The Trades Do Not Stand Still
It is remarkable how fast technological progress has accelerated. It’s been only around 12 decades since the Wright Brothers traveled little more than a football field in the first manned flight. Since then, we’ve visited the moon and sent dozens of unmanned space craft to explore far reaches of our solar system.
The trades have also come a long way during the same time frame, especially during the last half-century. It’s stunning to realize that there are people alive today who grew up without the comforts of indoor plumbing, central HVAC or even electricity. Although toilets started moving indoors in the late 19th Century many people in rural areas still made do with outhouses as recently as the 1950s. Hydronic (steam- and water-based) heating arose around the same time as indoor plumbing in the late 1800s, but many homes and tenement buildings still relied on wood- or coal-burning fireplaces and stoves for decades afterward.
Although modern air conditioning is credited to an invention by Willis Carrier in 1902, for many years the technology was cost-prohibitive except for certain commercial buildings and ultra-wealthy individual homes. The Great Depression did a lot to kill progress. Then came World War II, which spurred many technological advances that made their way into consumer markets after the war. A prime example is central HVAC, which delivers both heating and cooling. This home comfort mechanism did not take off until after WWII in both homes and commercial buildings.
Thanks to Thomas Edison, municipal electrification spread rapidly after his invention of incandescent lighting in 1879. Oil-lamps rapidly gave way to electric lighting in public places. But it took many decades for most individual homes to be wired. Rural electrification was one of the most significant achievements of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program in the 1930s. Prior to that, almost all farmers went to bed at dark and arose at dawn to begin daily chores.
Progress has not stopped in these trades. In fact, it has speeded up. Plumbers of today are equipped with high-resolution sewer cameras, electronic leak detectors and other devices that their fathers and grandfathers couldn’t even dream about. HVAC technicians use wondrous tools and equipment to tackle problems like energy efficiency, indoor air quality and other ways to maximize comfort and safety.
Electricians are working with some of the most dazzling new technologies installed in so-called “smart homes” and the “internet of things,” i.e., small internet-connected sensors that can operate a variety of household devices. Building sensors exist that are powered by ambient vibrations, heat or light. Work is taking place on devices that convert movement of the human body into electricity.
The future will continue to see progress in the mechanical and electrical trades that can scarcely be conceived right now. The trades are in the forefront of some of humanity’s most important technologies. It’s an exciting time to become one of the participants.