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A Reminder of How Far Transatlantic Travel Has Come

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

A Reminder of How Far Transatlantic Travel Has Come

Columbus's 1492 voyage took over two months; today it would take 9 hours.

Trans-Atlantic travel times decreases over the centuries

August 3 will mark the 526th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 departure from Spain to the West Indies. The occasion is a reminder of just how dramatically transoceanic travel has improved in terms of lower cost, safer conditions and quicker travel times.

First, consider the cost. Columbus had to petition King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain for two years for the exorbitant funds needed to make his voyage. The voyage cost approximately 2 million Spanish maravedis. According to physics professor Harry Shipman at the University of Delaware, 1 maravedi would be about 50 cents today, which would mean Columbus’s voyage cost a million current U.S. dollars.

Such trips are no longer limited to those with access to a royal treasury. In fact, more people than ever are able to afford international travel, including across the Atlantic. Competition that followed deregulation of U.S. airlines in 1978 slashed the price of tickets to make flying more accessible to more people, and progress is ongoing. A record 3.7 billion people flew in 2016.

As Marian Tupy has written, “Between 1990 and 2013, the average international round-trip airfare fell from $1,248 to $1,175 (in 2013 U.S. dollars).” A trip tracing Columbus’s journey from Madrid to San Salvador Island would cost slightly more than $1,000 in 2018. And flights from Madrid to India, which is where Columbus had originally wanted to go, are even cheaper.

By the time that the pilgrims on the Mayflower made their journey from England to the New World, the cost of crossing the Atlantic had fallen to around five pounds or $1,000 current U.S. dollars. But it is difficult for those accustomed to modern transatlantic travel to comprehend the danger and length of that rocky voyage by sea.

One passenger wrote that the Mayflower “encountered many times with cross winds, and met with many fierce storms, with which the ship was shrewdly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky.”

Another passenger died on the ship – a normal occurrence during transatlantic journeys of the era, just as many of Columbus’s crew died from scurvy, a disease caused by poor nutrition, a century earlier. Sea voyages entailed cramped living quarters, a diet of hard biscuits and beer, and the existential threat of storms that could wreck the ship. For most people, the most dangerous part of the trip nowadays is the possibility of leg cramps on a long flight.

And let us not forget that transatlantic journeys have shortened from several months to a matter of hours. For his first voyage in 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and landed somewhere in the Bahamas. His journey took a grueling two months and nine days. The first steamship to cross the Atlantic did so in 207 hours in 1819. Today, a flight from Madrid to Nassau in the Bahamas would take an average of 9 hours on an air-conditioned plane with fresh food at the ready, proper restrooms, and most likely televisions with the latest movies.

Some may groan about the inconveniences of transatlantic flights. But they are nothing compared to the horrors of crossing the Atlantic in years past. The very first journeys were prohibitively costly, took months and involved tremendous risk. We can thank technological progress, competition and increasing prosperity for making the trip more affordable, safer and faster.

CNBC | Food Production

Chipotle Tests Automation for Burrito Bowls and Salads

“The Hyphen robot will make burrito bowls and salads for digital orders only. The technology moves the bowls underneath the digital make line to dispense the correct ingredients. Simultaneously, an employee can assemble digital orders for other items, such as tacos, quesadillas and burritos, on the digital make line. When the robot is done making an order, it sends the bowl or salad back up to the surface so employees can properly package the order.”

From CNBC.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 37

Stephen Barrows: The Economic Madness of Malthusianism

The economist Stephen Barrows joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the intellectual history of population economics, the benefits of population growth, and what we can expect from a future of falling fertility.

Blog Post | Air Transport

The Gift of Flying Home for Christmas

The time price of airfares has fallen 38.1 percent in five years.

Airports will be busy again this Christmas. According to Kayak data, domestic flight searches are up 155 percent compared to 2020, though they are still 43 percent lower than in 2019.

Fortunately, we continue to enjoy the gift of decreasing airfares. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that since 2016, airfares have decreased in price from an index value of 270.9 to 203.8, or 24.8 percent.

Since we buy things with money but pay for them with time, we prefer to analyze the cost of airfares using time prices. To calculate the time price, we divide the nominal price by the nominal wage. That will give us the number of hours of work required to earn enough money to buy an airplane ticket.

We can calculate the time prices using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They report that the nominal blue-collar hourly wage increased by 21.5 percent from $21.72 in 2016 to $26.40 in 2021.

It took 12.47 hours to earn enough money to buy the average airplane ticket in 2016. Today, it takes just 7.72 hours. That’s a decline of 38.1 percent.

For the same amount of time working, you can get 61.6 percent more airfares today than in 2016. Flying abundance has been growing at a compound annual rate of around 10.7 percent a year. At this rate, we get twice as many flights every 7.22 years.

Excerpt from our forthcoming book, Superabundance.

Blog Post | Scientific Research

The Fastest Learning Curve in History?

Human genome sequencing has become over a million times more abundant since 2003. In the near future, the price may drop another 90 percent from $1,000 to $100.

The Human Genome Project was an international effort to map the entire three-billion-letter human genome. The project launched in 1990 and concluded its work in 2003 – 50 years after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. The U.S. government contributed $3.8 billion toward the project, though the cost of the actual sequencing was lower.

Dr. Eric Green, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, recalled that “the first genome cost us about a billion dollars … Now when we sequence a person’s genome, it’s less than $1000, so that’s a million-fold reduction.”

Note that blue-collar worker hourly compensation (wages and benefits) rate increased by 51 percent between 2003 and 2020 (i.e., from $21.54 to $32.54). Consequently, it would have cost that worker 46,425,255 hours of work to earn enough money to buy his or her DNA sequence in 2003, but only 30.73 hours of work to do so in 2020.

The time price of DNA sequencing, in other words, dropped by 99.99993 percent. For the same hours of work required to earn the money to buy one DNA sequence in 2003, a blue-collar worker can get over 1.5 million sequences today. That amounts to over a 150 million percent increase in DNA sequencing abundance.

Now a group of Chinese entrepreneurs at the BGI hope to get the price down to $100 using a robotic arm and a roomful of chemical baths and imaging machines. Rade Drmanac, chief scientific officer of Complete Genomics, a division of BGI, noted that at $100, genetic sequencing could soon be common for every child at birth.

The National Human Genome Research Institute tracks costs associated with DNA sequencing and produced the chart below. Note the logarithmic scale on the vertical (i.e., Y) axis:

Exponential innovation occasionally experiences a double exponent or punctuation as it did in January of 2008 when DNA sequencing transitioned from the Sanger method (i.e., dideoxy chain termination sequencing) to “second generation” or “next-generation” DNA sequencing technologies.

A fall in the cost of DNA sequencing from $1,000,000,000 to $100 over 20 years would imply a compound rate of decline of 6.5 percent a month. (Adjusting for the time price puts the compound rate of decline at 7.13 percent per month.) Moore’s law indicates that prices of computing decline at 2.85 percent a month. So, the cost of DNA sequencing per genome may amount to the fastest price decline in history.

Long live learning curves. The knowledge they create is our true wealth.