Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Highlights From My 2009 Reading

With the year (and the decade) drawing to a close, I thought I would give my own version of the ever-popular "best of" listings for the year.  When I went back over the books I read in 2009, I realized that  my selections are not to be found on any current bestseller list.  Truth be told, I am much happier burrowing like a mole into some musty corner of a used bookstore.  Nonetheless, I think the books below are definitely worth a look if you relate to anything I write here.  So here is my list in no particular order:

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, by William Cronon.  This book provides a fascinating history of the growth of Chicago. But moreover, Cronon describes how the city and its surroundings were inextricably linked. Without the Great West, there would be no Chicago.  He focuses on railroads, lumber, meat-packing, and commerce to illuminate his points.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larson.  This is to show that contrary to popular opinion around our house, I do indeed read novels.  This recent book tells the tale of a precocious young genius (Spivet) who wins a fellowship to the Smithsonian. What they don't understand is that Spivet is a 12-year-old boy from Montana.  The story is full of humor and interesting little drawings in the margins (supposedly drawn by Spivet, himself).  One of the things that captivated me was Larson's wonderful descriptions of the world including a Union Pacific freight train that Spivet hops to get to D.C.  Lots of fun.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning history from the Oxford History of the United States series is long, detailed, and very really well-written.  Howe makes that blank period in my understanding of American history come to life.  For those who find current events to be full of partisan bickering and yearn for the "good old days", Howe makes it clear that things haven't changed.  There has always been partisan bickering (and worse). The title is the famous line that Morse used to open the telegraph which was one of the two technology revolutions that Howe talks about.  The other was the railroad.  Worth the read despite the length

The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America: 1865 - 1900, by Jack Beatty.  I added this one to the list with mixed feelings.  Beatty lays out a litany of Gilded Age sins in this book but I found his treatment to be sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious.  His narratives on the injustices committed against the recently-emancipated slaves in the South will make your blood boil.  His descriptions of some of the rulings of the Supreme Court of that era should do the same but these are less clearly told. Still worth the read.

Invention in America:  With Images from the Library of Congress, by Russell Bourne.  This slim volume is very well-written and well-illustrated.  Bourne does a great job in looking under the hood of American invention to fill in the blanks on much of what we think we know on the topic.

Wedding the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, by Peter L. Bernstein.  The Erie Canal really was a Big Deal.  Bernstein tells the tale of the politics behind its construction, the engineering prowess of the amateurs who built the canal, and the canal's impact on American history. It was the marvel of its age - and deservedly so.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, by James Green.  Before reading this book, I had this fuzzy image that, yes, there was something special about the "Haymarket" but I couldn't have told you what it was.  Green's book brings history to life, describing the events in Chicago in the middle of the 1880's when labor was being systematically exploited by very wealthy capitalists.  This story makes clear that our fear of Communism is much older than the McCarthy Era.  This is a tale of injustice, well told.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It, by Arthur Herman.  This is really a tale of the Scottish Enlightenment.  The number of 18th Century thinkers coming out of Edinburgh and Glasgow was (and is) astounding.  Almost everything that we consider to be modern has at least a trace that goes back to this period in Scottish history.  The mystery is why Scotland didn't continue to be an intellectual leader.

The Big Switch:  Rewiring the World:  Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr.  Carr shows us the parallels between Edison's world and the world of the Internet.  Both depend on large networks for their impact.  Moves right along but an interesting read.

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Kevin J. Hayes.  This biography of Jefferson will appeal to any bibliophile as it tells the story through both the books that influenced Jefferson, the works that he wrote, and the libraries that he built.  Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, "I cannot live without books". This book tells you why.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Inventor or Innovator?

Was Thomas Edison an inventor or innovator?  How about Henry Ford?  The Wright Brothers? Robert Fulton? Fred Smith (FedEx)?  Steve Jobs?

Our language leaves lots of room for ambiguity on the meaning of some words, especially words that have fuzzy boundaries.  When does something stop being an invention and start to be an innovation?  Are these two concepts simply degrees on the same scale?  Why care at all?  I think the reason to think about it is that we are inundated with news stories, blogs, and websites on the need for innovation to jump-start the economy. If only we were more innovative in this county (the stories go), unemployment would plummet, business would prosper, and we would be back on the road to prosperity.  Of course, there are many reasons why this isn't so simple but I want to propose that part of the reason is that we are not clear about what differentiates innovation from invention.  Moreover, we are not clear about the differences between innovators and inventors.  If you were forced to describe yourself as one or the other, which would you be?

Let's start with invention.  The Patent Office defines an invention as something that is useful, new, and non-obvious to someone skilled in the art.  That is a pretty broad definition of what constitutes an invention, hence the protracted arguments between would-be inventors and the Patent Office.  This definition sweeps in everything from the slightly modified laundry detergent to fundamentally new technology.  I tend to think of true invention as being on the latter end of the scale.  New means new, as in a significant capability that has not existed in the past.  Small product improvements don't count as a true invention in my book.  I agree with the non-obvious provision.  If it were obvious, it would have qualities that were so apparent it would not constitute an invention.  The usefulness requirement is where things get sticky.  Many really fundamental inventions may not be useful at all in the sense of being a product (even though they might be patentable).  Think of Wright Brothers first airplane.  No one was standing in line to buy one.  The Wrights had to do a lot of promotion to the military of a number of governments to get them to see that airplanes might be useful mobile observation platforms.  Usefulness is in the eye of the potential customer.  The more radical the invention, the less current customers will find it of interest.  Real invention is almost by definition outside of the norms of current products.  And the corollary is equally true: real inventions work, but sometimes only marginally and only with a limited set of capabilities.  The first powered airplane flew only a few hundred feet.  It was a true heavier-than-air flying machine but not very useful (yet). Inventions are more than improvements.  They offer fundamental new capabilities that haven't existed before.  Most people would use words like prototype to describe the first embodiments of new inventions.  They have a long way to go before they are new products.

Why were they created, or put another way, what motivates inventors?  Often it is not due to obvious market needs.  No one knew (including the Wright Brothers) where the airplane was going.  No one could foresee any day soon when airplanes would transport large numbers of people or be the lethal military weapons.  The Wright Brothers invented the airplane to prove that a heavier-than-air machine could fly.  Period.  Inventors are motivated by the challenge of creating some capability that has never existed before.  The very act of creation is one of the rewards that drives them to invent.  Of course, recognition, fame, being the first to accomplish something, also plays a part.  So does money, but to a surprisingly small degree.  Generally, inventors don't need any customers or existing markets to motivate them.  Inventors are internally motivated. They share much with artists who feel a compelling need to create.

Innovations have a completely different origin.  They are driven by perceived needs in the marketplace.  The needs may be stated directly by potential customers or they may be unspoken but believed to be real by the innovator.  Innovations can be incremental improvements in a product or a process but that does not make them either trivial or easy.  Real innovation can be very difficult and expensive to implement.  Think of what Fred Smith had to put in place to build FedEx:  airplanes, warehouses, trucks, and information systems all needed to be there before the system would work.  The innovation was to see a way to create an effective system and build it.  Fred Smith didn't invent anything but he surely innovated.

