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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coming Soon: Disruptive Technology

Heather Havrilesky wrote a piece on Salon yesterday entitled, "Digital Nation": What Has the Internet Done to Us? Her article anticipates the broadcast coming on Tuesday night of the PBS Frontline episode of the same name.  You can watch the trailer for the Frontline episode here.  If you miss the broadcast, you can watch the program later as a streaming video on the Frontline website.

Havrilesky, who has spent the last 15 years in the world of web companies and journalism,  writes of her growing sense that we have created a monster, a world in which all we have are web and media distractions.  We can't seem to disconnect, even if we want to. 

One of the Frontline producers of this week's program is Douglas Rushkoff who has been an internet guru and champion of the digital age.  Havilresky quotes Rushkoff as saying,

I've always prided myself on offering soothing answers to people's anxieties about this stuff," Rushkoff continues later. "I felt like I was in on a secret, that these old fuddy-duddies were panicking unnecessarily, underestimating our kids' ability to adapt to the new reality unfolding before us...Combating distraction, it's not as easy as just turning off your e-mail program. You turn off your e-mail program, it's not your e-mail program that complains, it's your friends, it's your boss, it's your bills. You know, 'Where's that report?' 'Why haven't you answered your e-mail?' 'Are you mad at me?' You can't do this in isolation. If you're going to deal with the problem of distraction it's something that we're all going to have to deal with together.

I think we can all relate at some level to an ambivalence about the Wired World.  Personally, I cannot imagine living without access to Google or e-mail.  I love being able to read everything from the news to blogs.  YouTube and a host of other web video services brings the world to our laptops or desktops.  We are fifteen years into our new, digitally-connected world and we are not quite sure where it is taking us.

If it is any comfort, people have been here many times before.  Every new disruptive technology brings out our greatest hopes and our greatest fears.  Shortly after Gutenberg invented moveable type, the authorities (both the church and the monarchies) tried to ban some printed books as they  quickly realized that a reading populace might just start asking questions.  (I wrote about this in a post a couple of years ago on William Caxton.  You can read it here.) The authorities wanted to have this new printing technology deployed in ways that served their needs - but they also wanted to maintain control.  Of course it didn't happen that way.  The borders between countries were too porous.  Trade and travel brought books back home.  Once unleashed, printing changed everything.  I think we could agree now that printing was a good thing.  It certainly has caused problems along the way but who (but tyrants) would want to live in a world without printing?

People were equally concerned about the first railroads.  They changed the way people saw their world.  Speed annihilated distance.  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his book The Railway Journey, writes of one early observer:

Heinrich Heine [a German journalist] noted this [the disorientation of space-time consciousness] in 1843 when he wrote of the 'tremendous foreboding such as we always feel when there comes an enormous, an unheard-of event whose consequences are imponderable, and incalculable', and called the railroad a 'providential event', comparable to the inventions of gunpowder and printing, 'which swing mankind in new directions, and changes the color and shape of life.'

Railroad journeys changed everything.  Schivelbusch, later in his book, quotes Francis J. Lieber's writing in 1834: 

From Albany to Schenectady, you travel by rail-road; and the least exciting of all traveling, it seems to me, is decidely locomotion by steam on a rail-road.  The traveler, whose train of ideas is always influenced by the manner in which he proceeds, thinks in a steam car of nothing but the place of his destination, for the very reason that he is moving so quickly.  Pent up in a narrow space, rolling along on an even plain which seldom offers any objects of curiosity, and which, when it does you pass by with such rapidity, that your attention is never fixed; together with a number of people who have all the same object in view, and think like you of nothing else, but when they shall arrive at the journey's end -- and situated, you find nothing to entertain and divert you, except now and then a spark flying into the window of the car...There is no common conversation, no rondolaugh [sic], nothing but a dead calm, interrupted from time to time, only by some passenger pulling out his watch and uttering a sound of impatience... (Italics in original.) 

I read in this passage the deep impact on people's lives of the experience of a new and disruptive technology.   Would we be better off without railroads?  Highways?  Automobiles?  Yes, I can imagine times when I might want to throw these out in favor of a quieter, simpler life but I think most of us wouldn't want to go back to the world of the 1830's or even the 1930's.

