Before and After

Consider the invention of the cotton gin. This occurred during the mid-point of the Industrial Revolution, when Yale graduate Eli Whitney (to grossly oversimplify it) figured out how to eliminate those tedious and time-consuming seeds from cotton fibers.

Although there were already earlier prototypes in the Antebellum South that had been invented by Indians on the subcontinent, none of them were as polished or effective as Whitney’s device. The term cotton “gin” was short for “engine.” It was patented in 1794.

What happened before the Industrial Revolution—generally dated from 1760 to 1840—was profoundly and irrevocably altered by what happened after it. Alas, not least of which was the transformation of slavery into the successful money crop it became.

The same for Johannes Gutenberg. In 1440, it was Gutenberg, the Mainz, Germany, print-maker, who invented movable metal type. Most would agree that his greatest accomplishment was publication of the “Gutenberg Bible,” recognized as the “first major book” to be printed by means of movable type.

Indeed, the “before and after” aspect of Gutenberg’s inventions was a marvel of ingenuity. But it was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who noted that, despite movable type being nothing short of miraculous (in fact, the phenomenon was commonly referred to as the “Gutenberg Revolution”), it paled in comparison to a far more significant invention: the creation of the alphabet.

The existential philosopher, William Barrett (Irrational Man), would argue that one of civilization’s most compelling “before and after” changes occurred in the 17th century. This was when what can only be called rudimentary “Science” gave way to what can only be called “Magic.” Obviously, it didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen uniformly or without a struggle, but it changed everything.

World War I was another momentous change. Walter Lippmann (whom historian Henry Steele Commager labeled as the “last public intellectual” in America), once referred to World War I as “the end of innocence.” All things considered, it was a fair assessment.

Not only was World War I the first instance of mechanized warfare (with artillery, armor, automatic weapons, air power, and chemical weapons), it was also the first example of a modern Christian nation going to war with another Christian nation.

And with plentiful cavalry and artillery on both sides of the battlefield, it also marked the first time that naïve young boys, fresh off the farm, had witnessed horses and mules being slaughtered—eviscerated, literally turned inside-out—in so horrific a fashion.

Consider Watergate. Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman—after all of it had been thoroughly exposed by them—turned out to be little more than ambitious confidence men. Even people who weren’t born yet (Nixon resigned in 1974) can still recall the Watergate scandal as a source of something resembling shame. And if not shame, then obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and perjury, which were all felonies.

Then, on September 11, 2001, everything changed. When the World Trade Center collapsed, and 2,977 Americans died, people can still remember—more than twenty years later—when the New Yorker magazine came out with its black cover.

There was no text, no captions, and no photos…just solid black. Using our “before and after” template, the World Trade Center marked, among other things, the beginning of “the war on international terror.”

And some people can still remember when, shortly following the New Yorker’s appearance, Editor Graydon Carter came out with its edition of Vanity Fair magazine. Unwisely, Carter chose to refer to the World Trade disaster as representing “the end of irony” as we know it.

Even for people who lived in New York City (like my nephew), and were still in shock, Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair remarks turned out to be not only pompously self-serving, but inaccurate. “The end of irony??” Within six months, people were already making snide wise-cracks.

Shifting gears, I can still recall the “before and after” implications that occurred during 1970s. I’m guessing, of course, but I believe it happened in 1978. In any case, this was the very first time that TV weathermen began referring to “rain” as “shower activity.” Not a significant change, but memorable.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at