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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

10 Pictures from the Past 100 Years that Highlight the Power of Liberty

The freedom philosophy has been a key part of many significant moments in history. Here are just a few examples.

Image Credit: Houston Chronicle

Over the past century, the world has witnessed remarkable advances driven by free people and free markets. From the Roaring Twenties to the age of the Internet, capitalism and the pursuit of individual rights served as the engine propelling human progress.

In an age where pessimism about the future has seemingly become the default worldview, it’s important to have gratitude for the advancements that have made modern life possible. By reflecting on these milestones, we can appreciate the progress we’ve made and remain hopeful for the future, knowing that the drive for freedom and the spirit of innovation can continue to shape a better world for all.

To that end, here are ten photos from the past century which showcase the profound impact of liberty and free markets on our world.

1927 – Flight of the Spirit of St. Louis

On May 21, 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh completed history’s first nonstop transatlantic flight in his single-engine, single-seat plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh’s historic flight was funded by a group of St. Louis businessmen who saw the potential for advancements in aviation and sought to win the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward for completing the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. This prize, funded by private capital, spurred competition and innovation in aviation.

Designed by Donald A. Hall of Ryan Airlines, the Spirit of St. Louis focused on range and fuel efficiency, and was completed in just 60 days, rushed to win the prize. This rapid and innovative development was made possible by the unregulated environment still in place in the aviation industry’s early days.

Lindburgh and his backers’ accomplishment demonstrated the feasibility of long-distance air travel, paving the way for modern commercial aviation.

1933 – End of Prohibition

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment’s prohibition on alcohol production, importation, transportation, and sale. Ratification of the 21st Amendment marked the end of a 13-year experiment in banning alcohol, with a black-market economy that led to a substantial increase in crime. The end of prohibition restored freedom for individuals and revitalized industries which had been stifled.

The failure of prohibition led to greater recognition that individuals ought to have the right to make their own choices about what they put in their bodies, although this recognition has yet to be consistently applied. It also proved that legal free markets produce safer and better products than black markets.

1947 – Invention of the Transistor

Arguably the simplest yet most important invention of the 20th century was the transistor. Invented at Bell Laboratories in 1947 by physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, the transistor is the basic building block of modern computers. It revolutionized computer science by providing a more reliable, cheap, and compact alternative to the vacuum tubes used by more primitive computers.

Bell Laboratories was able to attract some of the brightest minds in science and engineering as employees. Unlike government-funded projects, the work at Bell Labs was guided by market incentives and the goal of achieving practical, commercial applications for new technologies.

The impact of the transistor on modern society cannot be overstated. Thanks to their small size, exponentially more of them could be placed into computing devices compared to vacuum tubes. Today, Apple’s M3 Max processor features 92 billion transistors on a single chip. The invention of the transistor paved the way for the development of virtually all modern electronics, from smartphones to medical devices, and the creation of entire industries, generating millions of jobs and drastically improving living standards around the world.

1963 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivers the “I Have a Dream” Speech

On August 18, 1963, during the March on Washington protest, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s speech, delivered to a massive crowd of over 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, was a call for equality and freedom. His powerful oration highlighted the fundamental principle that all individuals should have liberty regardless of their immutable characteristics.

In practice, King’s moving speech contributed to the dismantling of oppressive Jim Crow laws that denied African Americans their basic rights. The free market of ideas and the constitutional protections for speech, assembly, and the press that allowed King and other civil rights leaders to organize was essential for achieving this historic victory.

1972 – Blue Marble Photo from Apollo 17


On December 17, 1972, astronauts traveling in the Apollo 17 spacecraft took one of the most widely distributed photographs of all time, the very first image of a fully illuminated Earth. Although the Apollo program was a government-led initiative, the Blue Marble photo’s creation relied heavily on the contributions of free enterprise.

The photo was taken on a 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera with an 80-millimeter Zeiss lens. NASA chose Hasselblad cameras for their exceptional image quality, reliability, and precision engineering. These cameras were uniquely suited for the harsh conditions of space travel, offering the durability and functionality necessary. Hasselblad’s reputation for excellence in medium-format photography made it the ideal choice for documenting the Apollo missions. Similarly, the Zeiss lens was chosen for its ability to maintain exceptional optical performance under such challenging conditions. Carl Zeiss AG, a German optics company, continues to be renowned for producing lenses of impeccable clarity.

