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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shorpy: Crowd-Sourced History

New Amsterdam Theater, New York City,
circa 1905, from www.shorpy.com
http://www.shorpy.com/node/9430
A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of coming across the website Shorpy.com.  I'll let you read on the site where the name came from.  The webmaster (Dave - not Shorpy) has restored hundreds of old photos from the Library of Congress, particularly the Detroit Publishing Company collections.

The Detroit Publishing Company's major business was photochromic post cards.  These were colorized versions of black-and-white images that were produced before color film became commercially viable.  Post cards became the rage in the early years of the 20th century because Congress had passed the Private Mailing Card Act in 1898 which allowed post cards to be mailed for a penny (as compared to the standard rate of two cents for letters).  The post card collecting frenzy lasted through World War I but had run its course by the early '20s.  The Detroit Publishing Company declared bankruptcy in 1924 and was liquidated in 1932.  The good news was that through the generous donations of the Edison Institute and the Colorado Historical Society, tens of thousands of the company's original 8x10 glass-plate negatives ended up at the Library of Congress where they have been digitized and put online.

Dave (aka, Shorpy) spends hours cleaning up the scanned high-resolution, glass plate negatives using Photoshop and publishes the "hi-def" images on his website for your viewing pleasure.  And indeed, it is a pleasure. The clarity of these restored images is breathtaking.  It is hard to overstate the impact of the clarity of the photographs.  If you are so inclined, you can even purchase prints of your favorite images from the website.

Like everyone who comes to this website, the first thing that caught my attention was the clarity and size of the images.  But the website - in a stroke of "social networking" genius - allows viewers to post comments about the images.  As you might expect, quite a few comments simply express appreciation.  But more than a few offer great followup detail on the images, identifying buildings, automobiles, clothing styles, business history, and personal details.  The site essentially crowd-sources history.  The fact that viewers take the trouble to go out and find these details is itself quite amazing.

Shorpy is, of course, not the only website that allows crowd-sourced history.  The Internet Archives is another great place to see and comment on old films, books, and images.  Google Books lets users post reviews of out-of-print volumes. These sites (and others) seem to me to be a new way to teach history in a very interactive format. Think of what might happen if kids were given assignments to link to these images and research and post additional details.  The Library of Congress itself is missing out on a significant opportunity by not providing a place for comments as Shorpy and others have done.

This all works, of course, where there is something visual to share (even if that visual material is original text).  Photography was invented just before the Civil War hence photo archives of older events are just not possible.  But there are thousands of high-quality engravings in old books accessible through Google Books and the other websites and many old documents still exist and could be easily scanned.  The web offers a truly unique opportunity to mine our collective knowledge base and invites the all-important aspect of deeper engagement by sharing.

My hat is off to Shorpy.  What a great way to build and share enthusiasm for the past.

Post script:  The images from the Detroit Publishing Company are free for use at the Library of Congress website.  The LOC's original high-resolution scanned images are often faded and have blemishes and hence need the kind of treatment that Shorpy provides to achieve the same visual impact.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fail Early, Fail Often? Not.


Business is full of pithy aphorisms.  One that you hear frequently is meant to be a mantra for innovation: Fail early, fail often.  The idea behind this little nugget is to experiment with many variations on an idea without investing much in any of them.  Get out there and get market feedback as quickly and as cheaply as you can.  Sounds like good advice, doesn't it?

I spent my career working with inventors and not many of them attempted to fail -- early or otherwise.  And they certainly didn't want to fail often.  That was a one-way ticket to unemployment or at least being moved into a position where they couldn't spend the company's money quite so easily.  Inventors work more from the old saw: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  The first time out, their invention is a flop.  The second time it might be an even bigger fiasco.  But the dedicated inventor "knows" that their idea is just what is needed to make the world a better place (and make them a boatload of money).  They might finally even get an idea out that does the technical job but the money is another story.

The histories of technology and innovation are filled with stories of inventors who pioneered a new area only to go bankrupt.  Often, a savvy business person was watching in the wings waiting for market conditions to improve or shift.  Then with the biggest risks of invention out of the way, they would turn it into a money-making venture by better marketing or more efficient manufacturing.  And what of the inventor?  Often, these intrepid souls would be on to their next great idea.

Are inventors naive?  Are they over-confident about their ideas or abilities?  Why do they continue in the face of such daunting odds?  It seems to me that inventors have two drives: to shepherd their wonderful idea into the world and to get rich doing it.  At their core, they are made up of creativity and optimism.  They have a great inner eye that lets them see a new and untested idea before others can see it.  Their energy comes from their need to create.  They are more akin to artists than engineers.

But the same characteristics that makes a great inventor makes for a really lousy business person.  The business mind is focused on efficiency, scale, and profit.  Business has its own form of creativity but it shares little with that of the inventor.  Once an invention has proven itself, the business person wants nothing to do with further change.  Change is wasteful.  Change is inefficient. Now the drive is to get it out at the lowest possible cost.

It more often happens that an inventor thinks that he or she can also be a great business person than vice versa.  Business can't be that hard, can it?  The invention is the hard part, right? Most business people that I know don't often mistake themselves to be inventors.  The clear, cold thinking that makes them good at business puts a quick stop to any naive beliefs that they can also excel as inventors.

Inventors need business people to commercialize their ideas.  But without inventors the New New would never happen.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  The business people get most of the money, of course.  But the inventors get something equally valuable to them - the freedom to continue to invent.  And the cycle continues.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Inexorable March Towards the Virtual

Second Life, The Sims, video games: the virtual world seems to be taking an ever-stronger hold in the high-tech world we live in.  Some people seem to feel even more comfortable in the virtual world, where they can craft new and different identities through their self-invented avatars.  But it's not hard to hear the murmured fears about how much time some people spend in these Neverlands rather than being grounded in reality.  The people that inhabit these binary universes are thought to be somehow just a bit whacky.

But these fears of the virtual are not new.  The move from the physical world to a more virtual world has been going on for a very long time.  I was reminded of this as I was reading T.J. Stiles National Book Award-winning biography, The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  In the first decades of the 19th century, the economy consisted of individual proprietors and limited partnerships.  As the first corporations began to be chartered to build canals and railroads, the concept of what constituted a business began to become untethered from the hard and comforting reality of the physical world.  The structure of the corporation not only created a new entity that had a legal life of its own (including legal immortality), the stock issued by the corporation began to move away from an accounting-based recognition of the value of the corporation's real property.  Stocks began to be issued for financial reasons and were now free to seek their value in the open market.  This uncoupling of what used to be considered "real" for something more intangible created great angst in the general public.  Shares that were issued for financial reasons were considered to be "watered stock", an expression that derives from the trick of old drovers who would would let their cattle over-drink just before being weighed to determine their market value.  What did stock represent if not the total capital assets of the corporation?  If it couldn't be taken apart and sold, many felt it wasn't real.  Things like an existing customer base, brand recognition, or know-how were considered to be intangibles and hence of no monetary value.  People like Cornelius Vanderbilt helped to move the country forward into a new era, a more virtual era, through his creation of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.

