Sunday, December 23, 2007

Quotation for the Day

Eight hundred life spans can bridge more than 50,000 years. But of these 800 people, 650 spent their lives in caves or worse; only the last 70 had any truly effective means of communicating with one another, only the last 6 ever saw a printed word or had any real means of measuring heat or cold, only the last 4 could measure time with any precision; only the last 2 used an electric motor; and the vast majority of the items that make up our material world were developed with the life span of the eight-hundreth person.

R.L. Lesher and G.J. Howick, Assessing Technology Transfer (NASA Report SP-5067) (1966)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eureka in the Hot Tub

This sounds almost impossible to believe but I had an Archimedes-like "Eureka Moment" the other night. And it even had to do with the displacement of water in a bath. Let me explain. I have been struggling for months to figure out why the venturi jets in our Florida home's hot tub work intermittently. Oh, the jets draw water all right but they don't pull in the air stream that makes for those refreshing bubbles. I have been asking everybody who seems to know anything about it why it doesn't seem to work. Or to be more exact, works only at times.

One way we've gotten the jets to bubble is to pull out the filter cartridge which is in line with the pump feeding the hot tub. When the filter is out, the pressure drop in the line goes down and the velocity of the water moving through the pipe goes up. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I remember Bernoulli's Equation which states that the pressure varies inversely with the square of the fluid velocity. Speed up the fluid and the pressure drops enough to suck air into the jets. The trouble with this is rather obvious. Who wants to go out and pull out the filter every time you want to use the hot tub?

A really smart pool guy came by the other day and looked over the situation. He looked at the location of the venturi air tube that comes out of the tub and diagnosed it as having been installed too low, hence the amount of water that had to be pulled through the tube to bring in air was too high. But the tube is set in concrete, not easy to move.

So back to my Eureka Moment. My son and I got in the tub the other night to try to puzzle out the problem. I displaced my volume of water out the overflow trough into the pool. The water surface level didn't change. But when I got out to get a towel I took my volume out of the pool, the water level dropped, and, "Eureka!", the bubbles started. The lower water level was just enough to pull the air into the venturi air tube. We were ecstatic to see that the tub worked and, wonder of wonders, Bernoulli's Equation told us why. The pressure is not only inversely related to the velocity of the fluid, it is also inversely related to the height of the column of water in the air tube. Lower the hot tub surface and the height goes down increasing the vacuum pressure to suck open the air tube. We finally understood how the system worked and with that knowledge we can make it work consistently.

So what did I learn out of all this? Observe carefully and make notes on what you observe. Look for correlations between changing one variable and the response in another parameter. Try to understand the physics. Hypothesize about what is happening but always be open to the happy accident, the Eureka.

Archimedes would surely have been proud of us. And Bernoulli, too. Centuries have passed since these two intellectual giants showed the way. There is something very comforting in seeing that the laws of physics are as applicable today as they were then.

I gotta run. The hot tub is calling.

Eiffel's Towers

When you stand under the web of steel that arches high over your head, you have to tilt back so far that you almost lose your balance. The scale is nothing if not monumental. It stands 1,047 feet tall. It took 50 engineers and designers 5300 blueprints to specify the structure known as the Eiffel Tower.

Today is the birthday of Gustave Eiffel who was born December 15, 1832 in Dijon, France. Who isn't familiar with the iconic Eiffel Tower? It has over-shadowed Paris since it was built in 1889. I can remember the first time I visited the tower. It was amazing! It never looked that large in pictures. I felt somehow humbled by its presence.

Gustave Eiffel didn't set out to become a structural engineer. While he did attend a technical college in Paris (École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures), he graduated not as an engineer but with a degree in chemistry. Life often rudely derails the best plans and young Gustave could not find a job as a chemist and took an entry level job managing part of a railroad bridge building project. He was good enough at his work that his supervisor gave him more and more responsibility building other bridges. Eiffel eventually set up a project management consulting company for structural engineering projects. The Eiffel Tower was an example of his work as contractor working in collaboration with Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, structural engineers, and Stephen Sauvestre, architect. The tower has long-since surpassed its original intended life of 20 years. The Tower now hosts over six and a half million visitors a year.

But this was not the first tower with which Eiffel was involved. When Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sculpted the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France to the United States for the U.S. Centennial celebration, a scaffold of steel was needed to support the plates of Lady Liberty. Eiffel was contracted to design and build the pylon. The unique structure allows the 200,000 pounds of copper plates to move independently in order to reduce stresses on the overall Statue. So Eiffel has both his famous Tower in Paris and a less visible but equally technically impressive structure standing in New York Harbor.

Ironically, I have been to Paris to stand beneath (and ascend) the Eiffel Tower but I have never been to the Statue of Liberty in my own country. But regardless of my failing to make the journey, my hat is off to Gustave Eiffel. Few get a chance to create something that persists in the collective consciousness so strongly as the gracefully rising web of steel of his grand Parisian Tower. And while you can't see it as easily, his work supports that equally iconic statue that personifies America.

[Images from Wikipedia]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ready Kilowatt

I don't know why this image from my youth just popped into my head but I just remembered a character called Ready Kilowatt which was used by power companies to promote the use of electricity in the home. Ready had a stick-figure body made of lightning bolts and a light bulb for a head. I can clearly see him in my mind's eye gracing the Edison Sault Electric Company office in the town where I grew up. Ready was always so...peppy. He just exuded energy (but what else would you expect from a lightning bolt?).

According to Wikipedia, the Ready character was created in 1926 by the Alabama Power Company and then licensed to over 300 other power companies for use in promoting electricity usage in the home. Ready was bought by Northern States Power Company in 1998 but the promotion of electricity usage has fallen out of favor. With today's emphasis on conservation, having Ready telling us to use more of the juice seems rather old fashioned. I guess that NSP (now Xcel Energy) created an analog of Ready to promote gas usage but I don't remember seeing it (and we were NSP customers for years).

The icons of our culture change with the technology and the times. Ready Kilowatt would probably be indicted today in the court of world opinion for adding to the greenhouse gases driving climate change. Now we see reminders to save rather than consume. While I agree with the more environmentally sensitive era we are now in, I still kinda miss old Ready. But I also miss Howdy Doody and Sky King.

[Image of Ready Kilowatt from Wikipedia]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vive la Difference!

I recently watched an interesting documentary titled, The Cutting Edge, Magic of Movie Editing. I was unaware of this, but it turns out that before movies had sound, film editing was largely a women's profession. The skills needed to cut and assemble film segments were seen to be something akin to sewing or needlework. It was also (like most 'women's work') anonymous. When sound tracks came to the movies, film editing began to be taken over by men because the sound track was somehow perceived to be more "technical". A more masculine approach to handle all this "technology" was needed.

Isn't it interesting that some aspects of technology are somehow seen to be the realm of men? I could understand this, perhaps, when the technology in question was blacksmithing or steel making, or laying railroad tracks. But even in those areas, more current times have shown that women are perfectly capable of what were once thought to be "high strength" professions.

I wonder if it isn't an even more fundamental issue that has to do with being in control of whatever is the driving force in our world. In prehistory, this would have been hunting food or making fire. In modern times, it is the technology that defines the world we live in. Gender roles die hard. Men just can't seem to give up the driver's seat in the car or the keys to the tool shed.

To be fair, many women have their own opinions on whether they like or dislike dealing with technology. One example I have heard from others and I can speak to personally is the Home Entertainment System. My son and I think that flipping a few settings on the remote control to get the TV, amplifier, cable box, and DVD in sync is no big deal (even though half the time we do have to push a few random buttons to get it to work). My wife and daughter represent most women, I think, when my wife says, "Give me a TV with one button for on and off and none of this ridiculous patching that has to be done to make it work!" Now, I understand what she is saying but honestly, isn't it more fun to have a cockpit of hardware to drive than simply to hit the power button?

