Saturday, June 23, 2007

Before Fossil Fuel

At the moment, we are touring New England and our stop brought us to Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. This is the first time I have been to the museum and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in all things maritime. While I am fascinated by the ships and machinery (which my wife sees as a "guy" thing), she loved the buildings and grounds with its beautiful landscaping and unique setting.

I particularly wanted to see the whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan. I built a model of the Morgan as a kid. It was from a Revell kit as I remember. I managed to string all the thread to give the ship the right "fully-rigged" look. I remember being enthralled with the idea of a whaling ship. Maybe it was that I watched Gregory Peck as the mad Captain Ahab obsessing over the Great White Whale.

When I went aboard the Morgan today, it was immediately clear that this ship was really a floating factory. While it took the whalers out to find the whales, it real purpose was to process and store large quantities of processed blubber. The Morgan extracted more than 54 thousand barrels of whale oil during its 80 year career. That oil lit the lamps of generations of homes and businesses. When fossil-based oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, the whale oil business started into as steep decline and within two decades that reason for whaling was gone.

Whales are still, unfortunately, hunted today but not for the oil. I just read last week that a large whale was killed by whalers and the whale carried a harpoon from an earlier attack almost a century ago. Too bad the whale didn't escape the second time. The crew of the Morgan didn't know anything about conservation and probably wouldn't have cared if they had known. They were just trying to make a living as best they could. But in its working life, the Morgan did its fair share of damage to the world whale population.

When I saw the Morgan today, some of the bloom had come off the rose that I felt about her as a kid. The ship did not seem so romantic. It seemed like a well-preserved factory. I doubt that I will be building another model of her.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Monday, June 18, 2007


I was down at an art festival yesterday that also had an old car show associated with it. I guess the organizers figured that old cars were also art. I would agree (see my earlier post below). Anyway, there were a couple of old Corvairs among the Mustangs, GTOs, Corvettes, and a potpourri of other pieces of aging (but lovingly restored) metal. The reason the Corvairs caught my eye is that we used to own one. Well, two actually.

When my I met my wife to be, she was driving a 1965 Corvair 500 sedan that her father had given her to take to college in Ann Arbor. For her, this car spelled "freedom". She even named it Jude...What else would you name something at the height of the Beatles mania? This car was a sort of a dowry that came with our marriage. Not long after, it started to show its Michigan heritage as the floorboards disappeared to the ravages of salt-induced rust. So did this sour us on Corvairs? Of course not! We got another one, same age but this one was a Monza coupe. My logic was that the first one would provide parts for the second. I eventually pulled the engine out of Jude (sort of a heart transplant) and sent the dead body to Rest in Peace in a junkyard. The Monza purred along for another couple of years before we sold it to another suck..err, owner.

I bring all of this up because the Corvair was a great example of a car that was ahead of its time. The car was full of engineering innovations including a six-cylinder air-cooled rear engine, four-wheel fully independent suspension, unibody construction, and a body design that rivaled the best in Italy. It still looks relatively modern even today.

The Corvair had a relatively short life span. Most people think it was done in by Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed. In fact, it was actually killed by the Ford Mustang. The Corvair was initially designed in the late 1050s as an economy car to compete with the Rambler and the Lark but its innovative design put off many American buyers. It found a niche market with people that liked its small, sporty handling. It was sort of an affordable sports car. It did quite well in the market for a while. Ford saw the light and cobbled together the Mustang out of parts it had lying around the factory. The Mustang, introduced in 1965, was a smash hit. GM responded by shutting down the design of the next generation Corvair and moved the design team to work on the Camaro which was introduced in 1967.

The Corvair saw life only from 1960 to 1969 but its design legacy found root in the rear engine Porsches and the boxy styling of BMWs. In many ways, it was a better fit in the European market than the American market.

I still love the old Corvairs. Who knows? Maybe I'll succumb to the temptation and find myself a little beauty on eBay. And then again, maybe I will just remember the car fondly and leave it in that little compartment of my memory entitled "The Good Old Days".

Photo from Wikipedia

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Down By the Old Mill (River)

Yesterday, we had the chance to visit the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis for the first time. The Minnesota Historical Society has built the museum in the old Washburn Flour Mill site at St. Anthony Falls. This rugged old ruin of a building (the abandoned mill burned in 1991) is now a truly wonderful museum that has a great story to tell, the story of flour milling.

The mills came into being because of two things, the falls (water power) and the wheat fields of the Great Plains. Flour milling was the industry of Minneapolis comprising two-thirds of the manufacturing output of the city in the 1880s. The need for more and more people to work the mills drove the population of this little town west of St. Paul up 1300 percent in just 20 years. The mills even gave rise to the name of their baseball team, the Minneapolis Millers.