Technologies can fundamentally change our world and fundamental technologies can change it profoundly.  We cannot even fathom where the Wired World is leading any more than the speedy early railroad traveler could envision the connected world of air travel and interstate highways that we now take for granted.  No one frets that we will lose our marbles from going too fast.  It is doubtful that we have been ruined by the railroad, the automobile, or the jet plane.  

We are on a very fast ride into the future driven by the next generation of technology.  As humans, we develop new ways of adapting to disruptive technologies.  But it can feel really scary at times. Keep your seatbelts buckled in the event of unexpected turbulence.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Invention and Technology

One of the magazines that has been publishing well-researched articles on the history of technology is American Heritage magazine's, Invention and Technology.  American Heritage has gone through some rocky times but it is back in print again.  Invention and Technology has also suffered in recent years as its sole advertiser, General Motors, pulled out because of its own financial problems.   But Invention and Technology is back and the magazine still provides excellent articles on the history of technology.

American Heritage has made all of the past articles from Invention and Technology available free to the public on their website.  You can find them here.  It is well worth your time to browse some of these stories.  Better yet, buy their magazine on the newsstand.  You won't be disappointed.

[Disclaimer: I have no stake, financial or otherwise in American Heritage or Invention and Technology.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rebuilding the Past (Yet Again)


I came across a little tidbit in a book I am reading that sent me off, once again, in search of another lost technology story.  The book, The Company, A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, was written by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge of The Economist magazine.  I was re-reading the book because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate contributions to political campaigns under the argument that corporations are people and campaign money is the same as free speech.  Anyway...the authors were talking about how early companies protected their competitive space either through government charters or patents.  The example the authors used was the English steam engine firm of Boulton and Watt which bullied Parliament into granting them a broad patent on James Watt's steam engine.


A brilliant young Scottish engineer, William Murdoch (image at right), worked for Boulton and Watt and invented the first steam-powered "road locomotive" in 1784 (drawing at top of page).  He even built working models of his invention and showed them to a number of people in his Cornwall community.  This was 45 years before the first successful railroad was operational in England.  Murdoch was way ahead of his time.  To protect his idea, Murdoch decided to go to London to obtain a patent.  On the road there, who should he meet but his boss, Matthew Boulton, returning from a trip to London.  Boulton talked Murdoch out of the idea of patenting his road locomotive.  As reported in Wikipedia, Boulton later wrote to a friend about the encounter with Murdoch:

He said He was going to London to get Men but I soon found he was going there with his Steam Carg to shew it & to take out a patent. He having been told by Mr W. Wilkn what Sadler had said & he had likewise read in the news paper Simmingtons puff which had rekindled all Wms fire & impations to make Steam Carriages. However, I prevailed upon him readily to return to Cornwall by the next days diligence & he accordingly arivd here this day at noon, since which he hath unpacked his Carg & made Travil a Mile or two in Rivers's great room in a Circle making it carry the fire Shovel, poker & tongs.

Murdoch returned home to Cornwall and put away his ideas for the steam carriage.  But Murdoch was a born inventor and went on to dream up many other useful inventions including gas lighting from coal gasification. (No patent here, either.)

So that's the backstory.  Now for what really caught my attention.  People (make that mostly men) seem to have a deep desire to show that old inventions really could have worked.  People like to rebuild old cars, old locomotives, old clocks, old (your entry here) to bring them back to life.  Well,  you guessed it, so did a group of men with Murdoch's steam carriage.  They first built a non-operational, full-sized model...and then they got carried away.  They built small steam-powered models and then decided in 2002 to take on building a full-scale, working road locomotive.  Four years later, they had completed the task.  You can see a video of their road locomotive chuffing around a parking lot here.  William Murdoch would have been proud.


