At this writing (2019), the entire history of powered flight from the Wright brothers to the Rosetta spacecraft landing on a comet, is still encompassed by a single lifetime.
Orville Wright’s famous first flight at Kitty Hawk took place in December of 1903, 116 years ago, an age that is is pretty much a hard-stop for humans. In all the world, nobody alive today is older than 116 and indeed, only eight or nine people in history are believed to have lived to 117 years of age or more; only two of those, possibly one, lived longer than 117 years.
Sarah Knauss (1880-1999) of Hollywood PA is reliably confirmed to have lived to the age of 119 years and 97 days, and she may have been the oldest person ever known.
It has long been claimed that Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) of France, lived to 122, but sadly, doubt has been cast on the legitimacy of that claim. It hasn’t exactly been disproven, but Jeanne’s daughter’s death was recorded in 1934 and the contrarian theory is that it was Jeanne who actually died on that date. Skeptics believe that the daughter assumed her identity so that the family could avoid ruinous inheritance taxes. If that’s true, Jeanne would have been not quite sixty when she died in 1934 and the daughter would have been a respectable but hardly remarkable 99 years old when she died in 1997. One counter-argument is that it would have been extraordinarily difficult for a person in provincial France in the 1930’s to get away with assuming the identity of a person of substance. This is surely true, but it would not have been more extraordinary than the statistical freakishness of the longest and next longest human lifespans differing by three years.
Take your choice, either 119 or 122 is the most advanced age ever recorded, but the oldest person alive right now is Kane Tanaka of Japan, who is 116 years old. She was born in Japan in 1903 and when she dies, the age of powered flight will extend beyond human time. Surely Tanaka’s life has spanned the most densely packed 116 years in history.
Two years after Tanaka and airplanes were born, Einstein had his “annus mirabilus.” In one year, 1905, he published three of the most revolutionary scientific papers in history. He explained the quantum nature of light, demonstrated the physical existence of atoms by explaining Brownian motion, and outlined what is perhaps the most famous theory in all of science, the Special Theory of Relativity, laying the groundwork for nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Almost the entirety of the modern world came into being during Tanaka’s lifetime. When she was born there were still more sailing ships than steamships. The largest sailing ship ever built, the German freighter Preussen, was launched in 1902, while the Wright Brothers were building their plane. It sailed between Hamburg and Chile hauling nitrates and was a commercial success until it was accidentally rammed by another ship and sunk in 1910.
Cars didn’t displace horses in the city streets until around the time of the first World War when Tanaka was a teenager. When she was born they still a novelty, made more or less one at a time in workshops. The modern assembly line was still just a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye in 1903.
Radio was a generation away and television was undreamed-of when Tanaka was born. Movies barely existed—the first permanent theater for movies was built in Pittsburgh in 1905 but movies were still a novelty rather than an art form.
In 1903, half of living African Americans had been slaves and most African Americans under the age of 38 were the children of slaves; the Civil War was considerably closer in time than the Vietnam War is now. The last armed conflicts between the US Army and the Indians ended when she was a young woman. European cavalry was still charging the enemy with sword and lance when Tanaka was in her thirties.
The whole of our modern world, domestic electric power, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, cars, trucks, highways, air travel, air freight, and air war, nuclear weapons and power, radio, television, plastics, almost all of medicine, the vast majority of chemistry, rockets and space flight, satellites, GPS, computers—it all happened within Tanaka’s lifetime. Harvesting that was not done by hand was done with horse-drawn equipment when Tanaka was young; The Bolsheviks seized power in Russian when she was 14 years old. The sickle on the Russian flag wasn’t nostalgia—that’s how wheat was harvested in Russia until the Soviets mechanized agriculture starting in the 1930’s. The Soviet Union fell in 1991 when Tanaka was 88 years old.
We’ve run through an amazing proportion of the world’s resources in her lifetime. We’ve burned up the majority of the oil, found most of the valuable metallic ores, gold and other precious metals, cut down much of the world’s forests, turned a large part of the world’s grassland into desert and begun an epochal mass extinction that can only accelerate as global warming progresses. Tanaka’s lifetime has been both an age of miracles and the epoch in which technology devastated the planet like a slow-motion asteroid strike.
But here’s to Kane Tanaka, may she live many more years.