A central character in all of this was William de la Barre. He came to Minneapolis in the late 187os to try to sell dust collectors to the Washburn Company. The collectors were intended to remove the fine flour dust that had caused the Washburn mill to blow up the previous year, killing 14 people.

Washburn was not buying the untested technology so de la Barre installed three collectors with money out of his own pocket to demo the technology. It worked. The comapny bought 50 more and they hired de la Barre to oversee the construction of their new mill. He stayed for the rest of his life, retiring in the 1924. Along the way, de la Barre oversaw the installation of many new technologies including new steel grindstone rollers that dramatically increased flour production. He lead the group that was instrumental converting the mills from water power to electricity generated from hydro-electric plants built on the falls. This electricity not only powered the mills but also the Minneapolis electric street car line.

The sad ending to the story was that the mills went out of business because of changes in government import-export laws which favored the milling of Canadian wheat. By 1930, Buffalo had surpassed Minneapolis as the leading flour milling center in the country. By 1965, the mills were gone. These old buildings lay abandoned until they were rejuvenated into the museum that tells their tale today.

The museum is well worth a visit if you are ever in the Twin Cities. If the weather is accommodating, you can walk across the great Stone Arch Bridge that crosses the Mississippi right in front of the museum.

I know that I will never look at a bag of Gold Medal Flour the same way again.

"You are the like the rest of us. You have everything to learn and nothing to forget."
- C.C. Washburn to de la Barre on offering him the superintendent's position

Monday, June 11, 2007

Innovation Away From the Ball

From my Mac PowerBook Thesaurus:



No appliance manufacturer can survive without an ongoing commitment to innovation.

change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, breakthrough; new measures, new methods, modernization, novelty, newness; creativity, originality, ingenuity, inspiration, inventiveness; informal a shake up.

Why does it take so many words to describe something that, like pornography, we all know when we see it? For quite a while, I use to read all of the business articles and blog posts I could find on innovation. I quit reading them a few months ago. It's not that I am not interested in innovation. I think what has happened is that I am coming to believe that getting a real bead on innovation requires some distance, some perspective. That's why the older the innovation the more it informs my thinking. That's why I write about these anecdotes from history. What passes for innovation today is often just marketing hype. "New and Improved", says the ad or the label. Virtually nothing that is advertised today will be remembered as so much as a footnote in the histories of innovation that are written a hundred years from now.

There are themes that run through the stories here that intrigue me: action at the fringes, a near mono-maniacal focus on bringing an idea to life, constant nay-saying by detractors and outright hatred of the innovator by the establishment. These and many more are the constants that run through stories that are as old as the Greeks. Looking for these tattletales is a better indicator of where true innovation is taking place than any amount of writing in today's business press.

I remember a lecture I heard a while back by the essayist, Roger Rosenblatt. He was talking about paying attention by "looking away from the ball", using basketball as his analogy for life. By "looking away from the ball" he meant that you could see where the game was going rather than where it was at that moment. I think the same holds true for innovation. You have to look away to see the future. But like most things in your peripheral vision, it is only marginally visible. The trick is to learn to trust what you see out of the corner of your eye.

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.
- Winston Churchill

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Classic Automobiles

(1930 LaSalle)

Old cars fascinate me. I don't know why. Maybe I am just a guy. Even as a kid, I had much more interest in old cars than the current Detroit models (there were no others back then). I use to build plastic kits of old Ford Model T's and Model A's. When I was old enough to drive, a friend of mine and I decided to "restore" a 1931 Chevrolet Sedan. We found this old wreck in the junk yard out on City Limits Road. It had no wheels, no hood, no seats but it had a great chrome radiator. We paid to have a wrecker haul it down to a garage we had rented from an old man...Neither of our parents would have anything to do with having this junker in their garages. Our enthusiasm, however, outstripped our meager resources and after about a year, the man wanted his garage back. My friend and I had not so much as lifted a socket wrench. The car (can I call it that?) was just too expensive to fix. So we made another call to the wrecker company and the little '31 sedan was right back in the junk yard where it had started. And to add insult to injury, we had to pay the junk yard to take it back!

(Boattail Auburn)

You would think this would have killed all of my interest in old cars. But you would be wrong. I still answer to their siren song. Just today, I was out taking some pictures of some of our ornate buildings in St. Paul and what should I see in Rice Park but a classic car show. I was immediately hoofing it over to the park to see some real beauties from the 1920's and 30's. We're talking about Auburn, Cord, Packard, Cadillac, Buick, Lincoln and even a Rolls-Royce and Bentley for good measure. These restored machines are labors of love. You don't even want to breathe on them for fear that the owners will deck you for despoiling their babies.