Some people seem to remain much more linked to past technology than the rest of us.  They can't seem to resist the pull of finding out if something that has vanished years or centuries ago can be made to work once again.  The same curiosity that motivated Murdoch's admirers resulted in the modern reconstruction of the two-millenia old Antikythera Mechanism (see my posts here and here).  Much the same process motivates a lot of archaeology.  Deep down, we want these old machines and devices to work.  We want to be pleased and surprised like young children who crank the Jack-in-the-Box over and over again.  The child knows the puppet will pop out but there is always a joy in the moment of surprise when it happens.  So often, we come to take our current technology for granted or we complain loudly when it doesn't work.  But the old machines are our adult Jack-in-the-Boxes.   We love the surprise when they work once again.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Inns and Inns

It had been a long day on the road: twelve hours and still going even after the sun faded in the west.  I checked the Accomodations list on my dashboard GPS and saw that there was a Hampton Inn up ahead at the next exit.  I had never stayed there but I liked most of the dozens of others in that chain of hotels where I had stayed on previous trips.  I drove up under the well-lit portico and leveraged myself out of the driver's seat. It was getting harder and harder to drive this far.  I might need to rethink these Power Drives.

The automatic double-doors opened reluctantly and I went into the lobby and scanned for the desk - on the left this time.  There was one lone clerk standing behind the counter.  College student, most likely, on the the night shift.  I asked about a room with a queen-sized bed.  The clerk typed something and said they had several (smoking or non-smoking?).  The rate was $109.  I asked if they had an AAA rate?  More typing (you would think she would know by now).  In fact, the AAA rate was $98.  There was also an AARP rate, a veteran's rate, and five other rates if you knew the Magic Words.  I took the encoded room key and went up to my room.  Same layout as a thousand other rooms.  But at least I could go to bed and drift off to sleep...

[Enter right: stage fog blowing across black space]

In my dream, I was bouncing...hard.  The stagecoach I was riding in had no springs.  Coach springs hadn't been invented yet?  There was barely even a road.  Just some little saplings that had been cut down and laid crosswise across the muck to keep the wooden wheels from sinking even further than they already were.  Dimly, I remembered (through the fog of my dream) that these were called corduroy roads.  I was crammed in the tiny box with twelve other passengers.  We all smelled of three days of body odor, and small talk had long since vanished.  It was pitch black, not even a moon.  I was glad that the driver upon the box seat had been over these roads dozens of times before.

We had set out from New York City for Boston three days ago and we were almost half-way there.  This bone-rattling so-called road we were on at the moment was, however, better than the swamps we had driven through for most of the journey.  We even had to get out and push the coach several times to free it from the muck.


Finally, at eleven, we stopped in front of the Sign of the Cock Inn.  It was a two-storied hovel with a shed out back but at least it was warm and dry inside and the night was getting cold.  We all peeled ourselves out of the coach and headed inside to make arrangements with the innkeeper for the night's lodgings.  I was lucky enough to be first to the bar where he was serving hard ale to a local.

I asked if he had a bed for the night?  Yes, he had one spot left in a four-man bed upstairs.  That meant I had to sleep with three strangers with the bed bugs and their snoring and probably lice.  I asked if he had anything else?  He told me I was welcome to roll my blanket out in front of the fireplace on the barroom floor.  I could see in the dim firelight that there were already a dozen lumps laying on the hard boards in front of the fire.  I told him I would take the spot in the bed.  At least it was soft.

I didn't even ask him what the rate was.  I already knew.  It was set by the colony's legislature.  So was the price of all the drinks, as were the prices for stabling the horses.  Everyone thought this was a good thing.  No gouging tired travelers who had been on the road all day.  No preferential rates for the gentry rather than the common, honest man.  This was what a colonial government should be doing.  It was only fair.  There had been an innkeeper recently that had demanded more than the legal rate and he was arrested and fined.

I dragged myself up to the little room upstairs to crawl into the straw-mattressed bed.  I had to wake the other three sleepers to get them to move over enough to allow me a space.  I laid down, fully-clothed, and tried to ignore the concert from my snoring bedmates to get some sleep.
____________

In fact, my little dream was more-or-less the reality of travel in 1760.  It took five or six days to get from New York City to Boston.  The roads were poor to non-existent (imagine the lesser roads). The governments did, indeed, regulate the room rates.  People often shared the same bed or slept on the floor.  No two inns were the same, as they were all family-owned and operated businesses.  Sometimes the inns might be better, sometimes worse but all had to take in travelers and provide a place for them to sleep indoors if they could pay for the "privilege". I think of all this when I see the Inn part of the logo in the Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn.  Inns?  I don't think so.  More like palaces by colonial standards. The technology of travel by road and putting people up for the night has come a very long way.  Personally, I prefer an air-conditioned, private room (non-smoking and away from the ice machine, if you don't mind).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

140 University



Jane Hart has a blog I like called E-Learning Pick of the Day.  She just started a very interesting little service she calls 140 University which offers a variety of educational nuggets every day on a whole variety of topics.  You might want to check out a few topics including Engineering, Technology, and History.

