Time Compression - The Acceleration of life
Lifestyle | Technology

Time Compression

May 24, 2024

A severe snowstorm raged in New York City on Friday, Feb. 21, 1947. Despite the inclement weather, some 650 members of the Optical Society of America had gathered at Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue for a highly anticipated demonstration by inventor Edwin Land. The audience watched Land take a self-portrait with his Polaroid Land camera and gasped when he produced an 8-by-10-inch photograph 60 seconds later.

It didn’t take long for this group of optical aficionados to realize what they witnessed was nothing short of history — in those days, developing photographs required mixing a batch of messy chemicals. The Polaroid Land Camera, which went on sale in Boston on Nov. 26, 1948, for $89.95, used a unique film that sandwiched chemicals between exposed negatives and the receiving positives, and that, when peeled apart, showed images almost instantly.

Little did Land know that his invention would help usher in a new era, one in which instant gratification would rule the day. And it was all due to the impatience of little Jennifer, Land’s three-year-old daughter, who had complained that it took too long to develop photographic film.

Land’s revolution would reverberate throughout the world. His invention was the first in a series of products that exposed consumers to the seductive qualities of immediate gratification. The art of photography has changed markedly since then. People rarely get to see prints at all. In 2005, the Photo Marketing Association estimated that 35% of digital photos were printed. A reasonable estimate today would be less than 2%. Film processing is a thing of the past, just 25 years after Apple introduced the world’s first, easy-to-use digital camera, the QuickTake 100.

LCD screens are now the display device of choice. People huddle around phone and camera screens as if staring at a digital fireplace, faces lit up as they peer into this window of wonder.

Instant gratification now rules the world of imaging, as evidenced by this notable trend: In 2000, Kodak proudly announced that consumers across the globe had taken 80 billion photos, setting a new record. That number pales in comparison to the 1.3 trillion digital images taken in 2017.

The internet and social media played a significant role in spreading the gospel of instant gratification. Facebook reported that some 350 million photos were uploaded daily in 2013, when it had 1.1 billion members. Instagram’s last image upload figure was 80 million daily in 2016, based on 400 million users. Between Facebook’s current membership of 2.9 billion and Instagram’s 2 billion, the daily upload figure is likely approaching 1 billion photos.

Land wasn’t the only one working to compress time. Not far away, in Waltham, Massachusetts, self-taught engineer Percy Spencer observed something peculiar. While testing a new vacuum tube called a magnetron, the fruit of wartime radar research at defense contractor Raytheon, Spencer noticed that a peanut cluster candy bar had melted in his pocket.

Intrigued by this phenomenon, Spencer placed some popcorn near the tube and watched in amazement as kernels began popping all over his lab counter. Raytheon engineers quickly refined Spencer’s discovery and, in late 1946, filed for a patent covering the use of microwaves to cook food.

Tappan Stove Co. took on the challenge of mainstreaming Raytheon’s technology for general use by introducing the first home microwave oven, priced at $1,295, on Oct. 25, 1955. In 1965, Raytheon acquired Amana Refrigeration, and two years later, the company introduced the first countertop microwave. This 100-volt model cost less than $500 and was smaller, safer and more reliable than previous models. By 1975, microwave oven sales exceeded those of gas ranges for the first time. Like Polaroid’s Land Camera, Raytheon’s microwave technology compressed a tedious chore into mere minutes, representing a quantum leap in consumer convenience.

The most significant development in this quickly accelerating Ubertrend was yet to come. While operating their first restaurant, the Airdome, in San Bernardino, California, brothers Dick and Maurice (“Mac”) McDonald realized that the future of consumer restaurants lay in mass production and speed of service.

On Dec. 12, 1948, they opened their first McDonald’s restaurant at 14th and E Street. The restaurant sold 15¢ burgers and 10¢ fries using its new “Speedee Service System.”

While White Castle had beaten McDonald’s to the punch, launching a fast-food restaurant in Wichita, Kan., in 1921, it was McDonald’s that would symbolize the fast-food industry. Under the aegis of Ray Kroc, who bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million in 1961 and moved the company to Des Plaines, Ill., McDonald’s reached the 1 billion sold mark in 1963, just two years after White Castle achieved that remarkable feat.

Ray Kroc personally served the one billionth milestone hamburger, which was captured by national television. McDonald’s has played a vital role in helping global fast-food sales reach $653 billion in 2023.

The company’s ability to sell large volumes of food was promoted by outlet signage that advertised the chain’s success in almost jackpot-like fashion with “billions sold” figures. The last year McDonald’s was able to publicize this milestone without running out of display space was 1994, when its barometer of time-compressed gluttony reached 99 billion.

The blog “Over How Many Billions Served?” estimates McDonald’s sells approximately 1.4 billion hamburgers monthly, suggesting the fast-food giant has sold 525 billion burgers, or half a trillion, as of December 2023. This staggering figure underscores the importance of fast food and its time-saving value in today’s time-compressed economy.

Land, Spencer, the McDonald brothers and Kroc contributed to a lifestyle undercurrent that was about to drag society into a fast-moving riptide and bring the definition of speed into a new dimension.

