Until the steam-powered revolution of the early 1800’s, the fastest way to travel was a galloping horse, or a ship under full sail. For 5,000 years of civilization, that was it. No trains, no steamships, no cars, no airplanes… and horses got tired quickly, and ships were at the mercy of the unpredictable wind.
Before the 1940’s, the most powerful tool for doing math was an abacus, or a pencil and paper. The ancient Greeks, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein… none of them had a computer, or even a calculator.
Before the 1960’s, there was a very good chance that a large storm or hurricane would take a region by complete surprise, with little to no time to prepare or evacuate. There were no weather satellites to see a wide swath of ocean all at once. The most advanced severe weather forecasting involved Aunt Beatrice’s trick knee or the examination of a goat’s digestive tract.
Before the 1980’s (and for most people, the 1990’s,) one would have to go to a library, possibly in a different city or country, to find a random piece of information. And the most advanced search engine available was the Dewey Decimal System. Since the dawn of time until late in the last century, a person could think themselves an expert in their field without ever even learning of the existence of a book just 100 miles away that, if read, would dramatically enhance or overturn their entire philosophy.
Before 2007, cells phones were just… cell phones. They really didn’t do anything else, at least not well. Now, they are mobil entertainment systems, web browsers, email clients, personal organizers, and sometimes still used as phones. An iPhone was considered seriously improbable science fiction even in the 1960’s. Go back much further than that and the average person would have no common frame of reference to understand what a smartphone is. Magic talking box. That’s the best you could do.
“Recorded history,” that is, when people began to write things down, extends back to around 3,200 BCE. So the steam revolution, and everything else I’ve mentioned above, accounts for only 3.5% of civilized human time. Looking at it that way, we’ve taken an amazing leap forward. Are we about to land, and stagnate for a few more millennia, or are we only halfway into our leap, and about to be propelled even further by that jetpack we’re wearing?