Basically, these nuggets are 140 character snippets that can be received either via Twitter or Facebook and contain a URL link that takes you to a webpage that expands on the nugget.  You can also read them right on the home page at 140 University.  For instance, the Engineering entry for January 19th was:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer, was the creator of the Great Western Railway and numerous bridges http://bit.ly/5ywEGf
Her concept goes under the heading of "I Wish I Had Thought of That".  Kudos to Jane.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Machiavelli on Innovation


Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 - 1527) is perhaps most famous for his book on political science, The Prince (1513).  In Chapter 6, Machiavelli offers some telling insight on the difficulties of the innovator.  Like most of what Machiavelli wrote, it is as true today as it was in 1513.


There is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders. This indifference arises in part from fear of their adversaries who were favored by the existing laws, and partly from the incredulity of men who have no faith in anything new that is not the result of well-established experience. Hence it is that, whenever the opponents of the new order of things have the opportunity to attack it, they will do it with the zeal of partisans, whilst the others defend it but feebly, so that it is dangerous to rely upon the latter.

[I read this quote in a piece by Jim Toedtman, editor of the AARP Bulletin, Jan-Feb, 2010.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Benjamin Henry Latrobe


PBS broadcast a program last night about Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America's first architect.  Check your local listings to see if it is going to be rebroadcast in your area.  It is worth watching.

Latrobe was not only America's first architect but in many ways, one of the most influential.  Latrobe designed the central part of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC after an earlier design by amateur architect William Thornton proved to be an unbuildable disaster.  Latrobe designed and built the waterworks in Philadelphia, the Baltimore Basilica, the Decatur House in Washington, the Washington Navy Yard, the Bank of Pennsylvania, both porticos on the White House, and numerous private homes.  He brought neoclassical architecture to the United States when he emigrated here from England in 1795.  Latrobe was in the process of designing a new waterworks for New Orleans when he contracted yellow fever and died there in 1820.


Given these impressive accomplishments, you might think that Latrobe would have been wealthy.  In fact, he went through multiple bankruptcies (the first in England which is probably why he emigrated) and he died a virtual pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave.  Latrobe seems to have been a technical genius and a business catastrophe.  In his defense, many of his business problems were because his clients (including the U.S. government) stiffed him.  But the pattern repeated itself often enough that it makes you wonder about his skills to advance his own endeavors.  Thomas Jefferson was a champion of Latrobe, perhaps because they were kindred spirits in their love of architecture. But even Jefferson let Latrobe take the fall when Congress complained that the marble columns in the House chamber were too expensive.  The columns were there at Jefferson's suggestion and Jefferson never owned up to them.

That Latrobe really was an accomplished architect can best be seen in the Baltimore Basilica.  The Archbishop, John Carroll hired Latrobe and defended Latrobe's designs again and again against naysayers.  The result was one of the most beautiful buildings in America.

Maybe the lesson of Latrobe's life is the necessity of strong champions to support a technical genius.  How different Washington, DC might look if Latrobe's vision had not been undermined, not only by rivals and short-sighted individuals, but by his own inability to promote his ideas.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

North, South, East, West


In my recent reading, I came across another reminder of the role that technology played in the development of the United States.  At the time of the revolution, the U.S. was a set of thirteen colonies arrayed along the Atlantic coast.  Virtually all economic activity within the colonies was confined to this natural North-South orientation.  But with independence, the lands west of the Alleghenies became open for settlement.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 only expanded the available territory.  People had begun to move to the Kentucky territory along the Cumberland Road, laid out by Daniel Boone, even before the war, but peace brought a tremendous drive to move west.