Even big companies are waking up to the gender differences. Sony has studied the differences between what men and women want in home entertainment and is proposing different designs for each. Best Buy is even trying out a different retail space that is less "techie" in order to appeal to more women. Stay tuned for more products and stores that respect the differences.

It is hard to see where all this might lead. The cellular/wireless/FaceBook world we live in, particularly in the case of younger people, seems to be received equally well by both sexes. I don't think there is much difference between how young men and women text message or link up...but I admit I may just be out of touch.

What I know for sure is that I will never have to battle my wife for the control of the lawn mower or snowblower. Some things are best left to a man.

[Image from Wikipedia of an early film editing machine]

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Quotation for the Day

Some problems are just too complicated for rational logical solutions. They admit of insights, not answers.
- Jerome Wiesner

Thursday, December 6, 2007

To Err is Human

I have written previously about the professional way in which people employ the technologies in our daily lives (see Chatter in the Sky). Most of the time, we can depend on people to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, there are times when just the opposite happens.

This week is the anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster in India. Thousands of people were killed when methyl isocynate gas escaped from a holding tank at the Union Carbide facility during the early morning hours of December 3, 1984. The investigations and legal proceedings stemming from this disaster went on for years and led to the eventual sale of Union Carbide to Dow Chemical Company.

What caught my eye in reading about the disaster was the role of the people at the Bhopal plant. There was an audible external alarm that sounded when the gas leaked but the plant management quickly silenced the alarm so as not to panic the residents of the town. Many people continued to sleep while the toxic gas drifted over their homes. Even after the pulmonary symptoms developed, doctors were not informed of the nature of the leak so as to provide the correct care. Many people died unnecessarily.

It seems that the response in Bhopal is one that has happened enough times in other settings to be troubling. Examples abound of people who know the facts but withhold them for all the wrong reasons. Here are a couple more stories I have come across recently. In December of 1943, a German bomber sank an allied ship in the harbor at Bari, Italy. The ship, the SS John Harvey, contained a secret cargo of mustard gas that was being brought to Italy in case the Germans used this same poison on allied troops. Authorities on shore had no knowledge of the highly-classified cargo and as a result doctors did not know what was causing the resident's deadly symptoms. And they were not told. It is reported that the presence of the mustard gas was hushed up until after the war on the direct orders of Winston Churchill.

Here is another story. In September 1918, as many as 100 young soldiers were dying each day in Boston from the Spanish Flu. Despite the obvious pandemic, city officials refused to cancel the "Win the War for Freedom" parade through Boston thus exposing tens of thousands of people to the virus being shed by the young soldiers in the parade. The pandemic continued its rampage through the population.

Another more recent example is what took place in the Superdome in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Tens of thousands of people were left abandoned for days in the richest country on earth.

Sometimes, intelligent people who can see a disaster unfolding fail us, why? Confusion during a crisis is one possible explanation. Pure incompetence is always has to be considered but I believe that most people who are in decision-making positions are not stupid. I suspect that it has more to do with denial and fear of the bad news coming back to roost with these decision makers, even more so when they know that they have been systematically compromising the very technologies they are there to manage. It is an all too human response. .

I doubt we can ever expect a change in human nature. But we can do more to provide fail-safe technology and adequate warnings when disasters do occur. The company I worked for had to provide a complete inventory of chemicals to both the federal and local authorities in the event of a fire or problem in one of our labs. But these inventories came as a result of fires in other labs in other companies. It is like airline safety - it is built on the graves of the dead. We may complain about the high cost of regulations and the costs of technology backup systems. But history teaches us that people are not always dependable in a pinch.

To err is human....

Quotation for the Day

Every production of genius must be the production of enthusiasm.

Benjamin Disraeli
(1804-1881, British statesman, Prime Minister)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Tin Goose

I was talking to a man today who commented that he was almost born on a Ford Trimotor airplane on a flight from Rattlesnake Island in Lake Erie. Rattlesnake Island is a private island which is the home of the exclusive Rattlesnake Island Club. The man volunteered that he was 48 years old. I looked up Rattlesnake Island and apparently it is still being served by this same airplane today. I don't know why I was so surprised. Maybe the Ford Trimotor seems like something you would see in the Smithsonian (which you can) or in an old Humphrey Bogart movie. But for the plane to still be flying a regular run is remarkable.

[Image from Wikipedia]

The Ford Trimotor (affectionately nicknamed the Tin Goose) came out of an early interest by Henry and Edsel Ford in the newly emerging field of aviation. An engineer named William Stout trying to start an airplane company sent letters to leading industrialists asking for $1000. The letter stated, "For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back." Henry and Edsel and 18 other investors put up the money to get Stout started.

By 1925, Henry Ford wanted control of the company and bought it from Stout. The company continued to operate until June of 1933 when Ford's interest in aviation waned in the face of the much more successful aircraft being designed by Douglas Aircraft Company. But in the eight years it was in operation, the Ford aircraft operation produced about 200 Trimotors. Many of these aircraft had long and productive careers.

The one in the Smithsonian, for example, started with American Airlines and was then sold many times over the years for use in hauling cargo and even crop dusting. It ended up being converted into a dilapidated 'house' outside of Mexico City, complete with a stove pipe through the roof of the fuselage. American Airlines repurchased the plane and restored it to its original condition, using it for public relations flights. It even made the first commercial flight out of the newly-opened Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. in November, 1962. American Airlines donated the plane to the Smithsonian when it was no longer used for public relations and it now hangs in the Air Transportation gallery.

I don't often hear someone casually mention that they had flown multiple times on a Ford Trimotor. It's like hearing someone say they drive a Stanley Steamer. The point here is that technologies don't disappear overnight. As long as they perform a useful function in a serviceable and cost-effective manner, even old technologies can still be found side-by-side with the latest New-New Thing. The Ford Trimotor flies at a cruising speed of 90 knots and lands on a dime, perfect for Rattlesnake Island. You have to admire the Tin Goose for doing the job so well for so long. Here's to another 75 years of service!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Something's Happening Here

I was reading an interesting article written by Kate Greene that appears in the November/December issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine. The article, titled "What Is He Doing?" is about Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger (host of this blog) and now the founder of a new company called Twitter. On first reading this article, I thought Twitter sounded fairly pointless. The concept of this dot-com company is to have people answer a simple question in 140 characters or less: "What are you doing right now?" The Twitter member files an answer via their computer or cellphone. The messages (known as tweets) can say something as simple as "Sitting at my computer typing my daily blog." These little missives are then automatically sent to a pre-determined list of friends. Tweets can be entered as many times a day as you like. Some people update their tweets a dozen times a day. There are estimated to be a half a million people engaged in this zany activity.

Despite the numbers, I wonder who wants to read all this dribble? Do I really want to know what my friends are doing at any given moment of the day? Do I want to tell them what I am doing? Given that I am somewhat beyond the Millennial Generation, my first response is that this is BORING! But my second thought is... I'm not so sure.

People have an amazing capacity to socialize and connect. What would tell me more about a friend, an occasional e-mail or a tweet that describes the minutiae of my friend's day? Maybe the latter. But this troubles me in other ways as well. Is this a voluntary form of invasion of privacy (if we do it voluntarily)? Why spy on someone when they will Tell All anyway?

People have long speculated on the emergence of a "global consciousness". Various names have been applied to this idea: Giai, Metaman, the Global Brain, or the Nooshere. A common thread runs through this sort of thinking: there is a consciousness on the planet that is the integration of all of our individual consciousnesses. We seem to be steadily progressing toward a world where we are so intimately connected that maybe we really will have a Global Oneness. Maybe Twitter (and the host of recent clones that have appeared to exploit the same concept) is the next step after e-mail and cellphones to link up our digital lives.