Unlike inventors, innovators are people of and for the market.  They think about customer needs.  They also think about the customers' ability to spend money.  Innovators are motivated by building systems, by doing things in a better way, and by making money -- lots of money.  Innovators are externally motivated.  Robert Fulton wasn't the first to operate a commercial steamboat in the United States but he was the first to build a steamboat that filled a large unmet need to move passengers and freight on the Hudson River.  He was unapologetically in it for the money and the glory.  Steve Jobs also fits the definition of an innovator.  His early partner, Steve Wozniak, was the inventor in the duo.  Jobs is a genius at identifying and fulfilling unmet customers' needs.  He uses largely existing technology to meet those needs.

Thomas Edison was a much better inventor than he was an innovator.  He created new-to-the-world machines and devices but he wasn't very good at seeing how to use them.  He thought the phonograph would be the answer to office stenography, not the birth of a music industry.  His lighting system was built for DC power which was unscalable to meet wide-spread customer needs.  Henry Ford was also an innovator.  He did not build the first gasoline-powered automobile.  He didn't even invent the moving assembly line.  That idea was borrowed from the Chicago meat packing plants and their disassembly lines.  Ford saw the unmet customer need for an inexpensive automobile and did everything in his power to give it them.  He focused relentlessly on that single idea, even to the point of painting all of his cars black to reduce costs and hence price.

To summarize, invention is not innovation.  Inventors are more like artists motivated by the creative act.  Innovators are more like farmers growing new crops.  Because our society tends to give credit to the person who successfully commercializes an idea, we tend to remember the names of innovators more than we do inventors.  Often, inventions have a very long incubation period of trials and failures before they have enough capability to be commercialized. By that time, the inventor(s) have been displaced by innovators who have a much better commercial sense. Innovators tend to change the world using incremental technology.  Inventors create new technologies.  Both are important.  While the news media focuses on innovation, maybe it would be worthwhile to also give some virtual ink to the need to foster invention.   Innovators can change the rules of the game.  Inventors play a new game altogether.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Charles Babbage

NPR produced a story recently about Charles Babbage, the British mathematician who conceived of both a Difference Engine and an Analytical Engine that would have been two of the earliest computing machines. I say "would have been" because they were never built in his lifetime.  He tried to build the Difference Engine but ran out of money after ten years to support his efforts.  He never knew with certainty whether it would work.

A museum curator, Doron Swade, at the Science Museum in London came across Babbage's drawings in the 1980's and was amazed to find out that no one had ever tried to build Babbage's Difference Engine.  Swade organized a team of engineers who built the machine using Babbage's original drawings and only materials that would have been available in Victorian England.  The finished machine weighs five tons, has over eight thousand parts, and is powered by a hand-crank.  But most importantly, it works just as Babbage said it would.  I won't repeat the whole NPR story here.  It is well worth the time to click through to their website.  You should particularly take the time to watch the short video which shows the machine in action. The Engine has a mesmerizing beauty in its revolving gears and wheels.

This story reminded me in some ways of the efforts of museum curators to recreate the hand-cranked Antikythera Mechanism from Ancient Greece that I have written about several times previously, here and here.  Technologists and historians find it fascinating to recreate an old idea that has never been seen in modern times.  And when these old designs do work as described, it delights and amazes us.

I was also not surprised to read about how difficult it was for Babbage to get funding to support an idea that was so far ahead of its time.  While he was a brilliant mathematician/inventor, he was a difficult personality and not a great entrepreneur.  His inability to sweet-talk the money out of investors left him a frustrated and bitter old man.  So often, inventors who may have truly novel ideas can still lack the interpersonal skills to sustain their work.  If Babbage had prevailed, there might have been a Victorian Information Age that would have moved computing forward by fifty years almost overnight.  Who knows where we might be now had Babbage realized his Difference Engine? It's fun to speculate.

(See my related post on the origin of punch card computing by way of the U.S. Census Bureau here.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

EPCOT: The Future is Past

We visited Epcot in Disney World over the holidays.  Actually, we have been to Epcot many times since it opened in 1982.  As we went from pavilion to pavilion in Future World, I was struck by how much the future was becoming the past, how dated some of the exhibitions now seemed.  My daughter remarked that it might better be called EPCOY (Experimental Prototype Community of Yesterday) rather than the acronym where the T stands for Tomorrow.

I have always loved riding inside the huge sphere of Spaceship Earth.  For those who have not been there, it is a fifteen minute journey through the history of communication with your little car going by Disney Animatronic sets showing the evolution from cave painting to papyrus to the printing press to the personal computer.  It used to be that the last displays were about communicating in some not-too-distant future by videophone.  Now, the exhibition ends with someone who looked a bit like Steve Wozniak cobbling together a personal computer in his garage in 1979.  There is no future.  There is not even a Now.  I guess it got be be too expensive to keep chasing the rapidly evolving world we live in.  Still, a long dark tunnel does not seem to be a good way to end the ride.

In the Universe of Energy, the multimedia show is at least fifteen years old.  It is terribly out of date with regard to this rapidly changing field and only alludes in the smallest possible way to the importance of climate change.  Given the central place of energy, it seems a disservice to not update this pavilion.  Even our automated, moving theater seats seemed dated because the ride broke down midway through and we had to trudge off through an emergency exit.  This pavilion used to be sponsored by Exxon, then Exxon-Mobil, but they dropped sponsorship completely in 2004 and now there is no corporate sponsor.

By the way, Spaceship Earth, which used to be sponsored by AT&T, is now sponsored by Siemens.  The Land pavilion used to be sponsored by Kraft but is now also unsponsored.  The GM Test Track pavilion is still sponsored by its namesake, but who knows for how much longer?  Maybe it will become the Kia Test Track.  The film footage is way out of date, as are even the television monitors.  How can this be Future World?

Perhaps the whole idea of Epcot is also confined to the past.  Walt Disney imagined it to actually be a planned community built within Disney World, hence the name.  He could never get the board of directors to go for it.  They wanted Disneyland East.  Walt died in 1966 and his dream for the Experimental Community died with him.  His brother, Roy (who also just recently passed away), tried to carry on, and did build the Magic Kingdom and a much more commercial version of Epcot.  What opened in 1982 was more like a World's Fair than an experimental community but it did incorporate some of the infrastructure originally imagined by Walt Disney.

I still like Epcot.  I will probably go there again.  It just seems like a lost opportunity to say more about the future.  Maybe once the recession is over, Disney can get some corporate sponsors to ante up the money to update some of these pavilions.  But it isn't 1966 or 1982 and it is hard to find U.S. companies with the muscle or interest.  Maybe that is for the best as the future is likely to be with the Multinationals anyway.  I guess I am just nostalgic for the times when we seemed to be a leader in business and technology.  I'll get over it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Urban Exploration

The Boston Globe ran a piece the other day on exploring some of the abandoned sections of the subway system.  The "T", as it is known to all who inhabit Boston, is the backbone of the public transportation system in that city.  A reporter followed a historian of the T into a number of essentially secret and obscure sections of the tunnels (legally, and accompanied by Transit Authority police) to see some of these long-lost areas.  The Globe even posted a neat little video which you can see here.