The march to the virtual continued during the Civil War when the lack of enough gold in the U.S. Treasury made it impossible to procure all that was needed to fight the war.  The Greenback was issued as legal currency and it set off a wave of negative reaction that went on for decades.  Why should a piece of printed paper be worth something?  It wasn't either gold or silver.  It was just... paper.  We moved another step towards a more virtual world.

When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, communication took a giant step towards the virtual.  No longer would long-distance communication require either people or a written document moving from place to place to carry information.  Information could now move instantaneously, unfettered by the limitations imposed by geography.  The same sense of uncoupling followed the introduction of the telephone and the phonograph.  Edison was known as The Wizard of Menlo Park, not because of his lightbulb, but because his phonograph took the physical world of sound and somehow encapsulated it so that it could be reproduced at will.

So many of our technologies have a component of abstraction to them; photography, motion pictures, radio, and television all uncoupled the real from the virtual.  With the blooming of the Information Age, we have moved to virtual money through ATMs, cash cards, and PayPal.  We make friends through social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.  We chat through text messaging, tweets, instant messaging, and video calls.  We shop on the internet without giving it a second thought.  We fight our wars using pilots who fly Predator aircraft through virtual links halfway around the planet.  The boundaries blur rapidly.

As surely as there is an Arrow of Time that moves in only one direction, there is also an Arrow of the Virtual which moves ever more away from what we like to call the Real World.  The rate of change often exceeds our capacity to cope.  We feel disoriented and apprehensive as we are pried loose from the old objects of our security.  But what was uncomfortable to one generation is taken for granted in the next.  Our world of 2010 is only a way station on the journey to something that will seem even more disconnected from what we think of as real.  Maybe the comfort in all of this is to realize that it is not only natural, it is inevitable.  People will feel just as comfortable (and uncomfortable) with the world of 2110 as people felt in 1910.   Maybe the secret is to relax and try to enjoy it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Technology Winners and Losers from the Mid-Term Elections

The people have spoken.  But what the people have said is a little harder to understand.  Imagine a room of ten thousand people who on the count of three are urged to shout out their favorite program for technology funding.  The resulting noise from the diverse answers would be hard to decipher.   The only thing of which we can be certain is that the emphasis will change.  So what are some of the potential winners and losers in the next couple of years?  What government funding is likely to get enhanced or reduced as the centers of political power realign once again in Washington, DC?  Here's a few of my predictions:



The Winners:


  1. Defense and weapons systems.  
  2. Materials technologies that drive the electronics industry
  3. Oil exploration technology
  4. Clean coal
  5. The National Labs (again, with a focus on defense)
  6. Pharmaceutical research
The Losers:

  1. Stem cell research
  2. Alternative energy sources
  3. Climate research
  4. NASA
  5. Energy efficiency
The shifts in emphasis every two to four years play havoc on meaningful progress towards any research goals.  Most of these research programs are based in universities and National Labs.  Proposing and funding a program can take years.  Staffing with faculty and post-docs can take almost as long.  By the time a program gets set up and gains some momentum, it can find itself running out of gas during even the first refunding cycle.  We are constantly sub-optimized to progress as far and as fast as we can.  In a sense, everyone loses from the short-term reordering of research priorities.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, nor should any particular line of research be immune from changes in priorities.  Still, the need to achieve a minimum level of continuity - perhaps a decade - should be factored into setting research objectives.  Our future depends on it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Pontiac GTO

I came of age in the '60s.  George Lucas' 1973 paean to the rock-and-roll era, American Graffiti, (set in 1962 Modesto, California) was a near-perfect reflection of our 1960's obsession with cars and speed.



I read an article in the New York Times today that proclaimed the end for GM's Pontiac.  It made me sad - but I was not surprised.  Pontiac has been languishing for years in the backwaters of the troubled automaker.  Pontiac died a quiet death at age 84.  But like many obituaries of older folks whose family show a picture of the Dearly Departed from their younger years, I want to remember the Pontiac when it was young and vibrant.

Pontiac introduced their compact car line, dubbed the Tempest, in the Fall of 1960.  The first Tempest was intended to be a fuel sipping family hauler.  That first year, the car had an innovative drivetrain with the transmission from the Corvair mounted in the rear to flatten the hump in the middle of the front passenger compartment normally created by the transmission. By 1963, the car had grown from Compact to Intermediate class and like all cars of that era, higher-performance engines became an option.  The transmission moved back up front to take the beefed-up torque of these larger engines which had a 326 cubic-inch displacement. These small V8s were a hit with consumers and the restyled 1964 Tempest Lemans was offered with a factory option for the larger-bore-in-the-same-block, 389 cubic-inch V8.  This true Muscle Car was the brain-child of Pontiac's Chief Engineer, John DeLorean, and was dubbed the Pontiac GTO.

The 1964-65 GTO's remain at the pinnacle of desirable collector cars.  Restored to pristine condition, these hunks of mid-60s steel can easily bring over $100,000 at auction.  I would guess that most of the buyers are guys my age who always dreamed of owning one of these exotic machines from their long-ago youth.  In my high school years, I thought the GTO was second only to the Corvette as the coolest car on the road.  I never could have bought one, of course.  I could barely afford the tiny Honda CB160 motorcycle that was my only way of getting around.  But I was luckier than most.  I had the right high school friend.

1965 Pontiac GTO Couple

1965 Pontiac LeMans Convertible

The first year after graduating from high school, my best friend had managed to buy a 1965 deep burgundy GTO convertible by working out a loan with his very lenient father.  The '65 GTO had (and maybe still has) the best body style of any car in its class.  The over-under, forward-raked headlights and the clean grill looked as though it could just knife the air.  The bulge on the GTO's hood looked like a pair of flared nostrils.  The four-on-the-floor (with the white billiard-ball shift knob) was the lever to All Power.  The lines were clean and uncluttered - unlike so many cars of the day - and beautifully proportioned.

I got to drive this car... once.  Well, maybe twice.  But the time I remember was when I was driving it in the high school homecoming parade with one of the princesses sitting up on the convertible boot in the back seat.  My friend, the owner, couldn't drive because he was in another float in the same parade and had asked me to take the wheel.  I did my very best to look totally bored with the experience.  (Such a Guy Thing at age 18.) Never once did I let on that I wanted to do handsprings down the middle of the street because I felt SO COOL!  My Fifteen Minutes of Fame had arrived.  My biggest challenge was not inadvertently popping the very stiff clutch and send my homecoming princess flying off the trunk lid or stalling the car in the middle of the parade. I managed without mishap.