Getting over the Alleghenies, even by the Cumberland Road, was not easy or for the faint of heart.  Almost all of the early settlers were attracted by the lure of cheap farm land.  For people that had next to nothing, farming offered not only a way to fill their bellies but a path to a more prosperous future.  The United States population expanded by a third between 1790 and 1800 (from 3.9 million to 5.3 million people).  Many of these pioneers headed for the lands to the west, especially in the Old Northwest Territory of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.  More and more, farmers needed to find a way to get their produce to market and the only cost-effective route was by water.  The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers offered the only low-cost transportation option. Barges and keel-boats brought the products of the western farms downstream to New Orleans for shipment. The lack of any viable route to the east over the Alleghenies created a separate economy that was only marginally linked to the Atlantic seaboard.

So where did technology play a role in changing this linkage to New Orleans?  The leaders of the young nation (including Washington and Jefferson) recognized that a western United States without strong ties to the East was ripe for exploitation by a European power either by conquest or by political and economic alliances.  Washington even founded a commercial effort to link the West to the East using the Potomac River and a network of canals to form a water link.  That effort was a bust for both investment and technical reasons but the idea of a water route was successfully carried out with the building of the Erie Canal, opened in 1825.  With the Canal, the cost of shipping goods east to New York became even cheaper than sending produce to New Orleans.  The products of the farms started moving East.  More canals were built and then an extensive network of railroads, all to cheaply transport farm goods to both Eastern and European markets.  Transportation technology knit the Eastern and Western segments of the United States into a cohesive whole.

Technology also played a role in the North-South divisions.  As I wrote recently, the invention and massive replication of the cotton gin opened the way for the less fertile lands of the South (away from the coastal lowlands) to be put under cotton cultivation.  Such a massive expansion in cotton production could only be accomplished by increasing the number of slaves to work the land.  Hence, technology reinforced the institution of slavery and increased the divide between the interests of the North and the South.

When the Civil War came, the Old Northwest Territory went with the Union.  The economic self-interest of the East and West were tied together.  The South, with its limited resources to match those of the industrialized North, lost the war -- and a way of life.  Of course, the technologies that were nurtured in the North's manufacturing-based economy only strengthened the ties between East and West as the farmers looked to the factories of the East for their factory-made goods.

Technology is a powerful force in shaping the course of history.  I'm reminded of the old saw, "for want of a nail...the war was lost."  Maybe in the case of the United States it should be modified to "because of a canal ... the war was lost."

Friday, January 15, 2010

TBTI (Too Big To Innovate)

TBTF  The acronym, TBTF (Too Big To Fail), is everywhere these days.  It describes in a nutshell the problem with companies, especially banks, that are so large that their failure would wreck the economy.  Fearing that a number of banks fit this category, the Fed and the Treasury bailed them out last fall.  It is puzzling to me how banks that were considered TBTF then could be allowed to continue without restructuring now.  Why would we do nothing to restructure these institutions to bring them down to a scale where they are not TBTF?  No business should be allowed to grow so large that its very size should make it a candidate for a Federal bailout - or threaten the economy as a whole.

TBTI These mega-banks make me wonder about many other U.S. companies that may not be TBTF but are TBTI (Too Big To Inovate).  What do I mean by TBTI?  General Motors is a great example.  GM grew to such a massive size that it was no longer in touch with the market.  The senior executives of GM felt that they set the market.  What was good for GM was good for the country.  The arrogance that comes with size is a classic symptom of companies that have become TBTI.  Innovation died at the hands of finance MBAs who drove the company to make bigger and fancier SUVs, who decried any new approach such as the EV-1 (electric car) in favor of the Hummer.  Who tried to fend off the Japanese automakers with tariffs rather than increase their own quality. Who spouted the corporate line about "increasing shareholder value."  In a nutshell, GM quit listening.  The executives were into complete entitlement - corporate jets, country club memberships, and golden parachutes.  But who would want to bail out?  It was so much cozier inside the corporate tower where reality could be blithely ignored.

