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'At Home' with Bill Bryson
October 18, 2010 - 9:15pm

While looking for the future at EDUCAUSE 2010 I ended up, thanks to Bill Bryson, being captivated by the past. Specifically 19th century England, the years in which the Industrial Revolution changed us from an essentially feudal to a largely modern civilization. We should stipulate that Bill Bryson is a genius, a writer that has built up so much goodwill that due to confirmation bias we start his books prepared to cherish each page. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson lives up to the hype.

Bryson's plan is to use his house, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century, to learn about the forces that conspired to create modern life as we live it. How did we transition from a people that consumed primarily what we produced, to one largely defined by our consumption? How did the people of the West, as personified by the people of England, become so wealthy compared to almost everyone else who has ever lived and about every other person living outside of countries that industrialized in the 19th century? What can we learn from the layout of the typical house, its bathrooms and glass windows and kitchens and bedrooms and parlors and studies and basements and living rooms, that elucidates and explains the transition from a pre-modern agricultural society to a modern (and now post-industrial) one?

Bryson takes on all these questions and many many more. The lens of the home proves an ideal frame to explain the stupendous transition of the 19th century. We tend to think that we are living today in a fast changing world. Compared to the 19th century, and particularly the second half of the 19th century, we are barely even moving. Think about it. If you were born in the early half of the 19th century the only light at home you enjoyed was from a candle or an oil lamp. By the close of the century the electric lightbulb was well on its way to forever illuminating our evenings. You traveled only as fast as a horse could take you, where by the end of your life the rail steam locomotive was the dominant form of transportation (and metaphor) for your century.

From telegraphy to telephones, the typewriter to the sewing machine, the elevator to the tin can, toilet paper to film, the escalator to the zipper, the bicycle to the internal combustion engine to the steam locomotive, the refrigerator to the harvester, the safety pin to Pasteurization, the vacuum cleaner to the loudspeaker, the stapler to the cash register, the trolley car to the automobile, dynamite to the ball point pen - all invented in the 19th century.

Bryson brings all these technologies, all these changes, down to the scale of the people who lived through them. The people who, much like us, passed much of their days at home - sleeping, eating, loving, and trying to amuse themselves.

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