What is a little creepy to me about all this is that if there really is such a thing as a global brain, will there be a time when I am not really acting on my own free will (even if I think I am) but rather fulfilling some small part of the larger brain think?

I am not rushing out at the moment to start sending tweets to my friends. I have always been someone who sorta hangs at the edge of the "technology dance floor" to see who is joining the party. I was late to the cellphone phenom and only recently started this blog so who knows? Before you know it, I may be spilling my boring guts to one and all. Too bad for all my friends. But that's the price for a really smart planet.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Father of the National Weather Service

Today is the birthday of Cleveland Abbe who was born on this date (December 3) in 1838. Abbe is widely considered to be the father of the U.S. National Weather Service. The Weather Service was originally created as a branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on February 9, 1870. Responsibility for the weather service moved to the Department of Agriculture in 1890 and then to the Department of Commerce in 1940.

The foundations of what was to become the National Weather Service were laid in Cincinnati in 1869. Cleveland Abbe, having pursued a varied career that led him to astronomy, was the newly-appointed head of the Cincinnati Observatory. The observatory was a smalltime affair that was mostly used to entertain the public. But Abbe was passionate about broad areas of science. He appreciated that astronomical viewing conditions were a function of the weather and saw the need for better weather forecasts, not just for astronomy but for people's daily lives. Seeing an unfilled need, Abbe switched his passion from the far heavens to those a little closer to home.

Abbe saw the potential of the telegraph system as a way to relay large quantities of data to a central office for analysis and forecasting. He proposed to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Western Union telegraph company that they underwrite the costs of setting up observation stations around the region. Western Union agreed to provide low cost transmission of weather data to the observatory for his analysis. In return, Abbe offered to provide free forecasts three times a day for publication in the regional newspapers. An experimental trial ran for a number of months which proved the worth of the idea.

The U.S. Congress was urged to expand the concept nationally and hence the government formed the National Weather Service under the auspices of the Army Signal Corps. Abbe was the first director. He worked to advance meteorology as a recognized science within the Weather Service amd petitioned other universities to start programs in the field. While efforts within the Weather Service advanced (albeit at a maddeningly slow pace), universities did not create meteorology departments until the 1930's.

So once again, we see the familiar pattern of someone with passion who perseveres to create something of great importance. Abbe worked patiently and tirelessly to bring the National Weather Service into being as a respected scientific organization. Few things are ever created without the Cleveland Abbe's of the world. They do not have to be flamboyant or abrasive. They need only to believe that they are creating something much larger than themselves.

Abbe once wrote in a letter to his father, "I have started that which the country will not willingly let die." How right he was.

After a lifetime of service to the Weather Service, Cleveland Abbe died on October 28, 1916.

[Image from Wikipedia]

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Sixty five years ago today (December 2, 1942), the world moved into a new and more dangerous era. CP-1 is the code designation for Chicago Pile-1, the first nuclear fission pile built in an abandoned squash court at the University if Chicago. Enrico Fermi and his colleagues who built the pile were part of the Manhattan Project. The goal was to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans did.

The experimental reactor was built under the abandoned west stands of Stagg Field stadium. The pile contained 771,000 pounds of graphite, 80,590 pounds of uranium ore, and 12,400 pounds of uranium metal. It was a crude affair about the size of a two-car garage. The pile was constructed quickly (but carefully) and was held together with a lumber frame to keep the massive weight of the sphere of bricks in place.

The physicists had been testing the pile all morning of December 2nd. Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb describes the scene in the afternoon of that day:

At two in the afternoon they prepared to continue the experiment...Forty-two people now occupied the squash court, most of them crowded onto the balcony. Fermi ordered all but one of the cadmium control rods again unlocked and removed. He asked Weil to set the last rod at one of the earlier morning settings and compared pile intensity to the earlier reading. When measurements checked he directed Weil to remove the rod to the last setting before lunch, about seven feet out...'This time, he told Weil, 'take the control rod out twelve inches.' Weil withdrew the cadmium rod...'This is going to do it,' Fermi told Compton. The director of the plutonium project had found a place for himself at Fermi's side. 'Now it will become self-sustaining. The trace [on the recorder] will climb and continue to climb; it will not level off.'...Again and again the scale of the recorder had to be changed to accommodate the neutron intensity which was increasing more and more rapidly. Suddenly Fermi raised his hand. 'The pile has gone critical,' he announced. No one present had any doubt of it. Fermi allowed himself a grin. Its neutron intensity was then doubling every two minutes. Left uncontrolled for an hour and a half, that rate of increase would have carried it to a million kilowatts. Long before so extreme a runaway it would have killed anyone left in the room and melted down.

'Then everyone began to wonder why he didn't shut the pile off,' Anderson [a physicist present] continues. "But Fermi was completely calm. he waited another minute, then another, and then when it seemed that the anxiety was too much to bear, he ordered, 'ZIP in!' It was 3:53 PM. Fermi had run the pile for 4.5 minutes at one-half watt and brought to fruition all the years of discovery and experiment. Men had controlled the release of energy from the atomic nucleus.

Rhodes states that the decision to build the pile and run what could have turned into a runaway nuclear experiment akin to Chernobyl was left entirely to the project management. Even the president of the University was not informed. Fermi was not worried about an accident but this was the first critical fission reaction in history. Chicago might never have been the same.

Another Manhattan Project physicist, Leo Szilard, stayed behind with Fermi when everyone else had left after the celebrations and toasts. Rhodes quotes Szilard as saying:

There was a crowd there and then Fermi and I stayed there alone. I shook hands with Fermi and I said I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind.

Of course, subsequent events proved Szilard right. The nuclear genie had been released and it has never been put back in the bottle. We now live within the constant shadow of nuclear warheads. We go on our way, hardly thinking about the destructive power that can be unleashed. Clearly, nuclear fission also has a positive side: nuclear energy. But when do the cons outweigh the pros? If it is possible to develop a technology, must it be developed? Will it be developed, regardless? Do we really have the ability to control the technology we develop or are we inexorably driven by the newest discoveries in science? These are troubling questions. They ought to be troubling questions. Ultimately, are we in control of our own destiny?

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.

- J. Robert Oppenheimer

[Image of atomic bomb exploding over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945]

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Chatter in the Night Sky

I was flying home last night. The skies were clear down the entire East Coast. The cabin entertainment system let me tune in to the air traffic control channel for our flight. For over an hour, I sat and listened to the chatter on the airwaves as I watched the lights of the cities drift by. Instead of a silent sky, I heard the night filled with the voices of air traffic controllers and pilots talking to each other about altitudes, routes, flight track crossings points, weather and flight conditions.

"Atlanta, United 1521. You may climb to three eight zero and maintain vector one eight zero."
"United 1521, roger Atlanta, climbing to three eight zero."
"United 1521, hand off to Jacksonville ATC. Frequency one three three point two seven."
"Roger, Atlanta. One three three point two seven. Goodnight."

There was a clear sense of competence and professionalism even in these brief cryptic remarks. At one point, I heard a pilot comment that he had been flying up from New Orleans and had to make the trip at the (relatively low) altitude of 27,000 feet to avoid turbulence. The air traffic controller responded dryly, "You took the scenic route."

Air traffic control as a technology grew up with the airplane and especially, the airline industry. Like most new systems, it started out privately, built by those who wanted it most, the airports and the airlines. By World War II, it had moved under the control of Federal Government's Civil Aeronautics Administration. But it was the advent of commercial radar in 1960 that revolutionized air traffic control. Advances in technology over that last 50 years have allowed relatively safe flights in an evermore crowded sky.