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What better proxy for the acceleration of life than meal-prep reduction time? In 2003, the James Beard Foundation reported that it took 15 minutes to prepare Cream of Wheat in 1893 when the sticky porridge was invented. By 1939, savvy cooks had whittled that time down to five minutes. Today, it takes a mere 30 seconds to cook Cream of Wheat, which may still take too long for some.

“Time Compression” was originally identified by trendspotter Michael Tchong. To learn more about this Ubertrend, see “Ubertrends — How Trends And Innovation Are Transforming Our Future.”

Jet Age

What Time Compression pioneers readily understood was that time was becoming of the essence. And the enemy of time was inefficiency. To be successful, innovative products or services had to accelerate a previously time-consuming task dramatically.

That was the approach that management took at British Overseas Airways Corporation, or BOAC as it was more popularly known, as it firmly pushed the world into the Jet Age. On May 2, 1952, a BOAC de Havilland DH-106 Comet jet took off from London’s Heathrow Airport, headed for Johannesburg, South Africa, a trip that would take 23 hours and 40 minutes, with five stops in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone.  In a BOAC piston-engine aircraft, the same trip took 27 hours and 55 minutes on a route 1,000 miles shorter than the Comet’s, the BBC reported.

The acceleration of humanity had just taken a giant leap forward with this 503-mile-per-hour jet. Society was about to be transformed by jet propulsion, and mirroring this accelerated lifestyle was the emergence of a new term: “jet-setter,” an all-too-meaningful homage to a glamorous and significantly faster lifestyle.

The jet era also introduced another time-based anomaly. Suddenly it was possible to “gain time” by arriving just a few hours later than the original departure time. This phenomenon is demonstrated most strikingly when crossing the international date line. Sure, air travel in the opposite direction negates the benefit, but jet travel added a whole new dimension to Time Compression.

De Havilland did not rule the Jet Age for long. By 1958 most airlines had begun opting for the new Boeing 707 or Douglas DC-8, which could each seat almost twice as many passengers as the Comet. Still, BOAC’s bold leap set the tone for the fabulous 1950s, which, like the previous decade, would prove to be a breeding ground for Time Compression related developments — not surprising, given this period’s post-World War II penchant for re-purposing trendsetting wartime technologies.

As life was accelerating and people were getting more things done in a shorter period of time, another important concept, destined to become a fixture of faster living, emerged. The word “realtime” was mentioned for the very first time in the April 1953 quarterly journal Mathematical Tables & Other Aids to Computation, a fact corroborated by Merriam Webster.   If you think about it, what could be more instantly gratifying than getting realtime results?

The advent of the internet and the mobile phone would ultimately introduce the world to the era of realtime communication, but today there is also realtime weather forecasting, realtime flight tracking, realtime stock tracking, realtime traffic, realtime site tracking, realtime transit, etc., etc.

To do split-second tracking, one needs to be able to slice time into ever smaller increments, which demands time instruments of high precision. On Christmas Day 1969, Seiko launched the Quartz 35 SQ Astron, the world’s first commercially available quartz watch. With a limited production run of only 100 pieces, the Seiko Quartz 35 SQ Astron featured an analog dial and sold for 450,000 yen ($1,250) in Tokyo, roughly the same price as a Toyota Corolla at the time.

The Astron’s use of a quartz oscillator with a frequency of 8,192 cycles per second, which was accurate to about five seconds a month, or a minute a year, was truly groundbreaking. The Seiko Quartz Astron was the first timekeeping device able to keep pace with a society that was moving toward a split-second economy.

No one appreciated split-second performance more than Fred Smith, who had submitted a term paper at Yale University describing a service that relied on jet aircraft to deliver letters and small packages overnight. Smith, a former Marine, based the idea on his belief that a highly automated society would require a completely different logistics system.

His college professor, clearly less attuned to the need for speed, gave the paper a C. His thinking must have been, “Who would pay a lot of money to send a package overnight?” But to Smith speed was more important than cost and like any self-respecting entrepreneur, Smith pushed on and used his father’s inheritance of $4 million to raise an additional $91 million in venture capital, which was quite a feat in the early 1970s.

In 1973, on the company’s first night of operation, 389 Federal Express employees and 14 Dassault Falcon jets delivered 186 packages overnight to 25 U.S. cities.  Federal Express, the company changed its name to FedEx in 2000, would not catch on until the early 1980s, after it introduced the Overnight Letter, which could contain up to two ounces and was delivered overnight for $9.50.

That year, 1981, also coincided with FedEx’ hiring of advertising agency Ally & Gargano, which played a key role in dramatically raising the company’s profile (“Fast Talking,” page 168).

The agency was responsible for creating the legendary “fast-talking” television ad campaign), which helped instill a new operational doctrine in American business, one that would resonate with the ad’s mantra, “when it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight.”

Michael Tchong

Michael Tchong

Founder, Author, Adjunct Professor, Futurist

Michael Tchong is a relentless explorer of the future, driven by an insatiable curiosity to unravel its mysteries.
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