But my comments are not limited to General Motors.  Many highly-respected Fortune 500 companies have moved beyond the glory of their growth years and into TBTI.  To be fair, there is a lot of lip service provided on the topic of innovation but most of it is just that.  Whether you think of GM or a host of other American icons, the sad fact is that most of them have become far more interested in "protecting the corporation" than in innovating.  Scale does that to you.  When you are big enough to become a target for significant lawsuit awards, you can't help but develop a hunker-down mentality that keeps you away from anything that might be construed as risky (aka, innovative).  When you become that large, you can't help but develop a bureaucracy and middle management that is more interested in the competition for self-advancement within the company than in serving the customer.  You can't help but develop an organizational structure that walls off departments and makes customer responsiveness way too limited.  You can't help but develop a senior management that wants to hold onto the reins of control in an ever tighter manner lest someone lower in the organization take an unwarranted risk.

TBTI comes most easily when you forget what made you large in the first place.  Growth came from customers who found the company's product or service to be worth the money and better than the competitions'.  Dollars to doughnuts, innovation played a part in that early growth phase.  After the struggle to survive subsided and the first long march to profitability had been completed, management turned its attention to a different task: making more of the stuff that sold so well and making it more efficiently in order to make more profit.  After a long struggle, it is natural to want to take the easy road for awhile.  The trouble comes when you think that the easy road is the only road, when the hard work of innovation becomes too risky, when today's profit is better than next year's growth.  At this point, companies become TBTI.

What to do about companies that are TBTI?  I would suggest a similar therapy to those who are TBTF:  get smaller.   But the kind of getting smaller is quite different between these two corporate pathologies.  For companies that are TBTF, the goal is breaking the corporation up into autonomous pieces that are able to survive independently - and below the TBTF threshold.  The goal for companies that have become TBTI is slightly different.  The corporation as a whole doesn't need to be broken up but the business units within the company need to be segmented down to a size and given enough autonomy that decisions once again happen more at the business unit level than the corporate level.  Innovation is unleashed by giving it oxygen in the case of business units, resources and autonomy.  Businesses that are close to the street will know what is needed to please their customers.  Corporate headquarters will remain largely clueless.  This will, of course, take guts on the part of the senior management team.  It will mean trusting their business unit management teams once again.  It will mean being willing to not have a knee-jerk reaction to protect the corporation first.  It will mean keeping the business units small enough (usually less than 300 people) that the players know each other by first name and know what each is capable of without doing an HR Performance Appraisal.

The irony of radical surgery on the TBTF banks and automakers is that they are likely to become more innovative.  Not in the smoke-and-mirrors innovation of derivatives and CDOs but true innovation that adds value to their customers and not just the management team's bonuses.  I think E.F. Schumaker was right, small is beautiful (not to mention functional, innovative, exciting to work for, and growing).  I don't know about you but I have had enough of Big for awhile. Let's hear it for Small.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Power of the Green Screen

Update 2: Still correcting some font problems.

I recently saw James Cameron's new movie, Avatar.  It is a tour de force of computer animation and special effects.  Unlike many sci-fi and action films, this one actually had a decent (if predictable) story.  Movies like this really blur the lines between special effects and reality.

In quite a different way, the use of so-called Green Screen (or more correctly, Chroma Keying) technology is doing much the same thing for movies set in actual locations.  It is getting so that you can hardly tell what has been shot in the studio and what is real.  The video below from Stargate Studios shows with amazing clarity what can be accomplished with this superposition technology.


Stargate Studios Virtual Backlot Demo from Stargate Studios on Vimeo.

Of course, another possibility that emerges from all this technology is the idea so popular with the conspiracy theorists who believe that, along with other major news events, the Apollo moon landings were staged. Hopefully, my paranoia is under control but it does bother me that I am not so sure that any of us can know what is real when we see it on the screen.

Worth a Look:  I saw this video on one of my favorite blog sites, Open Culture, which does a terrific job of highlighting web-based cultural opportunities (along with a host of other great features).  Check it out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Science Ideas to Consider

I put together a short video of some quotations that I like that have to do with science.  It works best if you let the video load about halfway before you begin watching it.  Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The IBM 1401 Computer


Update: I reformatted the video to show the full 16:9 video screen.