But behind all this technology are the people I listened to last night: the pilots and air traffic controllers who make a relaxed, safe flight possible. I trust these people to get me to my destination in one piece. But it is always this way with complex technology systems. In everything from hospital operating rooms to nuclear power plant control rooms, we demand trained professionals to run our technologies for us. And day in and day out, they do just that. In our complex world, we cannot live any other way. But the voices and the chatter that I heard last night tells me that these are still people. People I can trust.

We landed without incident right on schedule. When I went outside to get my car, the sky seemed strangely quiet.

By the way, if you want to listen in live to the ATC chatter, you can do it here.

[Image of Washington, DC Air Traffic Control from Wikipedia]

Friday, November 30, 2007

Quotation for the Day

I'm still on the road but I offer this quotation for the day. Sometimes you don't give people what they want but what they need. A few people are masters at this. Ford was one in the early days of the automobile. Steve Jobs is doing the same thing today at Apple.

If I'd listened to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse.
- Henry Ford

Hope to be back to longer posts this weekend.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quotation for the Day

Nearly every great discovery in science has come as a result of providing a new question rather than a new answer.
- Paul A. Meglitsch

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lost on the GPS Highway

I flew in last night to a Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. After picking up my rental car, I smugly plugged in my portable GPS system and hit the power button. I didn't need to depend on some crummy little rental car company map. I had a navigation system. Or so I thought. I waited and waited while the GPS display kept saying "Looking for Satellites". How long can it take to find a satellite? Well, as it turns out, a very long time. The system had somehow hung and it never did find the satellites. Grumbling, I rummaged for my rental car map. Analog. No batteries. No satellite signals required. I made it to my hotel, no thanks to my GPS system.

Thinking back on the experience, I found all sorts of reasons to excuse my GPS: maybe a satellite was off-line, maybe the storm that was blowing through last night caused a disruption in the signal. I think it is Occam's Razor that states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. My little system simply crashed. No big deal. When I pushed the reset button this morning everything worked great.

After years of being conditioned by computers that freeze, you would think that a system reset would have been the first thing I tried. But because I had never experienced the problem before, it just didn't pop into my mind that I needed to do a reset. Now to be fair to me, I did turn the power off and on when the problems were happening - to no avail. I needed a hard restart to get results.

Technology provides increased capabilities but with increased complexity and decreased reliability. But I want the features of the GPS so I am willing to put up with the occasional problems. It has most likely always been this way. Technology slides from the "nice to have" to "must have" with an eerie smoothness. Once we have it, it's hard to go back.

Next time some piece of my technology world has a hiccup I know the cure: hard restart. Occam would agree.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Road More Traveled

This afternoon, I'll jump in the car and travel north on I-75 to the Tampa airport. There, I'll catch a plane that will be sitting out on the tarmac. And I will thank my stars for John Loudon MacAdam who made it all possible.

MacAdam died on this date (November 26th) in 1836 at the age of 80. He is credited with almost singlehandedly reinventing how modern roads are built. His name became synonymous with roads (macadam) and the tarred macadam became the tar-mac or tarmac.

But MacAdam did not start life with the goal of becoming a road builder. He was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1756. Orphaned by his father's death in 1770, he was sent to New York to live in the care of an uncle who ran a counting house. Apparently, young MacAdam did exceedingly well in his new work (where he was an agent for the disposal of war prizes). Not being a dedicated revolutionary, MacAdam chose to return to Scotland when the war ended in 1783 . He brought a considerable sum back with him for he was able to buy an estate with his earnings.

As he traveled the countryside in his new life as gentleman landowner, he noted the wretched condition of the roads and thought surely there must be a better way to build them. At his own expense, he built test roads where the surface was raised above the surrounding land with a structure constructed of a composite of increasingly smaller stones to give a stable structure and a convex top to shed water. Finally, the top surface was sealed with either tar or a slurry of gravel and sand to prevent water from wrecking the construction.

Over many years, (1798 - 1814) MacAdam traveled over 30,000 miles (at his own expense) to examine the roads of Britain. MacAdam got himself appointed the surveyor-general of the Bristol Roads in 1815 and immediately set about rebuilding the roads to his new designs. When other travelers noted how good the roads in Bristol were, they demanded that the roads in their own locales be improved using his methods.

MacAdam wrote two books on his methods. It seems that he was motivated more by an altruistic desire to improve his country than by money. His road building methods came to the United States in the early 1820's where they were employed in building the Cumberland Road.

So instead of taking the roads for granted or bitching about the potholes, today I'll say a "thank you" to John Loudon MacAdam. And then I'll head for the tarmac.

[Image from US Department of Transportation]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Before Digital

I was musing last night about how many parts of our world have gone from analog to digital. Consider:

Bank Tellers to ATMs
Newspapers to news websites
Letters to e-mail
Phone calls to text messages
Personal support to phone trees
Conversations to blogs
Floor mops to robotic floor cleaners

The list goes on and on. What seems to be the common denominator is what Nicholas Negroponte described in his 1995 book Being Digital as moving from "atoms to bits". The theme is one of depersonalization. We talk less to people and more to our technology. These are less conversations and more monologues. We lose track of who is on the other side of the dialogue and in so doing, we lose track of ourselves.

Maybe my techno-angst is just a function of my age. My kids (college age) are much more connected with their friends via Facebook and text messaging than I was with my friends at their age. I never see my kids read a physical newspaper but they are better informed than me about what is happening in the world through web-based news. And yet... and yet... something is surely being traded for all this digital connectivity. We gain a global neighborhood and lose the one we live in.

There is no going back on any of this, of course. And there probably shouldn't be. When the world shifted in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, people left the villages they had lived in for centuries and never looked back. The Digital Revolution we are now living in is creating its own set of profound consequences. Just as most of us have no sense whatever of what it was like to live in a rural setting raising our own food and making our own commodities of daily living, people in the future will have no sense of what it was like to live "BD"...Before Digital.

I love my digital world. I can write blogs like this one. But I miss my disappearing analog world, too. Just yesterday, I was reminded of the good and the bad of the all of this when I called iRobot Customer Support about a problem I had with our Scooba floor washing robot (yes, we love our techie appliance). After being put through a phone tree and then put into a twenty minute holding queue, I finally got to talk to a Customer Support Person. This young woman was very knowledgeable about their product and took me through a series of steps to try to resolve the problem. When that didn't work, she told me they would send me a brand new replacement Scooba within a week and we should return the defective machine. This was a warranty replacement but there were no hassles, no questions. It was great. And I had a real sense of connection with this young woman as we tried to fix the problem. This might be the best of both worlds: digital enabling conversations with real people.

We move inexorably forward, swept along by the technology around us. Hopefully, we'll like the place this tsunami takes us.

[Image of iRobot Scooba from Wikipedia]

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cutty Sark

The clipper ship, Cutty Sark, was launched on November 22, 1869.

As a child, I joined the many people who thought this ship was akin to a work of art. When I was about 10 years old, I received a large Revell model of the Cutty Sark as a Christmas present. The model was a challenge to build (especially for a ten-year-old). I remember the lines of that ship as being almost sensuous.

In the summer of 2004, I was able to visit the Cutty Sark at her berth in Greenwich, England. She was even more beautiful than I remembered from my childhood memories. I could feel myself being drawn to her in a way my family didn't much understand.

The Cutty Sark was a ship built to sail the Horn of Africa in the China tea trade. Five days before she was launched, however, the world for which she was built changed forever. The Suez Canal opened on November 17, 1869. The Canal eliminated the need for the fast clippers to take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The Cutty Sark plied the tea trade for only eight years before she was no longer profitable. She found later life in the wool trade between England and Australia. Later still, she sailed under the Portuguese flag.