The article shows us something that an entire sub-culture of people have been doing for years.  Termed Urban Exploration, or Urbex, for short, people have been crawling around in old factories, grain elevators, subways, abandoned buildings, and tunnels for years.  The allure is described in a Wikipedia article on the topic as the beauty of decay in abandoned spaces.  There have even been television programs on the Discovery Channel and documentaries on these intrepid explorers.  Most of the time, we become aware of them only when someone falls down an abandoned elevator shaft to their death.  Obviously, prowling around old, abandoned structures can be extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal.

So why do such articles continue to pop up in newspapers such as the Globe?  What is it that fascinates even those of us who are not likely to put on a headlamp and prowl in the small hours of the morning?  This is probably the modern equivalent of the nineteenth-century Egyptologists who wanted to see what no one else had seen in a very long time.  Of course, the Egyptologists had the added incentive of possibly finding golden treasures and beautiful art objects.  Not so for the urban explorers.  I think what we find is ourselves, or maybe our former selves.  We find out how we constructed our world for function or sometimes even beauty.  We love the idea of seeing the things that we built decades or centuries ago but have been lost to the common eye.

I have written about this before in my post on the abandoned Michigan Central train station in Detroit. I am as curious about these places as the next guy.  Maybe we even need to have a certain number of these abandoned artifacts left for just the purpose of exploration.  If we pulled down every last abandoned structure, we would lose something.  Certainly, we would clean up a lot of eyesores but we would also lose another connection to our built past.  We would still have our histories but we need to have something tangible as well to link us to those former times and our former selves. As we accelerate into our future, it can help to have something to hold onto from our past.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Then and Now

We love the new.  New has become a synonym for Improved.  New is novel, something we haven't experienced before.  New is progress.  New is fun.

But, as the old adage says, "There is nothing new under the sun."  You would think that technology would be the exception.  In the details this is, in fact, true.  We have only just begun to explore nano, bio, and eco technologies.  What we take to be new technology systems, however, are not so new. Here are a couple of examples in what I might call the Then and Now category.

Light-rail transportation (the Now) is being brought to cities that for years have had no public transportation except buses.  But light-rail is not a new concept.  You might think the Then parallel to light-rail is the streetcar but the better comparison is the interurban rail network that connected towns and cities in much more of a commuter-like pattern.  Interurbans were the marriage of the electric motors of the streetcars with the heavy coaches of the passenger train.  The interurbans exploded onto the transportation scene (particularly in the midwest) in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century.  From virtually no trackage at the turn of the century, by 1916 interurbans accounted for over 15,000 miles of track in the United States.  The reason for their emergence was the need for more cost-effective and frequent connections between small towns and cities that the railroads might not have served or served infrequently.  Another major factor was that while the automobile was becoming more common in cities, the roads between cities were poor at best and a more reliable transportation system was needed.

But most of the interurbans, while technically successful, were poor businesses from the start.  They were under-capitalized, expensive to maintain, and always starved for enough revenue-paying business to support themselves as private enterprises.  By 1930 and the Great Depression, most of the interurban companies had gone into bankruptcy.  The emergence of light-rail in the last two decades is largely predicated on a new business model:  public ownership.  The common gripes about light-rail is that they must be supported by taxpayers who don't use the system and that they only serve a small geography.  Those arguments are true for the first line that is built.  But like all networks, the power of the network goes up as a power function of the number of nodes in the network.  More lines bring even more power to the entire network.  Eventually, as can be seen in the robust networks in some of our larger cities, people choose to take the public transportation system even if they own a car.

So, light-rail is the reincarnation of an older concept of interurban rail networks.  The second New but Not-So-New concept is the mega on-line retailer.  Think Amazon.  Amazon revolutionized the book trade and has been moving into adjacent markets in other consumer product lines.  Their business model recognized the power of two things: the internet and package delivery services.  By selling to such a wide market, they can increase their volume and hence offer lower prices.  Neat but not new.

In the 1870's Aaron Montgomery Ward began his catalog retailing business in Chicago.  It was based on the concept of customers in the rural country-side ordering their products directly from his catalog and having them delivered by the post office.  He was one of the first to innovate the idea of a money-back guarantee return policy.  If you didn't like it, send it back.  No questions asked.  Ward's concept was quickly copied by Sears and for the better part of a century, these two catalog retailers were among the largest in the country.  They were Amazon pre-internet.  It is interesting to speculate how they might have survived had not the automobile created the shopping mall in the years before the internet.  If the internet had been born earlier, perhaps the catalog retailers would simply have morphed onto the internet and still be dominant.

My point is only that while a specific technology might be new, a technology concept can be reused multiple times.  Then and Now.  The new New.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Transportation Systems: Centralize or Decentralize?

I have commented from time to time on these pages about transportation.  Most recently, my musings have been about the well-understood insight that speed collapses distance. It also increases our sensitivity to time.  We have the railroads to thank for the first modern example of this phenomenon.  The network of rails which crisscrossed the country in the middle of the nineteenth century united the country in a way that would have been impossible just a few years earlier. With the increased speed of transportation, the whole trajectory of the country's development shifted westward and took on an east-west orientation as opposed to the north-south orientation that had dominated the earliest days of independence.

What I hadn't fully appreciated was how the railroads tended to be a centralizing force in the development of the United States.  The huge capital investments and the need to maximize the amount of freight carried on every train led to some cities growing to dominance as the railroad lines coalesced on regional hubs.  Chicago is probably the best example of a city that grew from virtually nothing to a metropolis due to this centralizing effect.  Farmers wanting to get their crops to market needed railroads.  The railroads that fanned out west of Chicago provided just such a transportation network.  The produce (especially grain) from the Western farms was then transported on trunk railroads to the East.  Like Chicago, those cities which had some early advantage in the developing railroad network in a region tended to grow much more rapidly.

Highway transportation networks of the twentieth century had just the opposite effect.  Farmers and manufacturers were no longer governed by the fixed schedule of the railroads.  Trucks could be scheduled to pick up and deliver freight at any time and in any location, even those far removed from the railheads.  As a result, the earlier concentrations of industry began to drift away from the small number of hub cities.  Manufacturers moved their operations to be closer to their sources of supply, or nearer their markets, or to access cheaper labor.  The result has been a rebalancing of the differences between some of the earlier metropolitan leaders and their former junior cities.

Technology creates patterns and just as easily an even newer technology can fundamentally change those patterns.  Over the last twenty to thirty years, we have been living in a different pattern yet again: globalization.  Now the patterns of transport and connections span the globe.  The lure of cheap labor, capital incentives, and the low cost of ocean transport has resulted in industry after industry moving their operations offshore.  And as already mentioned, transportation is again at the heart of some of those influences.  This time, the transportation revolution has been in container ships which have dramatically lowered the cost of shipping manufactured goods of all kinds.