I didn't get my own car until a couple of years later.  It was not a Pontiac GTO.  It was a used VW Bug that struggled to get up to highway speed.  The GTO was definitely another kind of automobile and I will always remember it fondly.  It was iconic.  It defined the times.  Pontiac went on to get older, heavier, slower. (Sounds like what happened to us.)  Now, it is gone.  But when I see these classic GTOs at a car show, I still want to grin.   They were fun in a way that cars today can never be.  At least, not to me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Art of Technology

Technology always exists within the culture.  Technology also shapes the culture in ways both subtle and obvious.  But technology would have been one of the last subjects of interest to early 19th century American artists.  The Back Story of America was the opening of a virgin continent, the taming of the wilderness, and the westward expansion that was for some our Manifest Destiny.

The earliest landscape artists painted bucolic scenes of the Hudson River Valley - from which they drew their group identity, becoming known as the Hudson River School.  Technology in the landscape was hard to see even in the 1820s.  There might be a steamboat in the distance on the Hudson but most often painters such as Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) painted their landscapes without machines.  But even Cole payed tribute to the settling of the land in his 1836 painting, The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northhampton).  Cole's painting is seen as one of the first clear visual statements of the difference between the settled land with well-tended farms (as seen on the right) and the yet unspoiled but ominous wilderness (on the left).

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Railroads came to America in 1829.  The railroad became the embodiment of technology change made visible, or to use Leo Marx's phrase, the railroad was "the machine in the garden."  Artists still didn't make technology a prominent feature in their paintings but it did start to have some presence, perhaps being represented by a distant steam locomotive seen in the far distance.  The landscape itself still dominated.  

As the 19th century progressed, the emerging place of technology became self-evident.  Artists began to be commissioned for paintings featuring technology as the main subject.  This was clearly the case with what has come to be seen today as the best example of 19th century technology art, "The Lackawanna Valley," by George Inness (1825 - 1894).

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, ca. 1855
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This painting has an interesting history.  It was apparently commissioned by the directors of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad either for use in advertising or to decorate the walls of the company's offices. No one knows for sure. Inness was only about 30 years old when he painted it and was newly returned from an extended stay in Europe.  The scene depicted is of the Lackawanna's engine house (the round building in the center distance) in Scranton, PA. The picture is an idealized rendition of (what was in reality) a much flatter and uglier landscape as can seen in contemporary photographs of Scranton. But the picture places the train smack dab in the center and the engine house prominently in the distance.  Despite these placements, the landscape still speaks of tranquillity and the rural life.

Apparently, the railroad directors didn't much like the picture.  There is no mention of it in any surviving records and there are no engravings made from it for advertising.  When Inness had been in France, he had become enthralled with the Barbizon School of painting which was moving away from the older style of the Hudson River School. Inness was paid $75 to paint the work, money he desperately needed at this early stage in his career.  There isn't even agreement on the date of the painting or its original title.  It has become popularly known as The Lackawanna Valley but it was never named that by the artist.  It might have been painted in 1857, rather than 1855, because that was the year that the engine house was completed.  

Many decades latter, in 1891, George Inness was in a junk shop in Mexico City and he found his painting (which was quite large at 34 in by 50 in) piled in a corner.  The shop owner told Inness that he had acquired it in a load of old office furnishings.  Inness bought his old painting back for a few dollars, which is the only reason we have it at all.  The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC as one of the great masterpieces of 19th century American art. 

Technology both creates culture and is created by culture. From time-to-time, I hope to put some other artwork on the blog. It helps me, at least, to see the world as a whole.

Reference:

The Railroad in American Art, Representations of Technological Change, Edited by Susan Danly and Leo Marx, The MIT Press, 1988.





Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why Not Technology News?

Disclaimer:  After a glass of wine and watching the network news on television, I decided to have an "Andy Rooney Moment" and bitch.  (For those of you who don't know who Andy Rooney is, he's on CBS's 60 Minutes but you can get a sense of his style here.)

______________

If you want to find stories about what's new in science, just open almost any newspaper or magazine.  The New York Times has a whole section on Tuesdays.  Scientific American, Science, Nature, Discover, and a host of other media outlets have a constant parade of what's new in most scientific areas, including stories, blogs, Tweets, and Facebook listings.

But what if you are more interested in technology?  Well, if you are talking "hi-tech" - which is to say the web, cellphones, social networking, e-readers, or a host of other personal technology - you don't have much trouble finding out the latest news.  Everybody runs stories.  David Pogue in the NY Times is a big source for me but so is Gizmodo, Tech Crunch, CNET, and a boat load of other websites.

I find most of the hi-tech stuff interesting but not very inclusive.  If I want to know what's new in other technology areas (which includes virtually any area other than electrical engineering and computer science), I  have to do some digging.  Even Popular Science and Popular Mechanics come up short when it comes to the cutting-edge of new, non-silicon technology.  Why is that?  Why is science and hi-tech news so easy to come by yet other technology news so hard to find?  Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge any of these other areas their news streams.  People should know something about science and certainly most of the younger crowd wants to know what's the New New in wireless and personal tech.

But we seem to have hit the Yawn Threshold when it comes to other technologies.  It doesn't seem to matter whether they launch a Space Shuttle or complete an enormous bridge across the Colorado River (as they just did), you would be hard pressed to know anything like this is happening.  And yet, it is this very same technology that underpins so much of our lives.  You might think that Green Energy news would be everywhere but it gets buried under the deluge of social networking and political noise on the web.  Same goes for the fact that our economy is in shambles because we are losing our older technology base (read: manufacturing economy) that kept this country going for the last century.

I realize that this sounds a bit jaded, especially from a blogger who writes about the history of technology.  While I admit to being biased, I think that most people can find something of interest in the technology that makes the world they live in possible - even if it is only from the human interest side of the story.  Maybe you even want to protest against a technology but at least you might be better informed about it. And some positive news might just get some kid interested in a great career path.  I would love to see a front page headline in the major newspapers of this country with something like, "Largest Solar Installation in the World Goes Online."  But I'm not holding my breath.

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Post-Disclaimer:  When the wine imbibed is metabolized, a sense of calm returns... for better and for worse.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Panorama: IMAX of the 19th Century

No matter what direction they looked, the battle raged around them.  The agony of the dead and dying, the chaos of Pickett's Charge, the noise, smoke and confusion was everywhere visible.  The sense of being there was overwhelming, yet the scene they observed had happened 20 years earlier.  The time machine that transported them there was a cyclorama.

