The field of Big History attempts to tie events from cosmology, life evolution, and history into narratives and common themes. One approach to communicating this is the development of Little Big Histories that follow aspects throughout history that impact the development of a specific item or idea. For example, a recent episode of “How the Universe Works” explained how each of the elements found in cars were originally created.  This included the hydrogen (in the plastics, water, and fuel) from the big bang; the carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron from stellar nucleosynthesis which are distributed through supernova explosions; the copper from neutron bombardment during the red giant phase of a second generation star; the gold, iridium, and lead from neutron star mergers; and the lithium for electric vehicles resulting from blasting nuclei with gamma rays from supernovae.  While this covered the early phase of the history of material for cars, there are other aspects that relate to the evolution of life, the human mind, civilization, and technology.

For example, materials in the car are dependent on life processes both recent and throughout evolution. The early production of oxygen from photosynthesis led to at least two important relevant events. One event is that the early oxygen in the seas combined with the dissolved iron to form a precipitate that formed the iron banded rocks that were later mined for the iron and steel in cars. When much of the iron was precipitated, then oxygen could collect in the atmosphere.  There is a level in the atmosphere due to the burying of excess carbon and the regular continuous generation of oxygen by plants. It is this buried carbon in the form of oil (mostly by small ocean organisms during the age of dinosaurs) that is extracted for fuel. It can be viewed as the Earth acting like a storage system for the solar energy that was converted into chemical energy and collected and stored over million of years. Not only is this oil used for fuel but also converted into plastics. Another connection to the past is the use of calcium carbonate or lime, formed by the disposition of ancient shelled sea organisms.  Large quarries are seen to extract this and then processed to form the basis for both concrete (for roadways) and glass.  While glass is formed by mixing materials like sand and lime, the inorganic sand was originally formed by erosion of rocks with the   assistance of lichens. Other materials that are derived by current life forms include rubber trees (although rubber is now mostly synthetic), trees to make paper for those manuals, and leather for comfortable seats. Although not directly connected to the car is the animal that it mostly replaced for common transportation, the horse, which is till used for setting the unit of engine power (Have you ever thought of trying to connect hundreds of horses to your car and getting them to coordinate?)

After the cosmological development of elements and the processing of the elements by life, the next major phase for the car history is human evolution.  Major factors contributing to the development of the human mind was its ability to move (on two legs), use fire, form social groups supported by language, and develop tools.  These allowed humans to overcome it lack of common specialities such as fast speed, defensive armor, or predatory teeth and claws.  This human evolution was based on using the mind to generalize food sources and defense mechanisms (as blogged earlier in “Is generality the new specialty?” The car, or more generally mechanized transport, allowed the continuation of the use of fire in internal combustion engines to support a wider community, larger defense, greater access to food sources.  The movement of early humans ensured their success by diversifying the ecosystems that they could survive.  This movement often occurred along the coast and was not based on a general decision to discover the world but by small movements to secure food, defense, and social arrangements. There might be a relatively stable amount of time that humans are willing to spend on moving.  It is not the distance that is constant but the commuting time as the technology progressed from walking, horseback, train, and car.

With the development of civilization came the laws and government necessary to maintain order.  This includes the organization of insurance, law enforcement, courts, and property deeds. The early governments often formed common organizations for insurance against famine by storing excess food. Written laws were early such as the famous Laws of Hammurabi which mostly dealt with property rights.  Besides these common shared infrastructure includes roads which the Romans were famous for, finance which started with the invention of money in Ionia, but only grew under the loaning of money to capital formation in the early modern era often for trade in bulk goods via sailing ships.

Iron production was part of the coal-iron-steam engine cycle of technology that led the industrial revolution. The development of these engines followed a logistic learning curve of efficiency that later led to the development of the internal combustion engine. The combination of the efforts in the Robber Baron era of steel production (Carnegie), oil refining (Rockefeller), and finance (J.P. Morgan) led to an early exploration of modern manufacturing techniques by Ford.

The Little Big History of the car continues to follow with contributions in the information age such as radios, computers, environmental prevention, and GPS.  The future is expected to include electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles coupled with smart roads, and substitution by virtual presence and travel.

It is fascinating to see the full history of the universe and Earth represented in an item used every day. What do you think would make good topics for Little BIg Histories?