What new patterns will emerge next?  Surely, we will continue to see changes.  Perhaps these changes will span decades and hence be less immediately apparent.  But it is impossible to imagine that we are now living in a static world.  If I was trying to predict what the future patterns might be, I would put some of my money on watching innovations in transportation systems.  No matter how much we move into the Knowledge Economy, we still need physical products and they have to arrive where we can purchase them.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I am reading Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon (Norton, 1991).  The central thesis of the book is that cities like Chicago are shaped by their outlying economies of farming, lumbering, and livestock and, in turn, the cities shape those outlying economies.  It is a symbiotic relationship in which a city is not possible without the country around it or vice versa.  But the book also brought up a related topic which intrigues me: interchangeability.  We live in a world where interchangeability is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we don't even think about it.  Need an oil change?  Any service station will have a filter that fits your engine.  Need to replace a light bulb?  Every bulb is designed to fit a standard socket.  What amazes us now are things that are not interchangeable.  These are almost by definition hand-crafted and very expensive.

You might say that interchangeability dates all the way back to Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of moveable type.  Any letter could, after all, be put in any position along a line of type.  But the extension of that idea to other devices dates back more to 18th century France.  A French artillery officer with the wonderful name of Lieutenant General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval came up with the idea of standardizing all of the parts in the French Army's canon inventory.  His ideas were not fully implemented, but another Frenchman, Honore Blanc, actually began mass-producing muskets from interchangeable parts in 1790.  Thomas Jefferson met Blanc while Jefferson was the United States Ambassador to the French Court.  He communicated the idea back to the War Department because it would allow the production of a large quantity of weapons without having to have a large number of skilled gunsmiths.  America just didn't have that many skilled craftsmen to meet the demand for a large order.

About this same time, Eli Whitney (yes, the same Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame) started to get interested in making rifles for the U.S. Government.  It seemed a more lucrative business than the cotton gin which had more or less been stolen from him by patent pirates.  Whitney came to Congress with a load of parts which he claimed were made identically and assembled rifles by randomly selecting parts from different barrels.  The Congress was duly impressed and placed an order which Whitney took eight years to complete.  The trouble was, Whitney's so-called interchangeable parts had all been carefully filed by skilled craftsmen to make them fit together but they were not truly produced to interchangeable tolerances.  Others got into the game and the first truly interchangeable device built in America was a clock made by Eli Terry in 1816 from mass-produced wooden parts.  There were others who rightfully deserve the credit for the first firearm made from interchangeable metal parts including John Hall and Simeon North.

But my thoughts when reading Cronon's book were not about guns.  Interchangeability in the world of Chicago came in two other major forms.  The first was making wheat interchangeable.  In the early days of farming, every farmer sent his grain to market in sacks and those sacks were transported all the way from the Midwestern prairies via Chicago to New York or other eastern destinations without ever leaving their burlap.  A farmer could have gone to the final destination and gotten his exact wheat back if he had wanted to do so.  The revolution that was invented in Chicago was interchangeable wheat that was based on grading all wheat to certain standards.  Now, wheat from different farmers could be mixed together at a grain elevator without compromising the value of the grain.  Number 1 Winter Wheat was supposedly the same no matter what farm produced it.  Grain could now be shipped in bulk much more quickly and efficiently by automated equipment like grain elevators and automated loading and unloading equipment.  It was no longer necessary to haul each sack of grain on and off intermediate modes of transportation (such as wagons, railroad cars, and ships).  This seemingly small change not only made the physical processes work better but it gave rise to the commodity markets of the Chicago Board of Trade.  It really was revolutionary.  The volume of business skyrocketed.

A second example that came out of the book was standardized lumber dimensions.  With the advent of lumber cut to dimensions such as 2 inches by 4 inches or 2 inches by 8 inches, building could now be put together almost like Erector Sets in what became known as balloon-frame construction (because the frame was so light compared to older post-and-beam construction).  Standardization brings efficiency and efficiency brings economy.  We could never afford all the modern conveniences that make up our world were it not for this pervasive idea of interchangeability.  It is everywhere, not just machines.  As long as something functions within a certain defined set of parameters, it can be substituted for something else that fits the same parameter space.  If two things are not interchangeable, you know there is at least one parameter (which might even be an esthetic one) which is not the same.

Interchangeability was the power that allowed Gutenberg to revolutionize printing.  Interchangeability remains one of the most powerful ideas in our modern world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Our Expectations of Technology

As I was riding the Washington, DC Metro back to my station in Alexandria tonight, we had a short, unscheduled stop on the line somewhere around Reagan National Airport.  We got going again pretty quickly but clearly some snafu in terms of scheduling or proximity between trains had snuck into the system.  We had to wait a minute and then it cleared but as a result, I missed my shuttle connection in Alexandria by about twenty seconds.  Not a big deal but it was annoying.  When I got back to my hotel, I read about a much bigger technical snafu in the FAA's air traffic control system that happened earlier today.  Apparently, a circuit board in Salt Lake City went bad and it resulted in hundreds of flights being delayed or cancelled across the country.  This was much more of a problem then my little experience on the Metro tonight.

Both these events, however, got me to thinking about how much we take a fully functioning system for granted in this country.  We expect our systems to work virtually perfectly all the time.  We have this expectation because for the most part, they do work all the time.  Visitors from other less fortunate countries can attest to their own much more limited expectations about how well (or more likely, poorly) their technology infrastructure operates.

Expectations are based on many things but two come to mind: past experience and time.  If our past experience says that something has worked well, we typically extrapolate the future based on the past - we expect that things will continue to work well.  The other, maybe trickier piece, is time.  As time gets shorter, expectations rise.  When an event only happens infrequently we don't put as much dependence on it happening right on time.  If a book I order from Amazon comes a day late, no big deal.  But if an event typically has a shorter time lapse (measured in minutes or seconds), we come to have high expectations that it will happen as planned.  If instead of buying a physical book, I pay for an electronic book for my Kindle and it doesn't download inside of a minute, I feel like I am getting subpar service.

As it turns out, railroads did the same thing back in the 19th century.  When ships, canals, and wagons were the primary modes of transportation, most travel happened on timescales of days to weeks.  If a boat didn't leave until a day later, people adjusted because they didn't expect much better.  When the railroads came along,  as many trips ran in a day as a canal boat would run in a week.  When a train was late by even an hour, it seemed very late indeed. The railroads reset our expectations about travel.  If you want to read more about the effect of the railroads, I recommend a book by William Cronon entitled, Nature's Metropolis:  Chicago and the Great West, (Norton, 1991).

