It happened today - May 6, 2016

The Glaciarium, in 1876 (Wikipedia) Ahh, the wonders of the steam age. For instance May 6th is the anniversary of the opening of the Glaciarium back in 1844. It was, of course, the world’s first mechanically frozen skating rink.

Quaint. Especially the name, you may say. Even in the 1950s it would have seemed corny. And it may not seem like a giant leap for mankind, or possibly a giant glide or even a giant Lutz, that inhabitants of London, England could skate without going outside. Especially as the Glaciarium and associated enterprises tended to fail due to excessive mist, even as rising temperatures as the world emerged from the Little Ice Age put an end to Londoners skating on the Thames as they fairly often did in the 17th and 18th centuries. But these things take time.

You see, the crucial point about an artificial skating rink, which might not seem to have much to do with steam which is famously hot, unless you count the mist which is sort of chilly steam, is that it’s refrigeration technology.

One John Gamgee, who opened several rinks in the 1870s with a disgusting-sounding arrangement of layers of earth, cow hair and planks on top of concrete, and a solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water run through copper pipes submerged in water, had come up with the idea while trying to freeze meat to bring it from Australia and New Zealand to Britain. See? Globalization and exciting dynamic technological change. There’s the wonder of the steam age.

We get all bent out of shape these days about new iPhones. And some impressive things have come along and some worrying ones with more in the pipe, from efficient cars to computer chips to nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence. But a world in which traditional arrangements were vanishing like mist on a well-ventilated indoor skating rink is not a recent invention.

Indeed, the late 19th century saw such marvels as cheap quality steel, petrochemicals, and electricity including in telegraphs, that dramatically shrunk the world and brought ever-faster and more amazing news from around the globe, as well as an astounding range of products including bananas.

I think this point is worth raising because we are forever promised a glorious breakthrough into life truly worth living if only we can really get behind an innovation agenda. But how much is enough? When do we arrive? Victorians had technology the 18th century literally could not imagine. Suburbanites in the 1950s had technology the Victorians literally could not imagine. And we have technology suburbanites in the 1950s literally could not imagine… and use it to look at videos of cats and compare complete strangers to Hitler in chat rooms where no good thing could have happened even if we’d kept our tempers.

Are we there yet? And are we sure we want to be?

Indoor rinks have of course turned hockey into a spectacular diversion, with millionaires trying to hurt one another and every Canadian team failing to make the playoffs. But I have this odd feeling that the novelty is starting to wear off and with it, I hope, the infatuation with change for the sake of change and the belief that money could buy happiness at least in the sense that sufficiently new stuff could infuse our lives with hitherto absent meaning.

I do like my refrigerator, though.