Generation 489, 1760-1780: enlightenment and expansion?

Let’s start with what people wore. Clothes were elaborate. Wealthier women wore large dresses with wide panniers and hoops over which the fabric was draped. Men wore breeches, waistcoats and jackets. Here is a painting of people in travelling clothes. For formal occasions, both men and women wore wigs.

John_Collet_The_Elopement

When they travelled, such people could use the network of turnpike roads in Britain, which in this generation halved the journey time from Edinburgh to London down to four days. For heavy freight, such as coal or iron ore or industrial goods, there was a canal network across the country, centred on the midlands.

What did such people talk about? There were two major currents of thought. One was the new thinking known as the Enlightenment. Nature is understandable! There is no need for ignorant superstition any more! Philosophers, scientists and economists applied the new rationality to explain their world – and wrote extensively about it. There was also an undercurrent of a sense that civilisation has corrupted us all, and that the original peoples whom westerners were encountering in the new worlds of the Americas, Africa and the new southern continent of Australia (which was first mapped in this period) had a natural virtue and nobility that Europeans had already lost.

The other current was that very drive which brought Europeans into contact and ultimately conflict with the existing inhabitants of the new continents. The arriving Europeans saw fields, woods, rivers and hills that could be farmed productively and profitably. The locals saw outsiders muscling in on their world. The ensuing conflict has possibly left a scar on the American psyche that is not resolved even now. Hollywood has explored it extensively: Soldier Blue, Dances With Wolves, Avatar all explore the violence of this clash and the remaining guilt.

The expansion happened physically around the world and in the realms of ideas too. Chemists were looking into the properties of different elements, and entrepreneurs looked for applications. The water-driven spinning jenny, which spun eight reels of cotton simultaneously, was patented during this generation.

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