A friend of mine occasionally likes to bring up this debate: Has the pace of progress in our time been faster than in other times? Her contention is yes, and she has great arguments for why, but somehow in my gut, I've always felt that the answer is no.
While advances like personal computers, the World Wide Web, cell phones and GPS have been enormous, they have built on the knowledge and technologies of the past — and I don't think any of them looms any larger, for their time, than the invention of movable type, or the discovery of new lands.
I felt that way even before I read Laurence Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
Magellan's journey boggles the mind — when he set off, he didn't have an exact location for the strait that would allow him to cross into the Pacific, only a notion that it existed, somewhere. And when he finally reached the Pacific, no idea as to the vast size of that ocean, or how to find the Spice Islands after he sailed across it. In our era, it would have been the same as the Apollo astronauts saying, "we think the moon is up there, so we're going to set out and see if we can find it and land there, and then if we can, get back."
Magellan himself didn't live to see the Spice Islands, or to return to Spain. Only a fraction of his crew, and one of the five ships that had originally set out, actually completed the circumnavigation. But the ship, Victoria, was so laden with spices that the mission was a financial success, to say nothing of what it contributed to knowledge about the world.
This was the other element that amazed me — this daring expedition, which so many men lost their lives for, was all for what we take for granted in our chai lattes from Starbucks. This was, really, the birth of globalization, of global trade on the seas.
The book itself is a fascinating read, a tale of horror and discovery. But more importantly, it's a reminder of the proportion of our own advances. We build upon the accomplishments of those that come before us, and Magellan's journey was one of the largest ever.