It occurred to me that most of these cars came into being within 30 years of the automobile industry itself. Every one of them had a host of new innovations and the latest in automotive engineering technology. Most of the early company fallout that happens in any new industry had already happened. The hundreds of car companies that came into being at the turn of the last century had dwindled to a dozen or so. What the makers of some of the cars I saw today didn't know was that when these particular cars were made was that these companies, too, were heading for bankruptcy. Auburn, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker...all gone. It seems like GM, Ford, and Chrysler are going the same way in this century. Toyota and Honda are rapidly becoming the new GM and Ford. To paraphrase, "What's good for Toyota, is good for America".

Anyway, this afternoon I just looked and admired and thought about the '31 Chevy that long ago returned its iron to the earth from whence it came. But in some deep quiet part of me, I harbor the fantasy that I, too, will one day have such a beautiful testament to the days of glory of the automobile. And then I got into my Chrysler Minivan and drove back home.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Quotations for the Day

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.
- Voltaire

Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing.
- Wernher von Braun

Somebody is always doing what somebody else said couldn't be done.
- Author Unknown

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

William Caxton

Question: Where does innovation usually happen?
Answer: On the fringes of the established order.

Think Xerox PARC, 3000 miles from Xerox corporate headquarters and well out of site of the pressures of the short term P&L. But this is not new. Innovation always seems to grow in out-of-the-way places... places where you would least expect it.

Take the case of William Caxton. Caxton was the first person to bring printing to England. His story is remarkable on a number of accounts. Born in England in 1416, he spent most of his life as a wealthy merchant in Bruges (Belgium). He collected rare manuscripts and in 1469 even served the court of the Duchess of Burgundy after her marriage to Charles the Bold. Caxton had translated a three-volume history of Troy from Latin. It proved to be very popular in the Duchesses' court and she kept asking for more copies. Each one, of course, had to be hand copied. Apparently, Caxton got tired of producing the copies and decided to learn printing. This was barely 15 years after the printing of the Gutenberg Bible! He studied in Cologne in 1471 and 1472 and subsequently moved back to England in 1476 to set up a printing business in Westminster Abbey.

As someone rapidly approaching later life, I take some heart from the fact that Caxton reinvented himself as a printer at the age of 60! He brought English texts to the people including The Cantebury Tales and almost a hundred other popular titles. The English could now read for themselves. Caxton died some fifteen years later in 1491.

I read about William Caxton in a recent book by John H. Lienhard entitled, How Invention Begins. Lienhard makes the following point about Caxton's innovations.
Europe regarded England as a relative cultural backwater in the late fifteenth century. The fact that Caxton was operating outside of European high culture served him well. From his outside-the-box vantage point, he did far more than just take up printing. He brought populist literature to the people. Without Caxton there could not have been a Shakespeare. (p. 168)

An entry in Wikipedia adds a little more light on Caxton's work:

Caxton was not without his detractors. There was widespread unease amongst the Merchant Class of the time, who felt that if the printed page were to become widely available to the population, then it might filter through to the poor. The poor, it was believed, might then "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" and, ultimately, dissatisfied and aggrieved. This, it was felt, might lead to unrest and civil disturbance.

In challenging the wisdom of his critics, Caxton announced: "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong".

Caxton is a great example of "innovation at the fringe". His work changed the course of English literature, and subsequently our own. I 'm feeling like my own "reinvention" is needed about now. William would certainly understand. After all, he wrote the book.

(Image of Caxton's Printers Device (mark) from Wikipedia)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Anitkythera Mechanism

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a book entitled Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray. In the book, Murray attempts to "write the ultimate resume" for the human race. If you like lists, this is the book for you. He covers the 20 most important people and events in almost every field of science, technology, and art. His overall conclusion, by the way, is that human accomplishment has been on the decline for the last couple of hundred years. I know this flies in the face of the fact that this same period the spans most of the industrial revolution. But Murray is talking about a sort of normalized per capita accomplishment. For all of the six billion people on the planet, we just ain't making 'em like we use to.

But this isn't what caught my attention in the book. What really stopped me cold was a description in the early part of the book on an archaeological artifact that simply shouldn't exist. Murray brought my attention to what is called the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism is a corroded mass of bronze that was found at the bottom of the Aegean just off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Sponge divers found the wreck of an ancient ship that had sunk about 50 BC. Under a pile of amphorae and other early artifacts they found this blob of metal. Only it wasn't a blob. It appeared to have gears which were supposed to have been invented a thousand years later. The hunk was brought back to the Greek National Museum where much more started to become apparent as the artifact dried out and cracked open. It had many Greek characters inscribed on it as well as various lines that are the mark of a precision instrument. Nothing like it had been found before nor since from that era. It is a one-of-a-kind.