A couple of days ago, I came across a reference to Louis Le Prince who was the inventor who had been credited as being first to create a motion picture.  I put a link up on my Facebook TechAlmanac to his two-second, 1883 film entitled "Roundhay Garden Scene." I started reading a little more about Le Prince and learned that he had emigrated from France - first to England and then to New York - in the mid-1880s. One of his jobs was to manage the Monitor and Merrimac Panorama exhibition.  I had never heard of a cyclorama so I started doing a little investigating.  What I found was a fascinating history of a form of entertainment that mesmerized those in the late 19th century who saw such a display.

Panoramas (also interchangeably called Cycloramas) were gigantic paintings that were displayed inside specially-constructed round buildings so that the painting completely surrounded the viewer.  The painting could be 350 to 400 feet in circumference and 25 to 40 feet high.  The viewers would typically climb stairs to a high platform in the center of the building so that their viewpoint was that of being on a high hill.  Often, the panorama was also combined with real foreground elements such as trees, fences, or (if it was a military scene) cannons and other armaments.  The illusion of being in the painting was said to be overpowering.

The cyclorama was patented by and Englishman named Robert Barker in 1787.  Barker was the first to coin the term panorama from which the adjective "panoramic" entered the lexicon in 1813.  Barker's first panorama was a view of Edinburgh. He later displayed a second panorama of London as seen from the roof of Albion Mills and it was wildly successful.  Hundreds more such scenes followed by other artists and were displayed across England and Europe.

In the United States, the first panorama was painted by John Vanderlyn in 1818 and was entitled, "A View of the Palace and Garden of Versailles".  The painting was originally displayed in a special building in New York City called the Rotunda. The panorma has survived and is now housed in a round hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is one of only three historical panoramas that can still be seen in this country.

Paul Phillippoteaux
The second and perhaps the most famous is "The Battle of Gettysburg" which was painted in 1883. The panorama captured the scene on July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the epic battle, at the time that Confederate General George Pickett commanded a charge of 12,500 troops against an entrenched Union positions.  The result was a bloodbath for the Confederates with over fifty percent rate casualties. The cyclorama painted was painted on commission from Chicago investors by French artist, Paul Dominique Phillippoteaux and a team of other artists. It was first displayed in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1883 to critical acclaim.  As painted, the original was 365 feet in circumference and 42 feet high. Three copies of the Gettysburg Battle were subsequently created by the artist and his team for display in other cities. The first copy, which opened a year later in Boston, found its way years later to the Gettyburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. It has been displayed there since 1912. It was recently renovated and moved to a brand new exhibition building in the Park.

A Portion of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

The third existing historical cyclorama is titled "The Battle of Atlanta" and is on display in Atlanta, GA.  While this battle depicts the North's victory in Atlanta, it is still cherished as a reminder of the Confederacy's resistance to the decimation of Atlanta by General William Tecumseh Sherman.

There were many more of these huge paintings that were shown in traveling displays to hundreds of thousands of people.  Some titles included "The Battle of Shiloh", "The Battle of Second Manassas", and (the one that got me going in the first place) "The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac". You might think that it would be hard to lose paintings this large.  After all, the combined paintings making up the cyclorama usually weighed about 10,000 pounds and, even rolled up, would have been 30 to 40 feet long.  Some were lost to fire, others were undoubtedly thrown out when the fashion for these paintings passed. Still others were cut up to make smaller paintings for framing.

One interesting footnote came to light almost in my backyard.  An artist named Joseph Wallace King of Winston-Salem, NC became obsessed with finding one of the missing Battle of Gettysburg cycloramas and stayed on the hunt for decades.  In the 1960s, he got word that one of them might be in a warehouse in Chicago.  When he went to the location, he was told that the old warehouse had burned down a few years before but he went in to the new one and found a fire-blackened back wall.  For whatever reason he thought there might be something behind the wall and talked the owner into letting him punch a hole through to check.  Behind the wall lay one of the stored copies of the Gettysburg cyclorama.  He bought the painting and brought it back to Winston-Salem and unrolled the paintings end to end in the Bowman Gray football stadium.  They even had to take the goal posts down to put all the pieces end to end. King died in 1996 while trying to get the paintings restored and redisplayed.  He bequeathed the cyclorama to Wake Forest University.  In 2007, three unidentified investors from Raleigh bought the painting from the University for a reported $10 million and are seeking other investors to restore and display it.

Cycloramas were the IMAX of their day.  They provided a spectacle and an immersive experience that took viewers to other places and other times.  In the days before motion pictures, they must have been truly extraordinary.  But like every technology, these massive paintings became a dated form of entertainment.  The painting that was found in the old Chicago warehouse was last displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and was a Midway attraction, not even one of the major exhibits.

I wonder what the next century will bring in immersive experience.  With the rate of acceleration of virtual reality software it is likely that we will get to the point where we will be able to inhabit places indistinguishable from the real world.  We are almost there now. I can imagine a future virtual theater recreating an even more powerful rendition of the Battle of Gettysburg.  On the other hand, there have been so many battles since that epic conflict that it might be hard to chose which battle to recreate.

Further reading:

Saving the IMAX of its Day - American Heritage Magazine
The Velaslavasay Panorama
Official Website of the International Panorama Conference with lists of other panoramas by country.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Grand Challenges: Keys to Future Training

How do you know when a new technology is becoming mainstream?  Conversely, what trends can you afford to ignore?  Where are the signals that suggest permanence - or at least a long run?  I wouldn't put my money on media hype.  The New-New can very quickly be about as appetizing as yesterday's oatmeal.

One sure indicator of a technology that is here to say is the emergence of training programs.    When employers are looking for skilled people, it is safe bet that the early risks of new technologies have passed.

If you look back at technology history, you can see the pattern.  In the late 1400s, the craft of printing exploded.  Printing was taught as a legitimate craft complete with guilds and master craftsmen.  In the 19th century, engineering emerged as a recognized discipline that was capable of far more than what had been the domain of the earlier military engineers.  Huge public works like the Erie Canal were built in the early 1800s by self-taught surveyors.  By the latter half of the century engineering, lead by civil engineering, was a mainstay at many larger colleges.  Specialty schools were founded which focused solely on science and engineering (e.g., MIT, CalTech, RPI, etc.).  In the last thirty years the emergence of the discipline of computer science has attracted students who wanted to work on the cutting edge of technology.

So what are the new training programs that are emerging that foretell the next wave of mainstream technology?  A quick scan of leading technology universities hints at some directions but one organization that cuts across many of the leading institutions is the National Academy of Engineering.  The leadership of the NAE has pulled together a list of what it calls Grand Challenges that represent some of the major issues facing our global society.  Here's the list:


  1. Make solar energy economical
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advance personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery


When I looked over the list, it didn't seem to me that all these challenges were defined from the same altitude.  Some are very broad (e.g., prevent nuclear terror), while others are down in the trenches (enhance virtual reality).  But some broad themes emerge and these would be good bets for training for the future.  I would categorize the themes as energy, the environment, better health care, security, and retooling learning.

