We don’t have to look too far back in history to find times when life was significantly less comfortable — and less safe. The era of the Industrial Revolution bore witness to deplorable working conditions that resulted in thousands of deaths and untold injuries. These unbearable conditions continued unchecked until disgusted workers organized to form the first labor unions and demanded safer working environments.
Labor unions were hugely instrumental in helping to make life in America safer for thousands of people. But along the way, there have also been many less-visible advances that have made everyday life safer — and you probably haven’t even noticed them.
Today, we see window screens as a basic, standard, even optional part of our homes. They’re one of those things we don’t even really notice until it’s gone and the flies start invading. But while today’s window screens are little more than a barrier between flies and our homes, they used to be — quite literally — a matter of life and death. In the 1920s, flies helped to spread a deadly epidemic of diarrheal disease. Although they had existed in some form since the late 19th century, window screens skyrocketed in popularity as a solution to keep disease-carrying flies out of homes.
It’s a classic problem: I’m here, I want to get to there, but there’s a significant distance or obstacle preventing me from getting there. Two things solve these problems: bridges and ladders. It’s pretty obvious that bridges have made us safer when we need to cross large bodies of water. But ladders, when used properly, can keep us safe during any number of precarious tasks. With locking mechanisms and other safety features now available, the number of serious injuries or fatalities is fortunately decreasing.
We’ve become so accustomed to life with air conditioning that it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without it. When our AC unit fails in the still, dead heat of summer, we’re faced with sticky, humid misery until the landlord or repairman can fix it. But you may not realize how very close to death this modern inconvenience can bring you. We believe we’ve conquered our environment, and many people don’t understand what a threat something as simple as heat can pose. So it’s a difficult pill to swallow knowing that an oppressive heat wave killed over 700 people in Chicago — and it happened as recently as 1995. When air conditioning rose to popularity in the 1960s, heat-related deaths fell by nearly 50 percent.
Talk about out of sight, out of mind! Satellites control everything from the television shows we watch to the route we take to work. But they can offer so much more than those simple conveniences. In 1990, a hurricane killed 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike bore down on Galveston, we saw it coming thanks to weather satellites and advanced forecasting technologies. With the advanced warning that satellites allowed, more than 1 million people evacuated or were able to spend adequate time preparing to weather the storm.
It’s difficult to imagine living without these life-changing (and lifesaving!) devices that have become part of our day-to-day routine. These often overlooked everyday heroes show that even the smallest thing can have an extraordinary impact on our lives.