THERE IS SOMETHING about the turn to a new number that, particularly in the trade of newspapering, set off a huge competition to characterize the year, or decade, or whatever. It is the annual attempt to outsmart history, and perhaps Father Time himself, by identifying those aspects of the age that furture centuries will hold to have been Truly Significant. Although habit-forming, this practice is not harmful as long as everyone understand that it is only a sort of parlor game.

How good were the past guesses? We print today on the oppoosite page the editorial that appeared in this space a century ago. It seems to us a remarkably perceptive portrait, and one with which most modern historians would agree. We can offer that compliment without hesitation since -- contrary to the impression that some of our readers profess to have formed -- no one writing for this page today was here a hundred years ago. We have no idea who wrote that editorial at the end of 1879, but he (and almost certainly it was a he) did a good job. That short essay caught and reflected precisely the sturdy optimism of the times.

It saw, with great presciecne, the immense importance of the light bulb that Thomas Edison had just demonstrated at Memlo Park, N.J. Surely no invention of the past century more profoundly changed daily life. The editorial saw the meaning of the great migration westward, and the developing strength of American agriculture. The European war to which it refers was one of Russia's campaigns against the collasping Ottoman Empire. In the style of the period, the war was limited, brief and, for Americans, remote. It had ended nearly two years before the editorial was written, and the high prices for farm exports actually had more to do with a bad harvest abroad.But American newspaper readers, not to mention farmers, were well aware in 1880 of the connection that political writers today ponderously call interdependence.

There is an enormous contrast between the tone of 1880 and that of the current flood of turn-of-the-year commentary. (The temptation to join the game and add to the latter is, of course, irresistible.) Today Americans notice the light bulb only when it burns out -- but they are aware of certain disquieting by-products of the large machines, fed on fuels like coal and uranium, that provide the power for the light. A century after the great western migration, the Mountain States are full of complaints about the backwash of eastbound Californians. The Russians are on the move southward again. Instead of celebrating high export prices, Americans are quarreling among themselves over the wisdom of supporting the Soviet economy with grain sales.

The national prospect is not necessarily any more difficult today than in 1880, but it is certainly more complicated. Father Time has spent the last century teaching Americans that nothing is simple.