The Cutty Sark was more or less an aging derelict headed into oblivion when in 1922 she was spotted by and English captain, Wilfred Dowman. Dowman had seen the Cutty Sark under full sail when he was a young seaman and never forgot her beauty. He bought the vessel from her Portuguese owners and completely refitted her back to her original condition as a clipper ship. Dowman used her as a training ship until he died in 1938. The ship eventually found a permanent home in a specially-built drydock at Greenwich in 1954.

But the Cutty Sark continued to make the news. In May of this year a terrible fire broke out on the clipper as she was undergoing extensive renovations. Fortunately, much of her original timbers had been removed for the renovation and hence were not damaged by the fire. The ship will be brought back yet again as the last best example of the extreme clipper.

Extreme clippers like the Cutty Sark are some of the best examples of the intersection of technology and art. The perfection of form meeting function can stir the soul. It certainly stirred mine at a very young age. Perhaps we have lost something when function alone becomes the principle in technology. Technology is built to serve but it can also be beautiful. At least I think so.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Quotation for the Day

Certain ideas are in the air. We are all impressionable,...but some more than others,...This explains the curious contemporaneousness of inventions and discoveries. The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tragic Sisters

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the White Star Liner, HMHS Britannic, on November 21, 1916. Britannic was fitted out as a hospital ship during World War I. The ship was in route from Southampton to the Middle Eastern theater via the Mediterranean. The mission was to pick up casualties and bring them back to England.

Britannic's maiden voyage was on December 23, 1915. Eleven months later, she would be gone.

On the morning of November 21, the ship struck what has since been presumed to be a mine. She sank in less than an hour. Thankfully, the ship was on the outbound journey and carried no patients. Only thirty of the almost 1100 crew on board the vessel died that day. Most of those killed had hastily entered lifeboats against the captain's orders. The lifeboats were sucked into the still spinning but exposed propellers of the ship as she sank by the bow.

The Britannic was the ill-fated sister ship of the RMS Titanic. Titanic sank on April 14, 1912 from a breach in her hull after colliding with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The "unsinkable" Titanic went down in just a little over three hours with a loss of 1,517 passengers and crew.

Britannic was redesigned following the Titanic disaster to allow Britannic to stay afloat with six of her forward compartments flooded (Titanic could survive only four flooded compartments). The mine explosion caused flooding of five compartments which should have allowed the ship to survive. She was flooded in her first four compartments and the watertight doors were ordered closed. But a door between engine rooms five and six jammed and failed to close allowing a fifth compartment to flood. The ship's fate was sealed from an unexpected source. Apparently, the portholes on the lower decks were kept open to allow ventilation into the stuffy spaces below deck. Water poured in through the open portholes filling Britannic beyond her safety limits. The ship hit the mine at 8:12AM. She was gone by 9:00AM, three times faster than Titanic's sinking.

What interested me about this story was that despite every effort made to improve the "unsinkability" of the Britannic, the best efforts of the engineers and builders of this great vessel were undone by a failure of a door closing and the unforeseen consequences of something as simple as open portholes. This was perhaps not as much hubris as bad luck and lack of contingency planning.

Engineering is an imperfect art. The engineers who redesigned the Britannic had a living laboratory to study how a ship sinks if the hull is breached. They designed the ship for safety and yet it was not enough. It was as though the gods were telling them that despite their best efforts, they were not in control.

Note: Britannic and Titanic had a third sister: RMS Olympic. Olympic was the first of the trio. She was launched in 1910 and served for 24 years before being retired and scrapped in 1935.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I Invented Nothing New...

Henry Ford was an innovator. He brilliantly navigated the difficult task of building not just a car but a new industry. In his early and best days, he was open-minded and an egalitarian. He championed the needs of his workers to earn a decent wage. Despite popular lore, he didn't invent the assembly line. He hired the best people he could to help him make production more efficient so that his cars could be produced at a lower cost and be affordable to more people. They developed the automobile assembly adaptation of many earlier automation efforts including the automation in meat packing plants.

Ford recognized that his accomplishments were a function of his time and his timing. I love this quote from Ford about his role in invention:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work...Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.

-Henry Ford

Some might say that Ford changed the world. Ford might say that he was there when the world changed and he took advantage of that tectonic shift in the industrialization of America.

Ford's later life is a much more troubled and troubling story. But perhaps we should remember him for what he did best. I think we would all like to be treated similarly.

[Image of Ford from Wikipedia]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Remembering Projects

Almost everyone likes to think back over their experiences and remember those projects that were successful. It is just human nature to somehow ascribe the outcome to our own efforts. And it is easy to dismiss the projects that don't make it as having been undone by things beyond our control. We love to put ourselves in the best light possible. We rarely like to celebrate our failures.

Today, Nov. 19th, marks two events that had very different outcomes. In 1959, Ford Motor Company announced that they were pulling the plug of the Edsel after only two years. Today also marks the successful landing of Apollo 12 on the moon in 1969. Either of these projects might have gone the other way. Imagine a successful Edsel that is still with us today and a failed Apollo 12. It could have happened. It almost did.

The Edsel has become synonymous with a product flop. People ascribe the failure to all sorts of things: ugly styling, quality problems, bad marketing, stupid name. But it is quite possible that the Edsel was the victim of bad timing. The car was begun in the early 1950's to allow Ford to better compete against GM. Ford needed a "middle" line that would sell against the Oldsmobile. Ford's Lincoln was an alternative to the Olds rather than the more upscale GM Cadillac. The Edsel was intended to move the Lincoln up and give Ford a stronger lineup.

The Edsel was introduced in late 1957. Within months, the country had gone into recession and big, gas guzzling cars lost popularity. American Motors had introduced the Rambler. Small and fuel efficient, it became the number three best selling car in the U.S. during the late 50's. The Edsel sat in the dealer's showrooms.

The recession may not have been the real reason for the Edsel's demise. I wonder, though, how people on the Edsel team feel? Do they think they were cheated out of a success story by the fates of the economy? Do they tell themselves it was a problem with squabbles in the executive suite (this was the period when Robert McNamara was bringing his "whiz kid" efficiency to Ford)? Do they tell their grandkids, "I worked on the Edsel and it was the highpoint of my career."? Somehow, I doubt it.

Now look at Apollo 12. Pete Conrad and Alan Bean became the third and fourth men in history to walk on the moon. But they might not have. When Apollo 12 was launched on November 14, 1969, it was raining. In fact, on the way into orbit, the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening knocking out the telemetry feeds that were vital to the mission. It was only quick thinking on the part of a mission controller and Alan Bean in the Command Module that allowed for a manual override at the last minute. Telemetry was restored and the mission did not have to be aborted (it was already moving into that flight mode at the time telemetry was reestablished). Apollo 12 was a great success. I am certain that the people who worked on that program recount their roles with great pride (as they should).

My point is that each of these stories could have turned out differently. Each was beset by circumstances beyond people's immediate control. One succeeded. One didn't. We tend to take credit for the ones that do. Sometimes we deserve the credit. But a lot of times we are just lucky. Or not.

Technology stories are like sports. We like to be associated with the winners. But some of the greatest advancements come from projects that didn't make it. But failure teaches, success rarely does. Maybe the Edsel launched new technology that made Ford a great success in other areas. I am sure we learned not to launch rockets in the rain. Maybe people should look back and feel good about the learning more than the outcome. Easy for me to say.