The mechanism sat as a curiosity in the museum for almost half a century. Some archaeologists did speculate on its function. Perhaps it was an astrolabe? Then Derek de Solla Price, a fellow at Princeton, picked up the trail. It became his life's obsession to detail the structure and function of this enigmatic device. Price concluded that the Mechanism was a very sophisticated astronomical clock that showed a wide variety of solar and lunar data. The "computation" was done by using sophisticated gearing, even including a differential gear which was not known to have existed until the Renaissance. Price thought his publications on the Mechanism would cause a complete re-write of Greek technology history. Wrong. It is amazing to me how something so spectacular can be overlooked.

But not by everyone. More recently, a British team has done an in-depth new analysis of the corroded artifact using a newly developed CT scanner to see inside the device. Their images are astounding. The Mechanism only becomes more beautiful. They published some of the preliminary results of their studies in Nature in November, 2006.

Within a week of my reading about the Antikythera Mechanism for the first time, John Seabrook published a terrific article about it in The New Yorker. It is well worth the read.

So what to make of all of this? Clearly, it is easy to underestimate what the ancients knew and were capable of making. I realize how arrogant and egocentric I am to feel that we have all of this technology when two thousand years ago someone could make something so sophisticated. And so beautiful. Can you imagine how this long-lost inventor must have felt when he/she learned that the device had gone to the bottom? It is enough to make you weep. It is also enough to make you sit back in awe now that it is back among the living.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Domes on My Mind

I feel like I am in some sort of convergence around the topic of domes. Perhaps it is the thinning hair on the top of my head. I am always surprised when I stand in front of one of those three-way mirrors you find in stores to see that there is an embarrassing thinning going on just out of sight. The old saw, "out of sight, out of mind" never seemed more fitting.

But back to more real domes. This last weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Cathedral of St. Paul (Minnesota). The dome is 96 ft in diameter and 175 feet high. The architect for the cathedral was Emmanual Masqueray who was the chief architect for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, MO. The Archbishop of the Immaculate Conception Parish of the Catholic Church in Minneapolis and St. Paul, John Ireland, had met Masqueray at the World's Fair and invited him to Minnesota to design not one but two large churches in the Twin the same time. St. Paul was to have a cathedral and Minneapolis was to have a pro-cathedral to be named the Basilica of St. Mary. The Cathedral of St. Paul (pictured here) is a beautiful building perched on a hill in view of yet another domed building, the Minnesota State Capital (pictured here). Both of these St. Paul domes provide an impressive skyline that would be the envy of most cities.

Coincidental with this anniversary, I have been reading Ross King's fascinating book, Brunelleschi's Dome. The book describes the way in which Brunelleschi built the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. This was no trivial matter. In fact, when the dome was conceived in the mid-1300s the architect Neri di Fioravanti had no idea how to actually build the dome and left it in the hands of God to provide someone who could do it when the time came. That time was 1418 when Fillipo Brunelleschi won a competition to build the dome. The catch was that Fillipo was very secretive and did not disclose exactly how he planned to carry it off. What he did do was build a 12 foot high model of the dome that showed some of the points of construction. This, along with some accolades from other work he had done convinced the judges to give the commission to Brunelleschi. Just to hedge their bets, however, they also appointed the other leading entrant, Loerenzo Ghiberti, as the co-leader on the project (even though Lorenzo had no idea how to build such a structure).

Brunelleschi took his inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. Built in 128 AD, the Pantheon still remains as the largest unreinforced solid concrete dome in the world (43. 4 meter in diameter, or 142.4 feet).
Brunelleschi took many design ideas from the Pantheon but the Duomo's dome was to be built from bricks and stone, not concrete (duomo is a generic Italian term for cathedral. It derives from the Latim "domo" meaning house). Brunelleschi conceived and built massive hoists and construction frameworks that allowed the structure to be built without any scaffolding connected to the ground. This was an unprecedented achievement. The dome (42 - 45 meters in diameter (137.8 - 147.6 feet) for it is octagonal, not round) was completed in 1436 and has withstood numerous earthquakes over the years without ever developing a crack. The structural engineering is nothing short of remarkable.

I would say that my hat's off to the designers of these great domes...except I keep my hat on as much as possible to shore up my own do(0)med vanity.

Pictures of Duomo, Pantheon, and Minnesota State Capital from Wikipedia