Technology seems to have subtle, built-in expectations that are associated with it.  We either feel it is working well or not working well depending on how it seems to measure up to those expectations.  Tonight, the Metro didn't measure up and I was miffed...but not as much as the airline passengers sitting at the airport.  I expect that this blog will get published as soon as I hit the button.  Our technology life is like that.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Technology of Rock and Roll

I spent the day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.  I had not been there before but I quickly realized that I had been missing out on something special.  The museum does an excellent job covering everything from the roots of Rock and Roll (in musical genres as disparate as Delta Blues, Gospel, and Bluegrass), to the artists, costumes, and memorabilia of fifty years of entertainment.  Being interested in technology, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how technology helped shape Rock and Roll.  The museum had many pieces of recording equipment of historical interest including the first four-track tape recorders used by the Beatles in their pioneering album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The museum also had Les Paul’s first solid body guitar which he made from a fence post with a guitar neck bolted onto it.  In the tradition of all innovators, Paul was shunned by the Gibson Guitar Company for a decade before they were finally willing to build his instrument (and the rest, as they say, is history).

Perhaps more than any other form of music, Rock and Roll is driven by technology.  The amplifiers, guitars, sound boards, recording equipment, microphones, even the lighting, are integral to the music.  It is tempting to think that Rock and Roll is unique but I think technology has always been one of the prime motivators that has advanced musical forms.  For instance, the piano forte (now called just the piano) replaced the much less capable harpsichord.  Other examples are the valves that were added to horns and the technology that allowed more consistent production of strings for instruments.

Our technology enhances our arts, our humanity.  The arts are one of the few uses of technology that seems to me have no downside.  You may not like a particular genre of music or a particular artist but new technology allows artists to find new levels of expression that convert ideas and instruments into something with a deep sense of life.  Rock and Roll is just the latest in a long series of musical steps from that first stick beating on a hollow log to today’s highly sophisticated artistic creations.  In the words of one of the classic songs of the era:

I love that old time Rock and Roll, That kind of music just soothes the soul!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Hath God Wrought, the Book

I just finished reading Daniel Walker Howe's recent history of Antebellum America that goes by the title of today's blog.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize in history and it is a mighty read indeed...all 850 pages of it.  But the book, despite its length, was a great read; more a story than a dull historical tract.  Howe makes the premise that two technology revolutions were fundamental to the changes in the United States during the time period he covered: 1812 to 1848.

The first revolution was in transportation.   America moved from the slow plodding of foot and horse travel to the swiftness of canals, steamboats, and railroads.  This tied the ever-expanding geography of the country together.  The plunging cost of shipping (whether raw materials, agricultural products, or finished goods) made a business-driven society possible.

The second revolution was in communications, more specifically the telegraph.  For the first time in history, communications over long distances became instantaneous.  While we often feel like we are living through the biggest communication revolution that has ever happened, I think it takes second place to the telegraph.  Our expectations have always been for instantaneous communications.  But when the telegraph was invented, people had no prior experience to prepare them for such an amazing technology.

The U.S. Government, which initially was reticent to fund the telegraph, finally put up seed money to build the first demonstration line.  On May 24, 1844 Samuel Morse (pictured at right), in the offices of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. typed the message, "What hath God wrought", to his colleague in Baltimore who echoed it back to him within a minute.  Observers understood immediately the significance of the invention.  The message, by the way, was chosen from a biblical text (Numbers 23:23) and was selected by Nancy Goodrich Ellsworth, who suggested it to her daughter Annie. Morse was in love with Annie and was hence disposed to listen to her suggestion.  (Nancy Ellsworth's husband was Henry Levitt Ellsworth, head of the patent office and a friend of Morse.)

The telegraph was used immediately by business  for stock and commodity prices, the news establishment (it led to the Associated Press being formed in May, 1846), governments, and finally private citizens.  Markets in cities like Chicago and New York could start to transact business on a near real-time basis.  The railroads soon picked up on the technology to schedule the smooth flow of trains.

But I digress.  The point is not to focus on the telegraph but rather on Howe's book and its central hypothesis that technology shapes history.  Howe didn't say this but I might wonder if these two technology revolutions accelerated the gap between the mercantile North and the plantation and slave-owning South, making the Civil War all the more likely.  Technology can have far-reaching effects, often created by the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Today, the Web is creating similar far-reaching changes and we cannot foresee what the unintended consequences may yet be.  It would be interesting to get a peek at the history books that will be written in another hundred years to see what comes of it all...or, maybe not.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blinded By Technology

Last night, the Frontline series on PBS featured a new program entitled The Warning. It was a revealing look at the long-percolating financial crisis and the role that one woman, Brooksley Born, played in trying to sound the alarm. This was not a story about the meltdown of 2007 - 2008. The program focused on the long-ago era of the Clinton Administration, which carried forward the previous Republican administration's posture on financial deregulation. In a nutshell (if there is such a thing when it comes to these complex events), a crisis was caused by the refusal of the Fed or the Treasury to consider regulating Over-the-Counter Derivative trading. Born, then the head of a minor federal agency called the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, tried to put forth regulations because she alone, it seems, saw that a meltdown in OTC Derivatives could cause a cataclysmic failure in the banking system. Her seniors in the administration, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers successfully crushed her efforts and neutered her agency. Within six weeks of the showdown in Washington between Born and Greenspan, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) went into free fall on their derivatives business.

For those who don't know that much about economics, and I include myself in that group, LTCM was founded by the technology wunder kids of economics. They had developed highly sophisticated mathematical trading models that supposedly allowed them to make enormous bets with minimal risks. Some of their senior people were Nobel Prize winners in economics. For a while, it seemed to work and LTCM made terrific returns. Everyone wanted in on the action including over a dozen of the largest Wall Street investment banking houses. There was just one catch: the LTCM money machine was a Black Box and no one outside LTCM was allowed to see how they were making their money. It was a "Trust me or don't play" model. Worse yet, each of the banks was told that they had an exclusive deal with LTCM. When the walls came tumbling down because of a financial crisis in Russia in 1998, LTCM fortunes went south big time. Everyone wanted out and that is when the banks found out they had been snookered. In the end, the Fed and the Treasury called all the bankers together and told them they each had to pony up $300 million to buy-out LTCM and save the financial markets from imploding. The banks did what they were told and the crisis passed, but not without extreme anxiety both in Washington and on Wall Street.

The Frontline program focused on the need to regulate OTC derivatives - which remain unregulated to this day. There are now over $500 trillion in derivatives in the market. At the time of the LTCM fiasco, there were $17 trillion at risk. The stakes are obviously much higher today. Derivatives, of course, are only part of the problem that we are currently facing. Securitized mortgages and lax lending standards have caused an even bigger mess than we faced in 1998. But for me there is a technology story in all this and that is one of hubris. It is the folly to think that someone has figured out how to model the financial markets so perfectly that they can ignore unforeseen and unplanned events that can make the model so much worthless software code. No system as complex as world markets can be modeled today with that kind of accuracy. The arrogance of LTCM and the ignorance of the bankers who bought LTCM's Black Box is appalling. Yet, it shows the faith we are willing to place in "the best and the brightest" who seem to have all the answers...without any caveats.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying we shouldn't try to build models to understand complexity, whether it is in financial markets or global climate models. My belief is that we should expose any model upon which very significant decisions are being made to outside review. As we now have the tools to tackle evermore complex problems, we need to remain aware that every model starts with assumptions. And you know the old saw about the word "assume" makes an Ass of You and Me.

