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)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

You've Heard of the Nautilus, How About the Drebbel?

Cornelius Drebbel died on this date, November 7th, in 1633. Who was Cornelius Drebbel? Born in 1572, Drebbel was a prolific Dutch inventor who spent many years in the the court of King James I of England. Drebbel earned the patronage of King James for his invention of a "Perpetual Mobile" which ran without ever needing winding. Drebbel himself explained that the mobile derived its power from a mechanism that depended on differences in atmospheric pressure. Nonetheless, the curious device attracted a lot of attention and even brought him later patronage from the court of Rudolph in Prague.

Drebbel (unlike Ritty who I wrote about a couple of days ago) seems to have been a prolific inventor. He is credited not only with his perpetual mobile but the compound microscope, the thermostat, new dyes, a new thermometer, and the first successful example of a submarine.

Drebbel was not the first to describe a submerged vehicle but he seems to be the first to have actually built one that worked. The largest of his three prototypes actually made a submerged trip down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich and back. The vessel could carry 16 men. It was basically a modified row boat with the sides of the boat extended upward over the heads of the rowers to form a watertight compartment. The boat's buoyancy was controlled by pig bladders under the rower's seats. The bladders were filled with water to submerge. The water was expelled by hand pressure to re-surface.

While King James seemed to be impressed with the submarine, the admirals of the Royal Navy were not and Drebbel's idea went nowhere. Submarine ideas kept re-surfacing (bad pun, I know) over the next several hundred years with plans from multiple inventors including Robert Fulton of steamboat fame.

Like most inventors, Drebbel never prospered financially from his many inventions and he died a near pauper in 1633. But the idea of a submarine had been demonstrated and it would long outlive him. So you may have heard of the Nautilus (either Jules Verne's version, Fulton's design, or the more recent nuclear powered sub) but Drebbel was where it all began.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Quote for the Day

Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.

-Albert Einstein

Monday, November 5, 2007

Some Observations on Innovation

I'm curious about invention and innovation. We enjoy the fruits of not only today's innovations but also the world that was created by past innovations. Here is a list of a few of my thoughts about innovation. I invite you to add to the list or correct me if I am off base.

1. People have always been innovative.
2. People were just as intelligent 5000 years ago as they are today.
3. Innovation arises from both need and the desire to create.
4. Innovations can be lost as well as gained.
5. Innovations must be received by the community to succeed.
6. Applied innovations are mostly based on serial improvements.
(Who really invented the ------?)
7. Innovations do not depend on scientific understanding (but can be greatly aided by it).
8. Innoations often come from the diffusion of ideas.
9. Successful innovation seems to couple an inventor with an entrepreneur.
10. Innovation is more likely when there are multiple sources of sponsorship.
11. Patents are not a good measure of innovation.
12. Innovations are constrained by the tools of their day.
13. Money is not the root cause of innovation.
14. Innovation runs in cycles which can be reinforced or dampened.

Understanding these factors can help would-be innovators and inventors achieve their goals: having their work make a difference.

George Selden and the Automobile

Yesterday, I wrote about the invention of the cash register. Today marks another important patent anniversary. On this date in 1895, George Selden was granted his patent on the automobile. This was to prove to be both highly lucrative and highly contested in the seminal automobile industry.

As a young man, Selden was more or less pushed into Yale Law School by his father, Judge Henry R. Selden. Young George did not do too well at the law, he was more interested in tinkering in his shop. But he did finish law school and actually practiced for awhile, even representing George Eastman's photography interests.

Selden was interested in the idea of an automobile, long before such a machine was practical. Many people were interested in this same concept. Working with some skilled mechanics, he developed a prototype and filed for a patent in May, 1879. He did not commercialize his automobile though. At that point in time, no one could build a practical automobile because there wasn't a light enough gasoline engine to power such a vehicle. Selden must not have been asleep during all of his law classes because he recognized that for the patent to have commercial value, it must issue just before automobiles started to be manufactured in quantity for commercial sale. Selden amended his patent claims four times, delaying its issuance for 16 years! When it finally did issue in 1895, the automobile industry was about to be born.

Selden licensed his patent rights to William C. Whitney who was proposing to build electric taxi cabs for the New York market. Whitney and Selden together formed the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM). They intended to extract an upfront payment and a 0.75% royalty on every automobile built in America. Most car manufacturers agreed to the terms rather than fight it in court. But a group headed by Henry Ford decided to fight ALAM. Ford and his group eventually won because the engine in Selden's patent was based on a type of gasoline engine using the Brayton Cycle and the engine actually used by commercial auto makers was based on the Otto Cycle. ALAM was defeated in appeals court in 1911 but not before ALAM had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. The Selden patent was never declared to be invalid but it expired in 1912 shortly after the appeals court ruled in favor of Ford.

Did the Selden Patent (and the formation of ALAM) help the fledgling automobile industry? No, in fact it inhibited the industry. It was a classic example of extracting value from what was arguably not an invention at all. Many people had envisioned the coupling of engines with wagons to make a self-powered vehicle. It took a very strong man, Henry Ford, to stand up to ALAM and defeat what was essentially an attempt to control the early automobile industry.

Image from Wikipedia

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Where Do Inventions Come From?

On November 4, 1879, James Ritty of Dayton, Ohio received a patent for the "Ritty Incorruptible Cashier", the first cash register. Ritty ran a saloon in Dayton in which he billed himself as a "Dealer in Pure Whiskies, Fine Wines, and Cigars". Ritty's problem was that the hired help kept purloining the cash from the customers. Ritty needed a way to insure the money made it to the till. Except there wasn't any till, perhaps just a cash box. Recording transactions left a lot to be desired.

Ritty took a steamship to Europe in 1878. While aboard ship, he was shown a device that through the use of rotating disks could give a readout of the revolutionary speed of the propeller shaft. [This was most likely a modification of the planimeter which had been adapted to this purpose in about the same period]. When Ritty got home, he immediately set to work with his brother, John, who was a skilled craftsman to use the rotating disk idea to keep count of the money in each customer transaction. It took three prototypes to get it right but they finally did develop a successful machine. The first cash register had no cash drawer, just a clock-like dial [see picture above from the Smithsonian Instiution] and a bell to signal transactions. Ritty and his brother started a company to manufacture his invention but the going was slow and Ritty soon needed to spend his time on his saloon business. He sold the company to Jacob Eckert who formed the National Manufacturing Company. Eckert in turn sold the company in 1884 to John H. Patterson who changed the name to the National Cash Register Company. NCR, of course, exists to this day as a major player in the cash register and computer industry.

So my question: "Where do inventions come from?" Ritty seems to have invented nothing else in his life. Why would this seemingly common problem that every small businessman had to deal with stick with him in such a way that he would see a connection with the speed indicator of a ship's propeller shaft? What spark went off in his head that said he could convert the idea to a cash counter? Ritty didn't even have the technical skills to make his idea real. That was left to his brother.

Inventions are strange. The spark that creates an idea can be almost a mystical event, one that lies in the same realm as that of the great writer or composer. No one seems to be able to define where this spark of creativity comes from. But where would we be without it? Because of a propeller shaft speed indicator, the cash register...and later NCR...was born.