Energy and the environment are no brainers.  If we don't start to take these seriously, we will be in a world of hurt. The trick is to move mega-issues like these down into actionable projects which demand trained people.  There is, however, the little matter of who will write the paychecks?  The most sustainable solution is for private enterprise to emerge as a leader but at this stage it will take a public-private partnership to prime the pump.

Better health care is not new but two forces are coming into play to change the game.  The first is the diminishing viability of the old health care model.  This encompasses everything from HMOs to the pharmaceutical drug discovery model (which, as they say, is busted).  The cost increases in the current model are just not sustainable.  But help may be on the way in the form of sophisticated heath informatics to outline better and more cost-effective treatment protocols.  Bioinformatics is at the core of genomic medicine.  Computational power will have even higher leverage in health care in the future.

Another theme in the Grand Challenges is retooling learning.  Again, forces are in direct collision.  The current public education system in this country is failing miserably.  Government initiatives that demand uniform testing may be of some help but the bigger problem is that society, and particularly the family, are being redefined in the Age of Globalization.  On the positive side, virtually every college in the country now has so-called distance learning.  If you don't care about college credit, they even give away courses for free on the web.  The Gates Foundation is focusing billions on improving public education as they research new tools and techniques.  In the end, however, education takes individual concentration and effort.  No amount of technology replaces the desire to learn.

If I were going to college today, choosing a path from the Grand Challenges list would be a good place to start.  In the end, however, it is good to remember that every training and college program is willed into being by a demand for people with particular skills - skills where the demand outstrips the supply. We need to do all we can to make sure the demand is there.  The supply will follow naturally.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Technology's Impact on the Land

We just returned from a week's trip to the Maine coast. This morning, we drove down the Hudson River Valley from Fishkill, New York, past the Manhattan skyline, and down the New Jersey Turnpike (it's always best to do this on a Sunday morning).

Coincidentally, I have been reading T.J. Stiles' recent biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The First Tycoon."  Vanderbilt made his first fortune in steamboats and his second in railroads.  Vanderbilt first operated ferries that plied the waters between his home on Staten Island and the docks of Manhattan.  To say he led a colorful life would be an understatement.

When young Vanderbilt lived in the same environs that we drove through today, New York City had a rapidly-growing population of 40,000 people.  Staten Island was a farming community that sent produce to market across the river to New York City.  Getting from Manhattan to Philadelphia was an arduous journey that required a steam ferry, a long stagecoach ride across New Jersey, and a second steamboat trip down the Delaware. It took 12 hours... on a good day.



As I looked at the acres of freeways, the towering skeletons of ship gantries on the shores of Staten Island, the smokestacks of chemical plants and oil refineries, and the miles of dilapidated housing, I couldn't help wondering if the rise of technology has been worth it?  Have we lost our way somewhere and raced right past the Point of No Return as we built our cities and industries?

What would Vanderbilt have thought if he could see his old haunts today?  I'm not sure. Maybe he would have been fine with it.  He was first and foremost a ruthless businessman.  Vanderbilt had no problem spoiling the natural beauty and resources of his own day to make a buck.   But I wonder if the sheer scale of the change would set even Commodore Vanderbilt back a bit?  Would he see this as some scene out of a future run amok, even for someone as rapacious as he was himself?

Cornelius Vanderbilt
T.J. Stiles relates a very interesting moment in Vanderbilt's life. When Vanderbilt was middle-aged, he became desperately ill with what was thought was either pneumonia or pleurisy.  His doctor told him point blank that he should get his affairs in order because he wouldn't survive.  Vanderbilt called his family together and spoke to them from what he thought was his death bed.  One of his family later recalled his words:  "Don't be too anxious to make money, there is enough for all of you."  When the chips were down, Vanderbilt could see that the pursuit of wealth was not the most important thing even in his life.

Miraculously, Vanderbilt recovered from his pneumonia. Deathbed insights don't always stick.  He went on to become an even more hardened and calloused tycoon who took the greatest pleasure in crushing all who stood in his path.    Vanderbilt's world, the world centered on New York City, was changing forever.  It keeps on changing, of course.  Maybe the changes that come in the future will actually be more positive because there is nothing left to build on unless the old and the ugly is torn down first.  I hope that the result is not only functional and profitable, but also something that doesn't deaden the soul to look upon.

Vanderbilt lived in the days when most Americans believed in unlimited natural resources.  Thomas Jefferson thought it would take centuries to exploit all the riches of the continent. Instead, it took just over one.  We seem to learn most lessons, even the lesson of blighting the land, the hard way.  I would like to think we are at least gaining a little wisdom as we continue to mature as a nation.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oliver Evans, America's First Great Inventor

People seem to naturally resist adopting a new technology even in the face of evidence that it will improve their lives. We stick with an old and inefficient technology when there is clearly a better way.  Given this natural human tendency, it is all the more remarkable that we have people who love to invent.  In fact, there have always been inventors.  In spite of the certain knowledge that getting people to change is a Herculean task, inventors not only persist, they seem to proliferate.

My list of positive attributes of an inventor would include creativity, persistence, and optimism.  Inventors have an extraordinary faith in their ideas and will endure years of neglect and abuse in an attempt to see that their ideas prosper. As a result of the rocky road that inventors must travel, they also tend to be defensive, prickly, and maybe even a little paranoid.  In short, inventors can be a real pain in the posterior.  When they are not enthusiastically pestering people to invest in their idea, they  are usually complaining about the stupidity of those who won't.

Oliver Evans was one of America's earliest inventors.  He is also is a great example of the inventor archetype. Evans was born a few miles west of Wilmington, Delaware in 1755. He was apprenticed as a wheelwright and wagon maker but he quickly gravitated towards ideas related to flour milling. In 1790, the first year of the newly-opened U.S. Patent Office, Evans received the third patent ever issued for his fully-automated flour mill.  His invention was a significant advance in the way flour mills had been constructed.  His new design not only saved a tremendous amount of the hard labor of lifting and carrying the intermediates of the flour milling process from place to place inside the mill, Evans' invention also improved the overall cleanliness of the finished flour.  Previously, millers in their work would walk across the ground flour that had been spread out on the floor to cool and dry, transferring dirt from their shoes into the flour.  Sometimes, the entire batch had to thrown out because it was too dirty.  Evans' automated mill spread the flour out evenly without the need for any manual operations and hence it remained clean.

Evans' Automated Mill

Despite all these advantages, millers at first saw no reason they should invest in his new-fangled milling equipment.  The old ways were tried-and-true, reliable, a real craft that demanded the miller's best efforts.  Milling couldn't simply be replaced with automated equipment - or so said the millers vested in the old ways of doing things.