If you missed the Frontline program, you can see it streamed on the web.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another Great Newspaper Archive

While I am on the topic of archives, I came across another great historical newspaper archive. Penn State University has a wonderful collection of Pennsylvania newpapers dating from the Civil War era. Despite the seeming limitation in dates implied by the Civil War, I have found papers that date from the 1850's to the 1870's. The website takes a little getting used to but once you get the hang of it, it is a very powerful tool for searching and reading old papers. If you are curious as to what people were talking about back then, click the link above and check it out.

Monday, October 5, 2009

History at Your Fingertips

I have been away from this blog for a couple of months. I'm back. I have been spending my time doing some intensive reading and research into some of the history of 19th Century railroading. I have a few ideas that might mature into either a magazine article or a book.

One of the things that has been reinforced to me in my reading and research is how fortunate we are to now have extensive digital archives online. It is really extraordinary how much material that used to be available only in the largest university or public libraries is now readable online. I have been spending a lot of time in four archives in particular. The first is a combined effort of Cornell University and the University of Michigan called Making of America. The archive contains scanned copies of thousands of books and articles that were written in the 19th Century. The second is the Internet Archive which is a very rich source of text, images, and even motion picture clips. The third is a website that has ten million pages of 19th Century Upstate New York newspapers called Fulton's Postcards. The newspapers are all fully searchable and are a fascinating source of insight into the era.

The fourth, and in many ways the granddaddy of them all is Google Books. Not only are millions of books online and searchable but you can also save books to your own online library, make notations about the books, and get either original scanned images or digitized texts. If a book is particularly interesting and off copyright, you can download a complete pdf of the book to your desktop. To say that this is a powerful tool is an understatement. Google Books has some other very nice features including links to online booksellers and even the ability to find a library in your area that has the volume in question. If you are interested in looking into the history of any sort of technology, these are great to go beyond Wikipedia or just a straight Google search.

I have always been a used bookstore junkie and I have found some really terrific books browsing the shelves. But one of the nice things that comes out of Google Books is the link to used online booksellers that have let me buy books that I might never otherwise have found at very reasonable prices - sometimes as low as one cent (plus four bucks shipping).

Obviously, everything has not been digitized and the libraries and archives remain the first line of professional research. But for next to nothing, everyone now can access some of the best materials in the world.

There is probably nothing new in this post but sometimes I can't help but state the obvious. If you haven't seen any of these resources, check them out. If anyone knows of other archives I would like to hear about them.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Last Locomotive

Do you ever wonder about "lasts"? When was the last time you left your high school? When was the last time your child called you "Daddy"? I sometimes wonder about "lasts" in technology. My question for today: When was the last steam locomotive built in this country? The answer: December, 1953.

The last steam engine was not some mighty passenger engine with huge driving wheels or even one of the monster freight engines that were used to haul long trains over the mountains. The last steam locomotive built was a lowly switch engine, what in railroad parlance is referred to as an 0-8-0 (no lead wheels, eight driving wheels, and no trailing wheels). You can see the wheel arrangement in the picture. It was built at the Roanoake, Virginia shops of the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

What interested me more about this particular steam engine was the history of its design. During World War I, all of the railroads in the United States were nationalized under a government agency called the U.S. Railroad Administration, or USRA for short. Not only did the agency control the operation and prioritization of shipments and passengers to support the war effort, it mounted an emergency program to design new steam engines to fill a big gap in the number of locomotives available. The USRA came up with excellent designs for eight different engines in a variety of configurations. But of all these, the 0-8-0 was the single most-copied design. Over thirteen hundred of them were built before that last engine in 1953.

It is not hard to see why steam engines gave way to diesel-electric locomotives. By almost any measure, steam engines just couldn't compete with diesels. At their most efficient, steam engines only converted 8 percent of the energy available in the heat of their coal to mechanical work (compared to 25 to 35 percent efficiency for a diesel). In addition, operational and maintenance costs are much less for diesels than for steam engines.

But for pure dramatic effect, it is hard to beat the belching, hissing sounds of a steam locomotive as it begins to pull a long load of cars from a dead stop. The stroke of the huge drivers and connecting rods declare a kind of brute power that is not so easily seen in a diesel.

So my last "last" question lead to another. When was the last steam locomotive taken out of regular service? According to Wikipedia, the last standard gauge class 1 regular service steam engine was used on the Leadville branch of the Colorado and Southern (Burlington Lines) on October 11, 1962. But lo and behold, I find there is one more last: the last class 1 railroad with engine in its roster. The Union Pacific still has one steam locomotive that it has never retired. This engine, UP 844, was built in 1944 and is still occasionally used for excursion trains. The UP 844 is allegedly able to pull 26 passenger cars at over 100 mph on level track. I would love to see it. But instead, here is video clip from bbundridge on YouTube of the UP engine passing a a grade crossing at over 70 mph. Awesome!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Women in the White City

I was researching a story when I came across a fascinating entry related to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Exposition was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. This is one of those events that I wish I had been around to see in person. I would have gladly joined the 28 million other visitors who came to the Exposition during its six-month run from May to October of 1893. The Exposition was a World's Fair that was meant to celebrate the achievements of mankind since the days of Columbus. It was called The White City because of the white marble-like facade of its so-called Great Buildings. At over 600 acres, the Exposition was larger than Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot combined.

The Great Buildings were designed by a Who's Who of the best male architects in America. All of the buildings, that is, but one. Everything about the Women's Building was left to the Board of Lady Managers who planned, built, and selected all of the exhibitions. Because there were so few women architects at the time, the Board held a competition to identify a woman architect to design the building.

Sophia Hayden (later Bennett), the first female architect to graduate from MIT (in 1890), won the honor. She was 23 years old at the time. She designed a graceful Italian Renaissance villa which was very reminiscent of her thesis project at MIT.

When she won the award in 1891, she was employed as a drawing teacher in the Boston schools because no architectural firm would hire a woman. She was paid approximately a thousand dollars for her design, one tenth the fee paid to male architects.

Her design was hailed for its fine lines but it was also assailed as being obviously the work of a woman. Despite her success with the Women's Building, she retired from architecture following the Exposition as she still could not find suitable employment. She married and lived a quiet life in Massachusetts, dying in 1953.

The Women's Building was instrumental in advancing women's rights on many fronts including women's suffrage. All of the exhibits were deliberately designed by the Board to be non-competitive, although women did compete with men working in their fields in other buildings at the Exposition. The Women's Building was filled with examples of women's work in every field imaginable, selected from submissions from all over the globe. It was certainly the most graphic example up until that time of women capably matching every aspect of the achievements of their male counterparts.

I wonder what might have become of Sophia Hayden had she been recognized as she surely deserved? Times are somewhat better today for women but there is still much more room for women to gain equality with men.

