity: Capturing Lightning in a Bottle
Electricity is one of the most important elements of the modern world, and its ubiquity is precisely why we take it for granted. Electricity allows us to enjoy the wonders of television, get from place to place in a matter of minutes, and connect to each other through the Internet. With a simple flip of the switch, we can light entire buildings and even cities.However, electricity wasn’t so widespread and actually didn’t gain any significance until 1600. William Gilbert, an English scientist, studied magnetism and electricity, and discovered the lodestone effect by rubbing amber to produce static electricity. It was from his findings that he first coined the New Latin term electronicus, which means “of or like amber.” It’s from that term we get the modern English words electric and electricity.
The next big finding came from Benjamin Franklin’s historic kite flying adventure. In 1752, Franklin attached a metal key to a kite and flew it in a storm. The kite was struck by lightning and showed that lightning was electrical in nature.
Of course, the greatest achievement to come from electricity was the light bulb. Prior to the light bulb and Edison’s development of a practical incandescent bulb, indoor lighting was dependent entirely on daylight and flame, often by candle, lantern, or oil lamp. Although, in 5000 B.C., people reportedly used oily birds and fish as working lamps by simply threading them through with wicks. More pleasant techniques involved catching and caging fireflies.
Plumbing: Where the Water Runs
It’s amazing to think that you can walk into any building and find clean, running water, but it wasn’t always that way. Plumbing originated in ancient civilizations through the development of public baths and the growing need for safe, drinkable water and waste drainage. Unfortunately, back then, they used lead pipes for their plumbing systems, which, as you might expect, created quite a few problems.
Improvements were slow and there weren’t any significant changes to the plumbing system until the 1800s as cities became more densely populated. The waste disposal system at the time consisted entirely of collecting waste and dumping it into nearby rivers or on the ground. Open sewage ditches and cesspools were common.
The use of lead for pipes didn’t subside until after World War II, which brought increased awareness of lead poisoning. Copper piping became the norm.
Refrigeration: Preservation and Staying Cool
The concept of refrigeration with ice has actually been around since prehistoric times. In ancient cultures, people would seasonally harvest ice and snow, which was then stored in caves or ditches lined with insulating materials, like straw. They would then ration the ice to preserve food through warmer periods. This was actually an effective technique, so much so that ice houses were used well into the 20th century.
Chemical refrigeration was discovered in the 16th century, though domestic mechanical refrigerators weren’t available until around 1911.
These seem like minor things today, but imagine having to read by flaming, oily bird, drinking water from lead pipes, and keeping a year’s worth of food cold with a small block of ice. We should be thankful for what we have—and that includes our modern utilities.