As I was listening to a friend discuss the early days of digital computer design, and how much things had changed, it struck me that there is one common technology of similar age that would be instantly recognizable to its inventor: the Edison incandescent light bulb.
Edison was only one of many, of course, but he’ll serve our purposes. Edison built the bulb on the right around 1880, give or take. What I find interesting is that, while we’ve all got CFLs and LEDs around the house these days, most likely we’ve also got copper wire bringing electricity into our house and through the walls, mechanical-contact switches, and glass bulbs with white-hot glowing filaments. Edison would be completely familiar with the entire technology (using a tungsten filament and filling the envelope with an inert gas were incremental improvements that Edison would have been familiar with, and didn’t fundamentally change things).
The panoply of other technological inventions from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (automobile engines, computers, flying machines, etc) have evolved to the point where their inventors would be lost trying to explain them. Otto would understand the principle of my Honda Civic’s engine, of course, but it lives in a nest of high tech that’s well beyond his time.
Not so the lighting system that illuminates me as I type. It’s instantly recognizable in all respects by any techie from 100 years ago. And for longer than we might care to think, I’m guessing.