A dramatic case of change over time

One of the things that I find most interesting about history is the whole issue of “change over time”. Of course, history programs around the world have succeeded in turning this strand into a formulaic and arid bit of history (“Right, students, list five ways the Reformation changed Tudor society”). But actually, it is really fascinating – how did the Roman world turn into the world of Medieval Europe? How does a town change over centuries? What changes were involved in the evolution of a Viking longship into a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier?

For the most part, my work on the TimeMap of World History means that I confront this issue at the level of entire civilizations. However, in another department of my life I have a keen interest in civil aviation (it dates back to my childhood, flying between the UK and Nigeria for school holidays, with a label tied to my collar so that I could be safely delivered to my parents).

I therefore read with interest an obituary in the newspaper of a pilot who died recently, in his 90s. He had flown spitfires in the Battle of Britain, in World War 2, and after the war he had had a career as a pilot with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, the UK’s main international airline before it became British Airways).

Well, he’d started out at BOAC flying Lancastrian airlines – which were basically Lancaster bombers kitted out to carry about 12 passengers. (You Americans won’t know what a Lancaster bomber was, but it was a slightly earlier contemporary of the Flying Fortress). He’d ended his career flying Boeing 747s. Now – that’s change over time!

Oddly enough, though, civil aviation shows a remarkable example of how things do not necessarily change over time. When I was 6 years old, in 1958, the first jetliners began to fly the Atlantic. Now, 55 years later, you can’t get across the Atlantic any faster!


By Peter Britton