One thin dime of history

tree ringsIf you can imagine the history of life on earth as the Empire State Building, all of recorded human history is a dime on top. Human history is astonishingly short.

Here’s a brief linking of births to deaths, starting with the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who died in 2007.

Schlesinger saw the rise of the Internet, a man walk on the moon, and the Cold War.  He saw the end of World War II and the beginning of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  He saw the Great Depression. He was two when the U.S. Cavalry crossed into Mexico pursuing Pancho Villa, women’s suffrage passed, millions died in a worldwide flu epidemic, and the first radio station went on the air.  Iraq passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British. Schlesinger wasn’t even one when World War I ended and William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody died.

William Cody died in a country with 48 states, a telephone system, and Model T’s.  His traveling show exhibited an already fading frontier west.  At the turn of the century, he was the most recognized celebrity on the globe.  He saw the last Native Americans driven into captivity.  He cheered the news of the first plane. His voice was recorded on phonographs.  His image captured in color photographs.  The first skyscraper, ten stories tall, was built in Chicago when Cody was forty. He lived through the death of President Lincoln. He was born into a US with 29 states, and half those states supported owning  slaves. The year he was born, thousands died in the Irish Potato Famine, the first US woman doctor was awarded her degree, and John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, died.

John Quincy Adams was President and also served in congress as an anti-slavery representative for Massachusetts.  He represented the interests of Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship, Amistad.  A few years before, the H. M. S. Beagle, returned home from a long, fruitful voyage. The first train service began in England.  The Creek tribe was forced west into Indian Territory, despite Adam’s efforts to nullify the treaty.  Adams saw his father lose to Thomas Jefferson after stepping into the impossible role of Washington’s successor.  He was born in the colony of Massachusetts, the same year that Daniel Boone reached Kentucky.

Our nation’s history is short. Arthur M. Schlesinger is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the US didn’t exist. You’re no more than three away yourself.

It’s only two more life spans to Shakespeare. Two more and the only Europeans to see America sailed from Greenland.  You’re ten lifetimes from the fifth crusade.  Twenty from the Visigoth sack of Rome.  Make it forty, and the king of Athens is captive on Crete, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.

Sixty life times ago, or about 4,100 years ago, Abraham shows up in the Bible. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime.  You’re that close to it.

Whenever anyone with a  long life dies, we tend to review of all the things they saw in their life. Next time you wonder at all the things that person saw in their lifetime, remember the dime is very thin and every lifetime covers momentous events.

That’s my short version of Mark Sumner’s 2007 article (via Jason Kottke’s site).