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We
often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do. He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

Samuel Smiles
(1812-1904, Scottish author)

Quote for the Day

Here is a short passage from the biography, Edison, by Matthew Josephson which speaks to the relationship between the inventor and the business person:

To make an invention, even to possess the talent to do this, was, however, not enough. Capital and plant and the commercial ability to win acceptance for one’s product from the public were needed. Now, the “business talent” for promoting an invention and bringing it to market, as Jermey Bentham, the philosopher of utilitarianism, had written long ago, seemed to occur in men “in inverse proportion to the talent for creating inventions.” As Bentham defines the problem, your typical “poor inventor” must somehow “penetrate the antechamber of the rich or the noble whom it may be necessary to persuade… Admitted to their presence, how will the necessitous man of genius behave when he has arrived there? Often he will lose his presence of mind, forget, stammer…and retire, indignant that his merits should be misappraised.” Obsessed with his overruling idea, he remains unware of related problems and practical conditions which must be dealt with before his novel product can be brought to general use. Novelty itself is a disadvantage, inasmuch as most men are wont to cling to antique equipment still useful to them, while fearing to “waste” money on some device of uncertain value and future. The inventor, meanwhile, thinks only of what is in his own mind and not of the calculations and anxieties of his prospective patrons. “Thus”, Bentham concluded sagely, “in every career of invention…minds should be attended by an acchoucher,” one who has, primarily, the gift of persuasion, one who “knows the world, half-enthusiast, half-rogue.” On such matters wiser words were never uttered.

[Image of Thomas Edison with his first phonograph, Wikipedia]

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Mouse that Roared

On this date (November 17) in 1970, the first patent for a computer mouse was issued to Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was working at SRI, heading a lab he called the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). The device he created was called a "mouse" because the cord that came out of the back of the device loked like the tail of that little critter.

Engelbart was (still is) a genius at seeing how computing can enhance thinking. He was an early developer of the ARPANET which was the precursor of the internet. Engelhart now runs a small organization called The Bootstrap Institute which is dedicated to taking on large-scale problems using collective intelligence enabled by computational tools.

When I was looking up Engelbart on Wikipedia, I was disturbed to read the following:

SRI's management, which disapproved of Engelbart's approach to running the center, placed the remains of ARC under the control of artificial intelligence researcher Bertram Raphael, who negotiated the transfer of the laboratory to a company called Tymshare... At Tymshare, Engelbart soon found himself marginalized and relegated to obscurity--operational concerns at Tymshare overrode Engelbart's desire to do further research.

This marginalization of the inventor by the business person happens so often. I have seen it in my own corporate experience. The history of technology overflows with similar stories. Why does this happen? Is it a clash of personalities? Ego? The Money?

I think part of the answer comes from the fundamentally different worldviews of the inventor and the business person. Inventors are divergent thinkers. They see the future in terms of exanding possibility. Many would not describe themselves as practical. They seek creation and successful creation is its own reward. Business is convergent. It seeks ever-increasing focus and discipline. Efficient production of a product to maximize profits is the goal. Invention (after the first one that gives birth to a product) is annoying. Inventors keep distracting the business person from their focus on the current product and maximizing sales and profits.

Most inventors I know (and have read about) are not good (translation: lousy) business people. They are just not wired for it. Edison was a great inventor and even started a lot of companies but he did not have the commercial relentlessness to focus on any of his ideas for that long. His goal was not the scaling-up of his companies but the next new creation.

The converse is also true: few business people could invent anything. They don't have that creative gene that sparks the inventor. They can think of new ways to grow their companies. They might even be superb marketers. But they are not inventors. Steve Jobs come to mind here. Jobs is a superb visionary of market trends and customer wants. And he is also renowned as a ruthless business person. Jobs saw the work of Engelbart and others from both SRI and XEROX Parc and recognized the value of the Graphical User Interface (GUI). He relentless drove this idea into the market with the first MacIntosh computer. But he could never have invented it.

In our culture, money speaks. Business feeds on invention. Invention that is not moved into the market may be clever, interesting, perhaps even mind-boggling. But it is not available for use and hence has limited value to society. Money is the measure of value so perhaps it is not surprising that business people are our current heroes. Jobs is a living legend. But Engelbart should be a household name, too. How many people know his name? Hail the inventors! Or, to hell with the inventors!

You decide.

[Image of Engelbart's mouse from Wikipedia]

Sharpening Your Points

We live in a world of technology that is beyond our comprehension. I say that with some humility having spent most of my adult life working in high technology. I still don't understand how lots of things work. But I don't tell people that. If the topic comes up and I don't know an answer, I make one up (my wife catches me in these all the time). Given the rapid state of development of technology on so many fronts, it is a wonder that we aren't in a state of perpetual techno-angst. Or maybe we are and just don't know it.

My wife brought this topic to mind when she remembered a story about a friend of hers who some years ago was taking her car in for service. When my wife asked what service was being done, her friend responded, "They have to sharpen the points." For those of you younger than say forty, you can read about old auto ignition systems at Wikipedia. Despite their name, contact points are not sharpened! Cars don't have points anymore as the ignition is now entirely electronic. A simple but troublesome electromechanical system has been replaced with a reliable system (but non-serviceable system by the average weekend mechanic).

I think a lot of us do what my wife's friend did. We like to pretend that we understand the technology we live with but we really don't. How many times have you seen a stalled car on the side of the road with a man looking under the hood as though somehow the problem will be obvious. In newer cars, opening the hood only reveals a large plastic cover over virtually the entire engine compartment leaving nothing visible. If the problem is anything more than a loose part (which is highly unlikely), a computer will be needed just to diagnose the problem. Opening the hood and staring at the engine is just a ritual left over from the days when you could see the engine...and things did come loose.

Should we know more about the technology around us? Is that even possible? I think we should know where to go when we have a question. Mostly, we need to know enough to fix the simple things, the ones that make me look dumb when somebody points out that my thermocrockle isn't plugged in. My suggestions: (1) read the owner's manual! It's amazing how much is in these things. Even better, (2) Google the problem. You would be amazed at the specific information you can find by typing in half a dozen search terms.

Like most people, my mode of operation is to assume everything will function forever... until I am rudely disappointed by some glitch or problem. Then I start on the triage list above to see if I can fix it. Most of the time, I can either solve it myself, or if (1) and (2) fail, I call in the cavalry (my son the Geek, the garage mechanic, the tech support line, etc).

So far, our psyches seem to be staying one step ahead of our everyday technologies. But techno-angst is rampant in the land. If all else fails, remember that a mere thirty years ago, most of what is giving us migraines didn't even exist. We will survive without it...if we must. I hope.

[Image of contact points from Wikipedia]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's Just Tape

I gave blood yesterday. After inserting the needle, the technician secured the tube to my arm with a couple of pieces of medical tape. I know about medical tape. People look at a piece of tape and have no idea how much technology is in this seemingly simple product.

The tape she used on my arm is a product called Transpore. It's made by 3M, probably the greatest tape company in history. The number of distinct tapes that 3M manufacturers number in the hundreds. Scotch tape, electrical tape, box-sealing tape, automotive tape, tape for sticking to just about anything you can name. And medical tape. Medical tapes, actually. Again, there are dozens of them, each with its own characteristics and uses. But my point is not to celebrate a company but to look at a technology.

Tape looks simple. Get some sort of backing and slap on an adhesive and you have tape, right? I used to think that, too. But making a high quality tape pushes the state-of-the-art in the chemistry of adhesives, in new materials, in manufacturing process control, and in product test and acceptance. Some of the best chemists I know have spent their entire careers working to provide the adhesives that are so easily overlooked in a piece of tape.

Medical tape use to come in one form: Regular Adhesive Tape (commonly called RAT tape by doctors and nurses). This tape was about all there was before the 1960's. It had a cloth backing and a rubber-based adhesive. It would tear your skin off (literally) when it was removed and it left a gummy, dirty residue behind that was about impossible to get off. The adhesive was also a skin irritant for a lot of people. It didn't let skin moisture out and if left on the skin long enough, the skin actually would start to die underneath it.