Postscript: The Women's Building, like virtually all of the buildings at the Exposition, was torn down shortly after closing day. The only building to remain in its original location is the Palace of Fine Arts which is now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Even Apollo Required Mundane Fixes

I wrote in my last blog about the new images of the moon which show the Apollo landing sites and even the astronauts, footprints on the moon. The photos also show the scientific experiments that were placed there to monitor the geophysical makeup of the moon. These experiments were collectively called the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (or ALSEP). Each Apollo mission carried a set of experiments but the mix of experiments was different on every flight. [The image to the left was from Apollo 16 and you can see the Lunar Rover in the background next to the Lunar Lander.]

I began working for Bendix Aerospace Systems Division in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1970, right after graduating from the University of Michigan. Bendix was the prime contractor for the ALSEP experiments. The Apollo 11 and 12 missions had already successfully landed on the moon by the time I joined Bendix. Shortly after I started, the Apollo 13 disaster occurred (April, 1970) and it set back subsequent missions by more than a year. I was involved in engineering efforts on all the subsequent Apollo science packages (14 through 17).

A little background about the experiments: ALSEP was designed to be a package of experiments that shared a common communication and power source. The Central Station housed all of the communications electronics and telemetry systems. It is the tall, gold structure in the photo below. The antenna for transmitting data is the pole-like object on top of the Central Station. The gold is actually metal-coated mylar-plastic film and it was used to control the thermal environment inside the Central Station. Keep in mind that the moon in the daytime is over 200 degrees F and it is -200 degrees F at night. That is a tough environment and controlling the temperature in the electronics in all of the experiments was a major challenge.

The little gray, finned object to the left and behind the Central Station is the Radio Thermal Generator or RTG. It is the power source for all of the experiments. Electricity is generated by converting the heat from a Plutonium-238 fuel cartridge inside the RTG. As an aside, one of the Apollo 12 astronauts said that he could feel the heat from the Plutonium cartridge all the way inside his space suit when he was loading the cartridge into the RTG. That's hot (in more ways than one)!

The silver disk-like object in the foreground is actually a lunar seismometer, part of something called the Passive Seismic Experiment or PSE (the program just loved acronyms). It was designed to measure "moonquakes". Actually, you are not looking at the seismometer but at the thermal shroud (think blanket) which covered the seismometer. The instrument was so sensitive that if it had been directly exposed to the lunar day and night, it would have "creaked" due to thermal expansion and contraction. Even with the thermal shroud, it still creaked a little and buggered up the data.

All of the experiments (and there are three more that are out of the picture) were connected to the Central Station by cables. You can just make these out in the photo as copper/gold-colored ribbons in the lunar soil. They really were ribbons, by the way, ribbons that were about three inches wide, each of which carried multiple wires.

By the time I got to Bendix, the system and the experiments had already been designed (the work started in 1966). Bendix was in the process of building the final instrument packages and testing them to make sure they were ready for their missions. As a young engineer, my job was to work on problems that came up from experiences on previous missions. One of those experiences happened on the Apollo 16 mission. Astronaut John Young was deploying some of the experiments when his boot became entangled in one of the flat-ribbon cables. With the bulk of his suit and the changed sensations of lunar gravity, he was completely unaware that he had snagged a cable. When he moved, he accidentally tore the cable out of the experiment (it was an experiment for measuring heat flow) and the experiment was wrecked. Several million dollars gone in an instant. You can see this happen in the movie below if you start watching around the 11:36 mark. (The whole movie tells the story of the Apollo 16 mission. It is worth watching.) [movie from Internet Archive]

I was at work the afternoon that the ALSEP deployment was being broadcast live from the moon. We were all in a conference room watching a television and we could see Young get tangled up in the cable and everyone in the room started yelling at the set as though Young could hear us. There was a palpable gasp that went up from the group when we saw the cable snap. We knew before Young did that it was not going to be repairable. It is just not possible to put a broken cable back together on the surface of the moon.

Not surprisingly, shortly after the mission, orders came down from NASA to look at ways to prevent this from happening again. Despite the best of planning, nobody had really thought about strengthening the cable connections. Each of us has tripped over an extension cord or laptop power cable sometime in our lives. Usually, a plug pops out of its receptacle but sometimes plugs can be damaged or broken. Same here. But there were no plugs to come undone (the cables were hardwired in place). The cable snapped. My job was to design a better cable strain relief that would withstand the impact of a skipping astronaut in full gear. We couldn't change the basic cables so we had to find a way to spread the load out. A combination of well-rounded mounting brackets and reinforcing fiber tapes seemed the best way to get the job done.

But how do you test something like this to know it will work? You can't go to the moon to do it. We rigged up a test system in the lab and enlisted our "test astronaut" to see he could break the cables in a deliberate accident. What you see in the first picture below is the ALSEP package of experiments (a non-flight model) in the form that it is stowed in the Lunar Lander and before it is unpacked. Attached to the front of the package is our redesigned test cable with a heavy lace to put around the test astronaut's leg. Yours Truly is standing with my back to the camera in the stripped shirt.

It didn't seem like a fair test to have the high friction between the bottom of the ALSEP package and the floor of the lab so we put the package on a greased plate to decrease the friction and more closely simulate the friction in the lunar dust.

The next photo shows the test in progress with the astronaut putting his full weight into the cable. Two assistants stood on either side of him to catch him if he fell. You can see the cable snap taut.

The last photo shows me examining the cable stress relief after the test. It worked; the cable was intact and fully functional. This wasn't the only testing but it was the most convincing. We retrofitted all of the cables on the Apollo 17 mission with the new strain reliefs. Of course, the astronauts were now extremely mindful of getting tangled in the cables and nothing untoward happened on that mission.

Complex missions like the Apollo Program were staffed by tens of thousands of engineers doing the same sort of unglamorous, day-to-day jobs like fixing cables. Nothing is perfectly designed the first time. Not every contingency can be planned for. (If you want to see the ultimate example of this, rent the movie Apollo 13). To tell the truth, many days were pretty mundane but I still feel proud of the fact that I was there and had a tiny part in the Apollo missions. We have so few things in life that command the kind of vision that the Apollo Program did. It brought out the best passions in so many people. As Georg Hegel, the German philosopher said, "We may affirm absolutely nothing great in the world that has been accomplished without passion." Apollo proved that to me. I wish there were a comparable challenge to stir the dreams of the next generation.

Postscript: The ALSEP packages went on sending back data until September 30, 1977 when for the reason of budget cuts, the experiments from all the flights were powered off to save costs on the earth-side monitoring station.

P.S.S. Today mark's the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing on the Apollo 11 mission.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Return to Apollo

NASA reported this week that for the first time the Apollo Lunar Modules have been able to be visualized from a new satellite named the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which arrived in lunar orbit on June 23, 2009. In the image below you can see the the Apollo 14 Lunar Module Base on the right and the scientific experiment package on the left with footprints traversing between the two sites. This is incredible detail for an orbiting imaging satellite.

