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.