Looking beyond the camera system, the contributions of capitalist enterprises such as North American Rockwell, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, and Boeing to the Apollo program made America’s victory over the Soviets in the space race possible. Their efforts also paved the way for today’s private space industry led by companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.

1989 – Tank Man

With the imminent fall of Eastern Bloc Communism, 1989 was a crowded year for liberty. But the fight for liberty didn’t just happen in Europe. On June 5, a man who remains unidentified stood up to the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square.

This iconic image captures the climax of the pro-democracy protests that swept through Beijing and other Chinese cities in the spring of 1989. On June 3–4, the Chinese government sent military forces to clear Tiananmen Square, resulting in a violent crackdown that led to the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. The exact number of casualties remains unknown due to government censorship.

The day after the crackdown, the world witnessed the astonishing scene of a solitary man standing in front of a column of tanks on Chang’an Avenue, near Tiananmen Square. “Tank Man” became an enduring symbol of resistance and the human spirit’s quest for freedom in the face of oppression.

1989 – Fall of the Berlin Wall

On November 9, 1989, during the “Peaceful Revolution,” sections of the Berlin Wall dividing Communist East Berlin from free West Berlin were breached. As crowds gathered, the guards were overwhelmed. Despite orders to be “more aggressive,” none among the East German authorities were willing to issue orders to use lethal force. Unable to control the border, crossing guards gave in, opening the gates and letting people through with little or no identity-checking.

For nearly three decades, the Berlin Wall had stood as a stark division between the communist East and the capitalist West. Its fall marked the beginning of the end for the oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, heralding a new era of liberty, democracy, and economic opportunity for millions. In contrast to the prosperity and innovation flourishing in the free-market economies of the West, the East suffered from stagnation, scarcity, and repression. The grassroots movements that emerged in East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries were driven by a desire for political freedom, economic opportunity, and human rights. These movements demonstrated the power of individuals to challenge and ultimately dismantle authoritarian regimes.

The reintegration of Eastern Europe into the global economy brought about significant improvements in living standards, economic growth, and personal freedoms.

1989 – Boris Yeltsin Visits an American Supermarket

On September 15, 1989, Soviet Politburo member Boris Yeltsin visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. However, it wasn’t his NASA visit that day which history most remembers, but a brief stop he made afterwards to a supermarket.

Yeltsin was astounded by the abundance, variety, and quality of goods available in a typical American grocery store. This experience profoundly impacted him, concretizing for him the inefficiencies and failures of the Soviet economic system, and fueling his later efforts to reform and open up the Russian economy.

In the Soviet Union, state control over production and distribution led to chronic shortages, long queues, and limited product selection, starkly contrasting the wide array of choices in American supermarkets. Yeltsin privately remarked to an aide after his supermarket visit, “I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans.”

This pivotal moment contributed to the momentum for change in Russia that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

1991 – Fall of the Soviet Union

And then it happened. But it didn’t come easy.

In August 1991, Communist Party hardliners initiated a coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was about to sign a treaty to dissolve the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and Soviet censorship was reinstated among the people. However, a mass uprising foiled the hardliners’ plans.

Protestors toppled this statue of KGB founder Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. This act of defiance against the symbols of Soviet oppression marked a pivotal moment. Unable to restrain the public, the coup against Gorbachev failed after only three days.

2007 – Introduction of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, a product that changed the way people across the world work and live. By putting a user-friendly device with the power of a computer into people’s pockets, the iPhone set a new standard for mobile technology.

Before the iPhone, the mobile phone industry was dominated by devices that could do little else but make calls, or for the few designed to do more, featured clunky user interfaces and slow processing speeds. The introduction of the iPhone, with its intuitive touchscreen interface, powerful hardware, and access to a wide array of applications, brought a breath of fresh air to the market, inspiring competing Android devices and pushing less competitive companies such as BlackBerry into bankruptcy.

The View from 100 Years Later

Reflecting on these milestones from the past century, we must also recognize the times when liberty was challenged and freedoms were constrained. It’s also true that the power of the state has grown to previously unfathomable levels in this same period. Yet, it is precisely for the sake of overcoming this challenge that we must remember the strength and potential in free people and free markets. The triumphs captured in these photos serve as a testament to what can be achieved.

The story of liberty is ongoing, and with each new chapter, we have the opportunity to build on the foundations laid by those who came before us.

  • Joseph (Jake) Klein is a former Curriculum Manager and Content Creator at FEE. Jake is the co-founder of The Black Sheep, a publication dedicated to promoting open inquiry on controversial topics.