Undaunted, Oliver Evans built his own automated flour mill and word started to get around that maybe this peculiar young man (inventors are often seen as a little odd) had something after all.  It wasn't Evans who convinced them to change.  It was a few of what today we would call "early adopters" who were willing to embrace Evans' new milling methods. Their success did more to convince their conservative brethren than all the evangelizing by the inventor.  Every inventor is made or broken by the early adopters.

When more millers did decide to try Evans revolutionary new method, they did what people have always done - they declared that the inventions were so obvious that they felt no moral obligation whatsoever to pay Evans his license fees for his patent.  They simply pirated the inventions.  Not everyone was so dishonest, of course.  George Washington paid Evans for a license to use his inventions in Washington's own mill on the Mt. Vernon estate.  A bit later, Thomas Jefferson did as well.

Evans' patent lapsed in 1804 after its 14-year patent life. Due to all the pirating of his invention, Evans never felt he was fairly compensated for his invention.  In a rare bit of legislative compassion, the U.S. House of Representatives in 1808 gave Evans a 14-year extension of his patent to allow him to again try to collect his patent license fees.  He didn't live to see the end of the patent extension. By the time of his death, he had become completely jaded on the legal protections offered by patents and railed against their usefulness as an incentive for inventors.  Evans wrote his own epitaph which perfectly expresses both the excitement and the frustration of the inventor.

This stone and sod, combined to hold
A wreck'd volcanic engine; old
Which steady wrought on, sixty years
then faulter'd and did need
repairs...
Here is the end of Oliver, he died
____day of _____
Where has the active spirit flown
Who formed opinions, of its own?
Did disregard the laughs of fools
The Claims of things, the pomp
of schools...
As he wished others do to him
Just so, he strove to do to them
in this straight course, his Bark
did steer
And never felt a pang of fear.

Evans' Powered Dredge
Painting in U.S. Capitol
Oliver Evans died on April 15, 1819 but in his many productive years, Evans would leave a legacy of inventions.  He conceived (and patented) America's first powered land vehicle in 1787.  He foresaw the day when railroads would travel at great speed, carrying passengers between cities, even traveling safely at night.  In 1804, he patented the high-pressure steam engine which would open the door to river navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  He built a steam-powered dredge he named the Oruktur Amphibolos (amphibious digger) for the City of Philadelphia. He was the first to invent a practical refrigerator based on cooling from the expansion of ether.  The breadth of his creativity was astounding.

Evans' High-Pressure
Steam Engine
Evans was a self-taught man whose book, The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide, on the design and construction of water-powered mills would remain in print through fifteen editions (up to the Civil War). He also published a well-received guide to the design of high-pressure steam engines.

It is intriguing to speculate if there is such a thing as a born inventor.  The more I read, the more I believe that invention is almost like a drug: it seizes receptive people with its creative power and fills their brains with something that is akin to an addicting drive.  Once experienced, the inventor seems to have little choice but to drive forward to either success or exhaustion.

Most of us (myself included) have never experienced the "inventor's high".  Probably the closest we come to it is when we think of a clever way to solve some problem at work or school.  But this is not invention.  These simple problem-solvers don't contain the power to change the world.  True invention can be a dangerous substance.  I would guess that some future inventors would opt out if they knew what the path before them held.  We're all the better that they can't see what's ahead.  They're the better for doing it.


Further Reading: The Genius of Oliver Evans, Joseph Gies, American Heritage Invention and Technology Magazine, Fall 1990.

Video of George Washington's Flour Mill which licensed Evans' technology.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Realtime Innovation

I have been seeing the buzz around Google's new instant search service called Google Realtime.  I hadn't tried it so I wandered over there this morning to see for myself.  The search box looks much the same as the standard Google search window but the results come from blogs, tweets, and other social networking sites and are displayed in near-realtime.

I typed in "innovation" and sat back to watch the action.  I wasn't disappointed.  A new posting containing the word "innovation" would pop up on average every three seconds.


 It was mesmerizing to see this flow of consciousness being spewed forth - all in the name of innovation.  Most of the torrent of returns were tweets - some from companies but many from bloggers who seem to be pushing innovation as a way to get consulting gigs.

The Google site itself is somewhat innovative but you get the same effect of watching the stream if you monitor Twitter or Facebook for a time.  But the effects of aggregation take Google Realtime to another level.

The question that I am struggling with is whether all of this gushing of web consciousness on innovation helps anyone become more innovative?  A debate team taking the Pro position might argue that this shows how much innovation is a part of our collective consciousness, how easily we can cross-pollinate ideas, or how much more easily we can find other people who can help us achieve some specific goal.  The team for the Cons would say this isn't dialogue, it is a monologue with people spewing forth tweets simply in an attempt to be visible, that the people who are really innovating aren't spending their time tweeting, they're actually innovating, or that the chatter actually contributes to less innovation because it is so distracting.

Having read quite a bit about this history of technology and innovation, I come away more on the side of the Cons than on the side of the Pros.  It seems to me that most innovators have a single-mindedness that shuts out all extraneous voices.  I think about John Fitch and the first steamboat, or Oliver Evans automating the first flour mill, or Henry Ford and his plan to put America on wheels with the Model-T, of even more recently, Steve Jobs bringing us a succession of "gotta-have" Apple products.  True innovators are tuning the noise out while they doggedly press forward against all the naysayers.

I remain convinced the we have many innovators today, just as we have had them throughout our history.  They just aren't getting carpal tunnel syndrome from overuse of their thumbs on their Blackberries, tweeting away constantly.  There is a place for all the latest tweets.  I write them myself on my companion Facebook and Twitter pages.  But this is more akin to journalism than it is to innovation.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have some tweets I have to get out.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Century of Progress: Chicago, 1933



A couple of days ago, I was looking for something on my bookshelves when I got waylaid by a couple of books I had inherited from my Dad when he passed away a couple of years ago.  The first book was entitled, "The Official Pictures of A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago 1933."  The book was the glossy souvenir book offered at the Exposition for those "take home" memories.  The second, a book of the same title, was a series of watercolor paintings of scenes from the Exposition.

My father visited the Exposition when he was eleven-years old - and he never forgot it.  The Century of Progress was a marvelous display of the latest in technology and architecture.  Just 40 years earlier, Chicago had hosted the World's Columbian Exposition, the so-called White City.  The 1933 Exposition was deliberately designed to be the opposite of the White City.  The architecture of the buildings was entirely modern rather than classical.  The buildings were painted in vibrant colors rather than a monochrome white, engendering the name "The Rainbow City".  The Exposition intended to look forward, not back. The motto of the fair, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms", was intended to be uplifting, even if today it carries more Orwellian connotations.