In the late 50's and early 60's, 3M thought they could take what they had learned in their industrial and consumer tapes and make something better than RAT tape. It took years to work out the details of a new, non-irritating adhesive. New polymer backings had to be invented. New ways of testing tape on real skin were developed (industrial tape is tested by peeling it off steel plates, not a very good model of skin). New manufacturing processes had to be brought on line to handle the new chemistries and materials. The results were a big step forward over RAT tape and immediately appreciated by doctors, nurses, and patients.

These tapes have been improved almost continuously since they were first introduced over forty years ago. The number of people involved in the development and manufacturing would astound you. And most of us take it for granted. Like many things in our world that work well and are just...well, there. Maybe this is the best testament to a technology. It is so good, we take it for granted.

The technician peeled the pieces of tape off my arm (no pain involved) and I walked out of the Bloodmobile. I must say, I smiled a bit. It was good to give blood. It was good to see again this "simple" piece of tape.

[Photo of Transpore from 3M Website]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robert Fulton, American Entrepreneur

Yesterday, I wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was supposed to be an engineer but he became a writer. Today is Robert Fulton's birthday (born November 14, 1765). Fulton began his career as an artist at age 17 in Philadephia. He later moved to England to paint portraits and landscapes under the tutelage of he well-known artist, Sir Benjamin West. While artistically successful, Fulton was not satisfied with the living he could make from his art. He gave it up to become an entrepreneur. His early success was in devising more efficient means to dig English Canals. Later (1797), he moved to Paris to pursue his fortunes.

I mentioned Fulton in an earlier posting as one of the would-be developers of the submarine as a naval weapon. Fulton tried to sell his submarine idea to the French to defeat the English Navy. When they showed little interest, he tried selling the same idea to the English to defeat the French Navy. The English also declined and so he tried to sell the idea to the American Navy. The Americans were willing to underwrite his experiments and he continued to work in war armaments all the way through the War of 1812 (although none of his submarines, mines, or other ideas ever had much of an impact).

Fulton was nothing if not enterprising. Fulton met Robert Livingston while both lived in France in 1801/1802. Livingston was President Jefferson's minister to France and he was negotiating with Napolean for the Louisiana Purchase. But Livingston had long had an interest in steamboats on the Hudson and he and Fulton struck a deal to begin working on steamboat prototypes while both were in France. Fulton actually succesfully demonstrated a rough prototype on the Seine (about where the Eiffel Tower now stands) on Aug. 9th, 1803. At this same time, Fulton ordered a steam engine from Boulton and Watt in England for delivery to New York to power his Hudson River steamboat. He never told Watt his plans for the engine because Watt had a very low opinion of the use of steam engines to power boats and was unlikely to sell him one for this purpose.

Fulton arrived back in New York City in December of 1806 ready to begin building his Hudson River steamboat. Fulton installed his new Boulton and Watt engine his newly constructed boat and successfully steamed up the Hudson on August 17th, 1807. Contrary to middle school history classes, the steamboat was not named the Clermont. It was known simply as the North River Steamboat. Clermont was the name of Livingston's estate and the boat began to be known by that name in later years.

Fulton died at age 49 on February 23, 1815. He was returning from New Jersey to New York. When the ferry service across the river could not reach shore because of heavy ice, he and a colleague got out of the boat and started walking to shore. His colleague fell through some thin ice and Fulton grabbed him and pulled him out getting thoroughly wet in the process. He developed an infection which turned into pneumonia.

Fulton is often hailed as the inventor of the steamboat. Not true. There were many earlier steamboat inventors both in the U.S. and Europe. John Fitch operated such a boat on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania at least 20 years before Fulton. But Fulton was something that Fitch and the others were not; he was a successful (some would say ruthless) entrepreneur. Fame often goes to the those who name is associated with the commercial success of an invention. Fulton is a classic example. Robert Fulton, American Inventor, should be known as American Entrepreneur. And in America that can be a high honor.

[Much of what I know of Fulton comes from Andrea Sutcliffe's wonderful book, Steam, the Untold Story of America's First Great Invention. I highly recommend it as a complete story of the development of early steamboats in America.]

[Image from Wikipedia]

Robert Louis Stevenson: Son of a Lighthouse Engineer

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850. His father, Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, were distinguished builders of lighthouses. Thomas wanted his son Robert to follow in the family tradition and study to become a lighthouse engineer. But young Robert did not have the aptitude or physical stamina for the profession. He had life-long respiratory problems, perhaps inherited from his mother.

Robert Louis Stevenson (he changed the spelling of his middle name from Lewis to Louis when he was 18) was always interested in literature. His father tried to discourage the boy but when Thomas saw that his son was not going to become an engineer he encouraged him to study law just to have a profession to fall back on. Young Stevenson completed his law studies at age 25 but he never practiced.

Robert Louis Stevenson translated his family's love for the sea into many of his stories and novels. He always felt proud to be part of such a strong technical tradition. In his essays, Memories and Portraits (1887), Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of his family:

[H]olding as the Stevensons did a Government appointment they regarded their original work as something due already to the nation, and none of them has ever taken out a patent. It is another cause of the comparative obscurity of the name: for a patent not only brings in money, it infallibly spreads reputation; and my father's instruments enter anonymously into a hundred light-rooms, and are
passed anonymously over in a hundred reports, where the least
considerable patent would stand out and tell its author's story.

Robert Louis Stevenson was quite correct about his father's contributions. Thomas Stevenson not only designed dozens of lighthouses and shore lights, he also invented the revolving light that allowed a beacon to give a time signal in addition to a location. This added significantly aided mariners to be certain of their position. Thomas Stevenson also invented the Stephenson Screen for enclosing meteorological instruments.

Robert Louis Stevenson never left the sea. His many novels and stories including Kidnapped and Treasure Island celebrate a nautical life that he learned as a young man at his father's side. Robert Louis Stevenson died in 1894 in Samoa at age 44 . Both he and his father changed the world in their own ways. But each provided light to the world.

[Image: Chicken Rock Lighthouse off the Isle of Man built by Thomas Stevenson in 1875. Image from Wikipedia]

Monday, November 12, 2007

Galileo's Door

I was in Rome in September. We were walking from the Forum to the Pantheon when our guide, Francesca, commented almost as an aside about yet another Catholic church that we were passing. The door on the side of the church was the very door that Galileo Galilei had passed through when he was called by the Catholic Inquisition in 1633. This literally stopped me in my tracks. I had just seen the eyepiece of Galileo's telescope at the Science Museum in Florence.

Galileo was called to Rome to defend himself from charges of heresy. He had observed that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the solar system. The Catholic Church had objected to Galileo's science as early as 1616 but it was not until 1633 that he was forced to recant under a threat of death. By then, Galileo was an old man and very ill. To survive, he swore that the earth indeed was the center of the universe and that all of his prior teachings were in error. He was sentenced to house arrest in Florence for the rest of his life.

This story gives an extreme example of the reaction to any revolutionary new idea that threatens the status quo. At first, the church tried soft techniques to get Galileo to change. But when more of the Enlightened actually started listening to what Galileo had to say, and particularly when Galileo started to make the Pope look foolish, the Inquisition used all of its power to squelch his ideas.

How often does this still happen today? The church no longer has an Inquisition but the majority of people still reject revolutionary ideas as being "heretical, or crazy, or simply wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if an idea hasn't been initially rejected, it probably isn't revolutionary. Modern physics provides many examples. Relativity Theory, the Big Bang, Quarks, and the duality of photons come to mind. Each was met with derision and skepticism. The authors of these ideas were probably not threatened with their lives but they were threatened with their livelihoods.

Why do revolutionary ideas upset us so much? One possible reason is that we need to remain in control. We have a mental model that explains how the world works. If that model is wrong, we are clearly out of control...and hence vulnerable. Another possibility is that that powerful individuals and groups are highly vested in the status quo, with their remaining in their positions of power.

