Things Are Not Changing Faster Than Ever Before

Dear Everybody,

This week I tweeted:

Here’s a letter about my favorite first chapter in a book.

If you think things are changing faster than ever before, behold the growth of the United States from 1800 to 1850. In fifty years:

  • U.S. population doubled – and then doubled again.

  • U.S. territory doubled – and then doubled again.

  • GDP doubled every 15 years. Per capita income doubled.

  • No other country matched U.S. growth in any one of the above metrics. The combination of all three catapulted the U.S. to great power status.

From 1815 to 1850 the population of the region west of the Appalachians grew nearly three times as fast as the original thirteen states. During that era a new state entered the Union on the average of every three years.

Then behold the nature of change …

Moving Things

In 1800, freight was delivered by sailing ships and downriver boats.

Most American roads were rutted dirt paths all but impassable in wet weather. The cost of transporting a ton of goods thirty miles inland from an American port equalled the cost of carrying the same goods across the Atlantic.

By 1850, Americans had built 3,700 miles of canals and 9,000 miles of rail (a figure that led the world) and then built 21,000 additional miles of rail over the next decade. By then, copper wires spanned the continent and Americans sent their first instant messages.

Canal rates dropped to one cent a ton-mile, river rates even lower, and rail charges to less than three cents by 1860.

Chicago became the terminus for fifteen rail lines by 1860, its population having grown 375 percent during the previous decade.

The iron horse cut travel time between New York and Chicago from three weeks to two days.

The “latest news” became hours rather than days old.

Making Things

In 1800, clothes, leather goods, and tools were made at home. 80 percent of Americans were involved in agricultural pursuits.

In 1817, New England produced 4 million yards of cotton cloth. In 1837, it produced 308 million. Consumer prices fell 50 percent.

In 1850, goods were made in factories and mass production extended to housing in the form of “balloon frame” construction.

By 1860, the number of Americans involved in agricultural pursuits dropped to 55 percent.

New tech created new jobs:

  • Machinists

  • Tool-and-die makers

  • Millwrights

  • Civil and Mechanical Engineers

  • Steamboat Pilots

  • Railroad men (5x increase in just the 1850s)

  • Telegraphers (5x increase in just the 1850s)


Do any of us recognize the country of our birth?

Who would have a harder time? A 50-year-old born in 1800 or a 50-year-old born in 1970?

I’ll leave you with this somewhat related sentiment: change is relative, and life is an adventure!

All best and Happy Saturday,

Justin