The images (all the sites except Apollo 12 have been imaged so far), are particularly timely given the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing coming on July 20th. I can remember being glued to my television set at home that summer day watching the commentary provided by Walter Cronkite. I was saddened to hear that Mr. Cronkite died yesterday at the age of 92. For me, he was the voice of the Apollo lunar missions. The New York Times has a number of video clips of Cronkite on their website including this video of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing in which he is visibly moved by the landing. We all were.

I didn't know at the time I was watching the first landing that within a year after college graduation, I would be hired by Bendix Aerospace Systems Division which had the prime contract to design and manufacture the Apollo Lunar Surface Experment Package (or ALSEP in the jargon of the day). I worked on experiments that were flown on the later Apollo 14 through 17 missions. Those were exciting times when as a nation we could feel good about some of our accomplishments. The quagmire of Vietnam eventually brought the Apollo missions to a premature conclusion with the cancellation of Apollo flights 18, 19, and 20.

When I think now about how primitive our technology was in the late 1960's, I am all the more impressed with the accomplishments of the NASA team. Despite the subsequent successes on SpaceLab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, we have not yet surpassed that "one small step" which was taken on a day in July forty years ago.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Decline of the Motor City

I often blog about technology's intersection with our culture. Most of the time, I think that on balance, technology is a positive influence. But every now and then I see something that makes me wonder.

I recently came across a survey of 3400 hundred people done by in which Detroit was ranked as the most hated city in the United States. That is quite a contrast to the Detroit of the mid 1960's. In those days, Detroit was at the top of its game.

I was reminded of this by a video I came across in the Internet Archives. I was looking for a reference to an old radio program that used to be on WJR in Detroit. The Internet Archive has a promotional video made by the radio station in 1966. It is a wonderful snapshot of technology at that time. There are shots of the old (then state-of-the-art) radio broadcast equipment, the newsroom with typewriters and teletype machines, cars with AM radios, kitchens of the era, and shots of shiny new GM cars. The narrator in the film talked about the prosperity of Detroit. The city had disposable income 15 percent above the national average, and seventy percent of people were home owners. What a difference forty years makes.

Now, Detroit is a virtual welfare case. I doubt that in their wildest imagination the boosters of Detroit in 1966 could have seen their bleak future. Technology created Detroit and failure to stay current with technology, and bad management, was the city's undoing. What new Detroits are among us today, the failures in our future? Can we do something different this time to re-write the outcome? Can Detroit be resurrected? Tough questions but questions that won't go away.

Here's the video. It runs about 20 minutes but it is a fun look back.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can You Teach Innovation?

[Picture: Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from Wikipedia]

I follow a number of blogs and newsfeeds about innovation. Most of these stories lament that if business was only more innovative we would be out of the economic woods. I just saw such a lecture given by Tim Brown of IDEO to MIT's Sloan School of Business that makes the case for "design innovation". It's an interesting talk but I have my doubts it is the answer. Bookstore shelves creak under the load of business titles on the subject of innovation. Roundtables and blue-ribbon panels on innovation are convened at national conferences. The audience is busily planning new ways to come up with the next spontaneous innovation.

Somehow, the whole concept of "teaching innovation" by recipe seems unlikely to produce much real change. It seems too much in the realm of theory and not enough in the reality of practice. I thought about how I learn something new. Reading tops my list if I want background information. For a specific skill, structured lessons followed by repetitive practice usually work well. Music lessons come to mind. Being a music student is the simplest form of apprenticeship, which also works well for learning more complex skills such as auto mechanics or brain surgery. Almost all complex skills demand an apprenticeship. Is this true for innovators? Do you learn how to innovate by being an Apprentice Innovator? I think so.

I know innovation when I see it... and so do most people. So you want to learn how to innovate? Find someone to work for who is really skilled at it. Do your job but watch the innovator closely. Being under the wing of an expert innovator can help you learn how to deal with challenging problems. They can help you learn how to build the sponsorship that is critical to getting around the bureaucratic roadblocks that are always present. And perhaps most importantly, they can challenge you to stretch beyond your self-imposed limits to reach what you really are capable of doing.

The innovators of history were talented, thick-skinned, and they had a knack for developing sponsors, They had a burning desire to make their marks. Often, they would start in one field where they learned by trial-and-error in a small arena and then moved on to the field where they made their name. Most were hands-on from a very young age, learning the fundamentals of their craft whether technical or business. Formal education played a smaller part in their ultimate success than did energy and tenacity. The people we think of as today's icons of innovation (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page to name but a few) fit the description perfectly.

Here's an historical example I just came across. Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834) was one of the most innovative civil engineers in the history of Great Britain. He was a great civil engineer before they even had schools for civil engineers. Telford was a Scot raised in a very poor family. At 14, he was apprenticed (hands on) to a stonemason in Edinburgh. He was good at it. When he was 25 (notice he spent nine years learning his basic craft), he moved to London to seek his fortune. He gradually moved from being a stonemason to being responsible for the specifications, and the overall control for his projects. He was gradually moving from stonemason to being an on-the-job-trained architect. When Telford was 30, he met Sir William Pulteney, a member of aristocracy and a Member of Parliament. Pulteney recognized Telford's talent and became his sponsor, opening the door for Telford to take on increasingly more responsible projects for local governments. Because of that sponsorship, Telford started work on the Ellesmere Canal at age 35. Even at this stage, Telford was under the tutelage of a more senior and experienced civil engineer named William Jessop. Jessop taught Telford all he knew about canal building and supported Telford's innovative design concepts. Telford built a thousand foot long canal aqueduct 126 feet above the Dee River valley. The Pontcysylte (the spelling is Welsh) Aqueduct is still operational today, two hundred years after it was built. Telford had previously built a more modest aqueduct using similar design principles so he was confident that his larger design would work. Telford went on to a long and very successful career of building roads, canals, and bridges throughout the British Isles. When he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

[The photo is of the Menai Suspension Bridge built by Telford in 1826. The bridge still carries automobile traffic.]

My point here is that Telford succeeded because he had developed a natural talent, he was ambitious, and he had a series of mentors and sponsors who opened doors for him. As far as I know, he didn't read books or go to conferences on how to innovate. The few books that were available to him talked about the designs that had been done before, even back to antiquity. More importantly, he could go see real bridges and canals to learn from what others had done.

Maybe the conferences and business books can work and I am just a curmudgeon. But I feel more hopeful when I see hands-on apprenticeship programs where real-world problems are being tackled. Start-up ventures and new product programs teach in ways no amount of reading can replace. Sometimes these ventures fail but this can be the greatest learning experience of all. A good mentor or sponsor is there to make sure you take what you learned and 'get back on the bike'. In the end, the great innovators would not be bounded by the limitations of their current situations. They were willing to head out on their own when it was the best way they could pursue their dreams.

We live in very different times than did Thomas Telford. I am not suggesting that everybody ditch their current company and try to start a new venture. Not that many people in Telford's day left the security of their situations. But enough did to make the difference. Telford was not reckless or arrogant. He got where he did through a series of incremental, hands-on steps. And the result is still some of the most innovative engineering of his day...and even ours.

[Bonus: If you want to see how Telford actually built the aqueduct, check out this terrific 3D computer animation of it here.]