My brother works for IBM.  He sent me a link to a video that IBM made to celebrate the building of the IBM 1401 computer.  The picture at left is the control panel for the computer. The 1401 was an all-transistor, medium-sized computer that was one of IBM's most successful products.  Over 20,000 of the systems were manufactured between 1959 and 1971.  The computer could be configured with up to 32K of memory, although most were sold with only 8K or 16K on board.  IBM leased the machines rather than sold them, which was typical of their business model.  According to the company, by 1961, one in four computers in the United States was an IBM 1401.

I really enjoyed the video.  It focuses on the people and their evident pride in what they had accomplished so many years ago.  It reminded me once again of Warren Bennis' work on Great Groups which I blogged about a year ago when I was writing about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.  One of the essential features of a Great Group is that it cannot last.  It is a moment in time in which people come together to accomplish something extraordinary.  That seems to have been the case with this IBM team.  The pride these people continue to feel is palpable.  Maybe, if we are lucky, we will also be part of a Great Group.  The memories last a lifetime.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Love Affair with the Automobile May Be on Its Way Out


I just read a short report from the Earth Policy Institute which revealed  that after a century of growth, the U.S. car fleet peaked in 2009 and started to decline.  The 14 million cars that were scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold.  The report gave many reasons for the downturn including higher gas prices, the poor economy, longer commutes, and growing urbanization.  But another reason that intrigued me is that young people just don't care about cars like their parents and grandparents did.  The car is no longer the portal to socialization - it is now better accomplished on social networks and cellphones.  New teenage drivers' licenses are in decline.  The number of teenage licenses peaked in 1978 at 12 million and is now under ten million.

I remember in my own teenage years that my friends and I would drive endlessly up and down the main street of our small town looking to see who else was driving up and down the main street.  This endless do-loop of a drive was punctuated by occasional stops at the drive-in restaurant for a soda and some french fries.  The whole point was to see and be seen in something that looked a great deal like the movie, American Graffiti.  Of course, every family had a telephone but that usually involved talking in a place where any conversation could all too easily be overheard by parents or siblings.  The web, text messages, and cell phones allow so much more privacy from prying ears.  These newer technologies are perfectly adapted to teenagers who are dealing with the angst of adolescence (which comes with a certain built-in level of paranoia).

There has always been a push to develop new communications technologies.  We are a social species and we feel compelled to share our thoughts and ideas.  We need to connect with other people to have the sense of community. It was revolutionary when Gutenberg made it possible to widely share ideas in book form.  The telegraph and then the telephone changed long-distance communications forever.  Radio, television, motion pictures, and now cellphones and the web have all been driven by our insatiable desire to connect in richer and more immediate ways.

One of the byproducts of new communication channels is a reordering of older technologies, in this case, the automobile.  Who would have guessed that a cause for fewer cars on the road would be changing communications patterns in young people?  I always figured that the next generation would help solve the energy crisis but I didn't guess that it would come about because their new ways to connect mean they don't need cars to do so.  This is not good news for automakers anywhere.  But changing patterns are never good news for the old ways.  Still, I put my faith in our kids.  They will be better connected, and greener, than their parents.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Miller and Whitney: Early Innovation

"An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor."
- Eli Whitney


Every child knows (or maybe every kid used to know) that Eli Whitney (1765 - 1825) invented the cotton gin.  Like most stories of the Hero Inventor, this one is a much-distilled and over-simplified version of the truth.  Cotton gins had been around for a long time before Eli Whitney came along. These earlier gins squeezed cotton between rollers and the friction pulled the seed from the cotton fibers.  The roller gins did a good job on long-staple cotton but there were a couple of limitations.  First, long-staple cotton only grew in the rich soil found near the coast, and secondly, while the roller gins worked, they were slow and favored good fiber over production output.

Eli Whitney was a Yale-educated son of a Connecticut farmer.  He seems to have been quite mechanically inclined from a young age.  After Whitney graduated from Yale, the president of the college, Ezra Stiles, arranged for Whitney to take up a tutoring position in the South.  Stiles put him in touch with another young Yale man, Phineas Miller, who had graduated a few years earlier.  Stiles had previously arranged for Miller to be a tutor in the South at the plantation of the Revolutionary War General, Nathaniel Green.  The general had died around this same time and Miller became not only the tutor to Green's five children but also the plantation manager for Green's widow, Catherine Green.