Despite the efforts to differentiate it, the 1933 Century of Progress had a lot in common with its earlier predecessor. Both expositions were held in the middle of a severe economic depression.  Both attempted to put on a brave face and look past the tough times.  Both were mostly compendiums of artifacts displaying what mankind had created. Both featured a major ride to awe the visitors (the Ferris Wheel in 1893 and the Sky Ride in 1933).  Both were built on the Lake Michigan shoreline and featured a Midway for amusement to complement the educational displays.  Most of all, both were proud proclamations by the City of Chicago showing that it was the leading industrial city in America.



Given that only 40 years had elapsed between the two expositions, many people could certainly have attended both.  But the differences between those two fairs were astounding. In 1893, automobiles were only in their earliest infancy.  By 1933, some of the largest pavilions were built by GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  In 1893, electricity had barely begun to be available in most homes and businesses.  By 1933, it was becoming ubiquitous.  The list goes on to include airplanes, radio, talking motion pictures, and the first experiments in television. There were clearly more technology changes in the 40 years between 1893 and 1933 than there were in the next 40 years from 1933 to 1973.

When I look at the photos of both of these past expositions, I lament how little of them remains.  Like the White City, the Rainbow City of 1933 - 1934 was quickly torn down after The Century of Progress Exposition was finished. Maybe that is as it should be.  Having visited Epcot at Disney World many times over the years, the excitement of the exhibitions begins to fade with repetition. I would guess that much of what was created for the 1933 Exposition was eventually destroyed.  That's a pity given the number of museum-quality displays and diorama that were built for the Exposition.

In 1933, the World's Fair was called The Century of Progress. In 2010, the World's Fair in Shanghai is called Expo 2010 - but it could easily be called The Century of Progress.  So far, every year marks a century of advancement. Given our current world problems, let's hope it stays that way.

Images:

First two are photos of my book jackets.
Second two from Wikipedia

Further Exploration:

Internet Archive film: Wings of a Century (1933). This is a 13 minute silent film but gives a good feeling for the Exposition.
University of Illinois at Chicago Photo Archive. About 1400 still shots taken at the Expostion.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tech Almanac is on Facebook and Twitter

It might seem ironic for someone who writes about technology and innovation, but I have been resisting the use  of Facebook and Twitter.  Actually, I tried Twitter over a year ago but I quit because I found tweeting about what I had for breakfast to be a colossal waste of my time and boring to everyone else.  Facebook was a bit of a different animal.  I thought of Facebook as a semi-live chat for college and high school kids or maybe a good way to share pictures of the last vacation.  I have had a Facebook account for a year but have hardly used it.

Then I started following the Chicago History Journal blog.  Sharon Williams, who writes the blog, clued me in to the value of Facebook and Twitter as a way to enhance and connect a blog to a wider group of readers.  When I saw how interesting her own pages were, I took the plunge.

So if you don't know about it yet,  I have extended the Technology Almanac to Facebook here.  My Facebook page isn't the same as what you will find in the blog.  The blog links will show up there, of course, when they are posted but most of what is on Facebook are articles and links relating to topical stories about technology and innovation.  I follow the news pretty closely and when I see something that I think others might find interesting, I post it on my Tech Almanac Facebook page.

Similarly, I have a Twitter page for the Tech Almanac that more or less mirrors the Facebook page. They link back and forth so if you prefer one over the other, you can see what's up in stories relating to technology and innovation.  If you see a story that you think would be of interest, send it my way.

One of the things I have learned out of this experience is that Facebook and Twitter are more than tools to connect with friends.  The number of businesses and institutions that are on both of these platforms is astounding.  We are becoming ever more dependent on our social networking tools.  That is not to say that there isn't a lot of mindless clutter out there.  Arguably, the time that I spend minding the store on Facebook and Twitter might be more productively spent elsewhere.  But I do learn a ton by what I see passing by my Facebook and Twitter windows.

I'm not sure where all this is leading but I do know that the way we connect and communicate is undergoing seismic shifts.  I guess I want to go along for the ride.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Waves of Innovation, Waves of Materials

I am continually reminded in my readings of just how important new materials are to innovation, especially the major waves of innovation.  Unlocking the possibilities in a new material releases endless opportunities for inventors and entrepreneurs to exploit.  We even note a new material era almost like chapter-headings in the history of technology:  the Iron and Steel Age, the Petroleum Age, the Polymer Age, the Age of Silicon. Material revolutions underlie a multitude of other major innovations from automobiles to plastics to microchips.

The common thread in all these earlier ages was that the raw materials to enable these waves of material innovation were abundant.  The very success of the early ventures into a new material - oil drilling, for example - led to ever-increasing investment to find more sources of untapped oil reserves.  For the last 150 years or so, it seemed like we could never run out.

But Earth is a finite place and the cost of retrieving raw materials has to rise as the difficulty in getting at them increases.  Deep-water oil drilling is one very glaring example in the news lately.  The supplies of rare metals used in microchip doping lies in only a few places on the planet and most of them could become inaccessible if the political winds change in the future.

I recently came across a very interesting interactive graphic  entitled "How Much is Left?" on Scientific American's web site that was designed to make you think about the limits of our planet's resources.  The interactive links are well worth exploring.

If new materials drive innovation, what can we expect if the raw materials are themselves limited?  It seems a no-brainer that we will focus more and more on finding ways to economically extract materials from renewable resources.  Some of this will driven by a desire for cleaner, greener technologies.  But most of  the impetus will be that it is the only way to sustain production of some materials.  The commercial gates will open when rising costs from shrinking supplies of the old materials exceed the diminishing costs of sustainable materials.  It will not be viable unless it is driven by economics rather than ideology.

So the next wave of material innovation may be less about how we exploit some new raw material and more about how we replace ever-more-scarce natural materials.  The difference this time is that the new raw materials will be sustainable indefinitely.  We better hope that is true because the alternative isn't pretty to think about.

Monday, August 23, 2010

When Google and Apple Are as Passe as Ford


Virtually every list of the most innovative companies in the world list Google and Apple in the top two or three slots.  Both companies are there for a reason - their products and services are cutting edge and customers can't get enough of them.   Look at the lines out the door at the Apple Store when the iPad and the iPhone4 were introduced. Look at the ever-increasing reach of Google.  From search engines, it has branched out into operating systems for cellphones (Android), web browsers (Google Chrome), and online office suites (Google Docs), not to mention Gmail, Google Books, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google News, YouTube... you get the idea.