Revolutionary ideas are never accepted without a fight. But at least we don't burn the idea's originator at the stake. But each one of these people has walked through his or her own form of Galileo's Door.

The human mind treats a new idea the same way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it.

- P.B. Medawar

(Photos: Galileo's Door, Painting of Galileo Inquisition from Wikipedia)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Quote for the Day

"These familiar examples [of the atomic bomb, cotton gin, steam engine] deceive us into thinking that other major inventions were also responses to perceived needs. In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers come to feel that they "needed" it. Still other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging for the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.[Italics mine]"

- Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Stop the Train!

I guess I never thought about it. I always assumed that trains had brakes. Not so it seems. In the early days, when trains wanted to slow down or stop the engineer used the force of the steam engine to provide braking power. But when trains started pulling more than a car or two and the cars got heavier, well, the steam engine just didn't have the muscle to deal with all that inertia. Somebody figured out how to add simple brakes to the train cars. The brakes were manually applied on each car by a team of brakemen who ran the length of the train turning handwheels on each car. Because they had to run the length of the tops of the cars (which had no handrails), it is no wonder that so many brakemen had short careers..and lives.

Even with these simple brakes, trains running into each other or objects on the track was a regular part of early railroading. The problem was well-recognized and various ideas were tried to improve the situation but none of them worked. Then, George Westinghouse got into the act.

Westinghouse was an energetic young inventor who worked on solving the problems of the rapidly emerging railroad industry just after the Civil War. Westinghouse had invented and patented and improved component for a switch called a "frog". He also invented a "car replacer" that helped to put derailed cars back on the track more easily.

Westinghouse understood the need for better brakes while he was waiting on a train that was delayed. Two other trains ahead of his train on the same track had collided. He figured that better brakes might have prevented the accident.

Setting to work, Westinghouse tried a number of brake ideas that didn't prove to be useful. He worked on the idea of connecting the brakes to the couplers between the cars. When the cars naturally clumped together as the train decelerated, the compressed couplers would put on the brakes. Like a lot of logical ideas, this was better in theory than in practice. He next thought of using steam pressure to activate the brakes. That had problems with loss of pressure over the long steam lines as the steam cooled.

Westinghouse was nothing if not tenacious and wouldn't give up on a solution. By chance, he saw an article in a magazine about the use of compressed air to run the drills that were being used to bore a tunnel through Mount Cenis in Switzerland. He immediately saw the advantages of compressed air over steam and set about putting together an air brake system.

Working out of a shop in Pittsburgh, he built a demonstration model in 1868. But no railroad owner was willing to test the fool thing. Then W.W. Card of the Panhandle Railroad offered to let Westinghouse put the system on one of the shorter passenger trains that ran from Pittsburgh to Steubenville. As luck would have it, on the very first run, a horse and wagon got stuck on the tracks ahead of the train and the engineer had to make an emergency stop. The engineer grabbed the brake lever and brought the train to a halt four feet from the horses and wagon. Needless to say, this made a big impression on the railroaders and Westinghouse had obtained their interest.

Westinghouse was able to quickly capitalize his new company to the tune of half a million dollars and presided over the Westinghouse Air Brake Company at the age of 23. You might think that the new air brakes were an overnight success. But nothing is an overnight success, not even an invention as clearly needed as this. It took years but finally, all trains were equipped with his revolutionary air brakes. Congress even mandated railroad brake safety standards in the 1890's that could only be met with a system such as Westinghouse's.

Westinghouse was never one to live on his laurels. He quickly turned his attention to the next big problem in railroading: signaling and train control. Engineers needed a way to know if the track ahead was clear. Westinghouse formed the Union Switch and Signal Company to bring a modern control system to the railroads.

Westinghouse went on to making inventions and starting businesses in natural gas for lighting. But perhaps his greatest achievement was the formation of Westinghouse Electric Company to make AC power a practical reality. While Thomas Edison rightfully deserves the credit for demonstrating the utility of an electric power system, his DC system could only power a grid that was within a mile of the power station. Westinghouse saw the advantages of AC power for long distance transmission of power over smaller, more affordable wires. After a long dual between AC and DC systems, Westinghouse's AC approach finally carried the day at the turn of the 20th century.

Westinghouse was a man who was not defined by a single technology or industry. He was not just an inventor but also a business innovator. He truly was one of the greatest of the 19th century technologists.

(Image of George Westinghouse from Wikipedia)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Quote for the Day

I'm always amazed that there aren't more people who work on technology and science because I think that's the easiest way to change the world.

Larry Page, Google Co-Founder

It Takes Three to Tango

In my years as an R&D director at a global new products corporation, I had the opportunity to see many great ideas emerge from the labs. The old saw that "ideas are a dime a dozen" underrates good ideas, but a new idea certainly never guarantees that it will find it's way to the marketplace.

New ideas are very fragile. The more radical the idea, the more it lies outside whatever the company is currently doing, the more the "corporate immune system" rises up to quash the embryonic upstart. The reasons given are manifold "Its not our business." "We don't have anybody to work on it." "Its not in the budget." "We already tried that." New ideas have to run a long gauntlet to make it to commercial success.

Where I come from, there were three key roles that have to be filled to give any idea half a chance of getting over the obstacles. These roles are the Inventor, the Champion, and the Sponsor. Each is critical and each is different.

The Inventor is pretty easy to understand. It is the person with the idea. But sometimes it may not be the person who had that first Spark. Maybe that person put the idea down, but not before mentioning it to a few of his or her friends and colleagues. Someone else may have thought more of the Spark and built on it. This may actually have happened multiple times. Finally though, someone had enough passion to be willing to push the (perhaps greatly modified) idea through the development and commercialization process. This person, in my book, is the Inventor. And they are worth their weight in gold.

The Champion is someone a little higher up the food chain who usually has more insight, experience, and pull in the organization. This might be the Inventor's boss or the head of the R&D unit. But it has to be someone who has credibility with senior management. The Champion puts their neck on the line along with the Inventor to push the idea. The Champion can put some local resources into the project that the Inventor doesn't have. The Champion often is the one who builds a business case around what is largely a technical idea. In some ways, the Champion takes a bigger risk than the Inventor because pushing bad ideas can be a real career killer.

The Sponsor is someone in senior management who has far more resources at their disposal and has the ability to fend off the corporate immune system. Often the Sponsor has the ability to move the idea to someplace in the company where it can be nurtured and protected. The sponsor is high enough up to have not just R&D resources but also manufacturing and marketing resources to augment the effort. The Sponsor protects not just the idea but the Champion and the Inventor in case something out of their control goes awry.

Without the Inventor, there are only incremental product modifications. Nothing really new appears. Without the Champion, the Inventor is left unprotected and under nourished. The very thing that makes the Inventor great, a gift for new product ideas, is what keeps them away from the management chain (with all of its bureaucracy and politicking). Without the Sponsor, at least in larger companies, the incessant demand to resource today's products and business demands leaves nothing for the next generation.

In many of the examples I have written about, these roles can get muddied. Mostly, the vignettes I have presented pre-date the modern company. But even in most of these older examples most of the roles can be found if you look for them. Yesterday, I wrote about Drebbel and the submarine. His patron (translate to Sponsor) was King James I. But Drebbel also had a Champion. He worked directly for the Admiralty's armament group and there he found people who were willing to support his ideas. In fact, when one of those people died late in Drebbel's life, he lost his Champion and eventually his Sponsor as well.

The bottom line is that new ideas never make their mark on the world without a team of people playing different roles. It doesn't matter if we talk about a modern corporation or about an idea back in antiquity. No one does it alone. The myth of the "lone inventor" is just that, a myth. The more these three roles are recognized and consciously filled, the better the chances the idea has of making it into the world we live in every day. Or so it seems to me.

(Image: The Dancing Lesson, from Wikipedia)