But that edge in the cutting edge moves.  What was the cutting edge one hundred years ago now brings a yawn.  While Google and Apple bask in the warm glow of innovation accolades today, in a hundred years they will most likely be history.  I was reminded of this as I was reading Douglass Brinkley's book, "Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress."  Brinkley writes of the heady days of early Model T production when Ford couldn't build their cars fast enough:

The astounding pace of change at Ford Motor Company in 1914 made it the most glamorous, most widely discussed company in America, if not the world. It was not merely that Ford was trying so many things in so many arenas, nor even that it was succeeding with most of them.  What attracted the admiration and envy of outsiders was the brimming confidence Ford Motor exuded. The public's fascination with Henry Ford's maverick role lay in part in his overt image as an iconoclastic, oddly nineteenth-century presence in the twentieth century's most up-to-date business. It seemed that through modern industry Ford had reopened the American frontier.  His company was more than a profit-making enterprise; it was a pioneer's domain, where old assumptions about business were cast off in favor of new notions.  As on any frontier, money did not make for heroes, and Ford Motor had started with very little money.  The company did not rely on established connections, either, remaining as stubbornly independent as it had on the day it was founded. Ford Motor proved that creating a fresh new world out of the industrial domain rested on only two crucial qualities: competence and confidence. (p. 180)

If you changed Ford Motor to Google or Apple in the above quote, you would have a pretty good description of what makes these companies great today. Henry Ford reminds me most of all of Steve Jobs.  Ford was a megalomaniac with his vision of the car for the masses.  He alienated almost everyone around him including those who helped him form the company.  He began to believe that he alone was the arbiter of automobile innovation.

Maybe it takes that kind of drive and vision to have the absolutely phenomenal results that innovative companies create.  Within ten years of Ford Motor Company's founding in 1903, Henry Ford was second in personal wealth to only John D. Rockefeller.  Ford sold more cars in 1914 than the next ten producers combined!  The Model T changed the face of America as surely as Apple and Google are changing it again today.

[Photo and logos from Wikipedia]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The History of the Internet

I came across an interesting graphic via first the Resource Shelf website which sent me to the Online MBA.  Both sites are worth a look.  Here's the graphic:

MBA Online
Via: MBA Online

You can date your entry into online technology by where you intersect this timeline.  Few of us had access to ARPANET.  In fact, most of us couldn't even connect to the internet until well after the launch of the World Wide Web in 1992.  It took the first web browser, Mosaic, in 1993 to let people begin to explore.  I started using the World Wide Web with that first browser.  I can remember clearly how blown away I was with what I could find even then.

What struck me about the graphic was how "early" some things happened.  Pizza Hut gets the nod for jumping on the the e-commerce bandwagon as early as 1994.  But even more striking was how many technologies that we now simply take for granted have come about so recently:  Google in 1999, Wikipedia in 2001, and YouTube in 2005.  I use these services every day and never think of them as new.  Still, I often think to myself how incredible it is that I can find virtually anything from my networked computer.

As I write this, I am sitting on my screen porch connected over WiFi to my home network.  I have checked my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS reader accounts.  I have looked at a product offering from Woot.  I looked up a very informative article on hummingbirds on Wikipedia (a hummingbird is at the feeder next to the screen porch).  I listened to hummingbird calls via the Cornell Birds website's mp3 files. I checked the weather forecast and the news headlines.  And I haven't left my laptop and my cup of coffee.  All this in only 17 years since the first web browser was launched. If you are younger than 20, you have no recollection of life before the web.  How quickly we take it all for granted.

What isn't on the chart, is the record of the Creative Destruction that has come with this new tsunami of technology.  All of this has come with a cost.  Not so much in the obvious impacts like the decline of daily newspapers (although that is pretty bad, especially if you are a journalist). The greater impact has been in the less visible world of corporate and government information systems which have shed layer upon layer of people whose jobs have been replaced with software systems.  Managing the transitions in technology is tough.  Maybe "surviving the transitions" would be a better description.  Still, I would not want to go back even if I could.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to check FaceBook and a Tweet has just popped up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Heavy Machinery, An Occasional Series

Every now and then, I come across a photo I have taken that suggests a more artistic idea with a little help from Photoshop.  I took the photo at the left in Two Harbors, MN.  This is the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railroad locomotive No. 229.  The 2-8-8-4 , "Yellowstone" type engine was one of 18 built for the DM&IR by Baldwin Locomotive Works.  The engines were purchased to pull the very long and heavy iron ore trains from the Missable Range to the western ports of Lake Superior for shipment down lake.  They ran until around 1960 when they were replaced by diesels. Only three of the engines have been preserved, this one, a second at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, and the third in Proctor, MN.

The engine speaks of power.  I took a close-up of the running gear and valving which is the one I have converted into a more artistic image below.  These machines were never designed for beauty but I find there is some odd sort of aesthetic in the functional complexity of the design.  Every single part is there for a reason.  Nothing more, nothing less. I think an artist would relate to that definition. Hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Charles W. Morgan

In 2007, I wrote a post about the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining American whaling ship from the days of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Since 1966, the ship has been docked at Mystic Seaport marine museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

I visited the ship that summer and saw a remarkably well-preserved vessel that had made over 37 voyages during its long career. The ship looked good sitting at the dock - as you can see from some of my photos below:




The ship looked fully functional, but it had only the outward appearances of being in good shape.  The ship's internal structure had deteriorated to such an extent the Morgan would like sink if it ever tried to sail again.

I read this morning in the Science Times section of the New York Times that the Morgan has been hauled out of the water and is being completely rebuilt to make it seaworthy once more.  The goal is to have it under sail in three years.


This restoration is taking advantage of every high-tech tool available.  The ship has been completely laser scanned and x-rayed to reveal the subtleties of how it was built and what parts of the internal structural elements have rotted or corroded to a dangerous point.  The $10 million dollar restoration is also adding a great deal to the knowledge of how ships were built during this era.  No plans, models, or documentation remains on the original construction of the ship so this is a chance to get a better understanding of ship construction technology.

At one time, the American whaling fleet consisted of 2700 ships like the Morgan.  Now, the Morgan is the only representative of those times.  While our views on whaling have changed dramatically in the ensuing 150 years since the heyday of whaling, boats that serviced the whaling industry are a part of our culture and deserve to be preserved - if only to remind us of how insensitive we were to the natural world.

The meeting of new technology tools and the old marine technology gives me some curious feelings.  What would those original shipwrights have thought if they could see their handiwork being analyzed by sophisticated portable x-ray scanners? What would it mean to them to know that their ship would still be with us 160 years later?  My guess is that they would have felt a great deal of pride in their workmanship. No digitization needed for them to build a ship.  They built it with their hands and their know-how.

Imagine someone in the year 2170 getting their hands on, say,  a Toyota Prius.  How primitive it would have seemed to them. How simple the times in which it was built.  An internal combustion engine hybridized with electric motors and storage batteries?  How quaint!  So... 21st Century.  But even if our future restoration team was successful, I don't believe that the Prius would never ever look as beautiful as a 19th Century, square-rigged whaling ship under full sail.

Photo Credits:

Whaling engraving from Wikipedia
Laser scan from New York Time article
All others taken by the author

More to Explore:

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville at Google Books
In to the Deep, American Whaling and the World, PBS American Experience