Whitney traveled with Miller and Mrs. Green from New York City to Savannah and stayed with them for several months.  The story goes that once there, Whitney turned down the tutoring job because of a dispute over the pay and stayed on at the plantation to invent his cotton gin. The exact order of events was deliberately obscured by Whitney and his new business parter, Phineas Miller, in order to facilitate getting a patent and to get a head start on manufacturing machines.  The partnership that was formed was always known as Miller and Whitney (not the other way around).  Once again, we see the indispensable role of the entrepreneur (Miller in this case) in moving an invention towards the market.  Miller not only had more business savvy, he had the deep pockets of Catherine Green's money.  Miller had married her at about this same time.

Miller conceived of a business plan in which their company would manufacture the gins in Connecticut and build service locations throughout the South where farmers would bring raw cotton for ginning.  The ginning mills would also have cotton seed presses to capture this source of revenue as well.  The company would be paid for their services, not in cash (which was very scarce), but by keeping one third of the ginned cotton output.  It seemed like such a great idea but like most great ideas, there were problems.

First, while Whitney's cotton gin did a good job of stripping out the seeds, it left the cotton fibers entangled in little knots called neps which created problems for the subsequent spinning operations to make cotton thread.  Spinning companies in England complained bitterly about the poor quality of the fiber from Whitney's gins.  The second problem was that Whitney's gin was elegantly simple and hence easy to pirate and there was a strong incentive to do so because of the high output of the gin. Many Southerners made copies or improved on Whitney's gin, ignoring Whitney's patent of 1793.  Miller and Whitney fought back in over 60 lawsuits but the number of infringers and the bias of the Southern courts towards helping local plantation owners proved to be too costly to continue.  While they lost most of the cases, Miller and Whitney were eventually awarded some compensation by the legislatures of the states of North and South Carolina (Georgia never did recognize their claims).

Whitney's gin galvanized local mechanics to come up with their own ideas on how to improve his design.  In this way, it was a tremendous spur to Southern innovation. The most common approach was what was called the saw gin in which the individual wire teeth of Whitney's gin were replaced by teeth mounted on a circular saw blade.  Eventually, the designs were improved to the point where the problems with fiber neps were reduced to an acceptable level.  Cotton production exploded because the short staple, green-seed cotton could be grown in much poorer soil conditions in the upland South. With the expansion in cotton production came a massive increase in the number of slaves to work the land.


What became of Miller and Whitney?  Miller died in 1803 having poured most of his money (or rather Catherine Green's money) into the venture. He never recovered his investment.  Whitney, penniless from his cotton gin venture, turned his back on the South and in 1798 went into the business of manufacturing firearms for the U.S. government at a factory in New Haven, Connecticut.  He didn't do as well financially as he had hoped with his new business but he did cement a name for himself as having had a crucial role in the development of manufacturing using interchangeable parts.

Whitney would never have been remembered for the cotton gin had it not been for the motivation and resources of Phineas Miller.  I find this interesting because in most cases in our culture it is the entrepreneur who gets the credit for an inventor's ideas.  Perhaps Miller would have been the one remembered had the company of Miller and Whitney been financially successful.  When it failed and Miller died, Whitney lived on until 1825 to continue to remind people of his patent and his inventions.  Miller was to become only a minor footnote in Whitney's later retelling of the story.

It helps to be the one to write the history of a venture.  You can give yourself all the credit you think you deserve. But I, for one, think that Phineas Miller ought to be up there as the Hero Entrepreneur as much as Eli Whitney was the Hero Inventor.  Invention is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for innovation.  That takes money, business savvy, and often more than a little good fortune.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Universe, in Awesome Color


The New York Times has a review of the book Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, by Michael Benson.  This new book (which I have not seen) is reported to have some simply spectacular images that Benson has collected from the world's greatest observatories.  An accompanying slideshow on the Times site (with 16 of the images) can be seen here.  The image on this post (and part of the slideshow) of the "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebulae is taken from the Hubble telescope.  This book review particularly caught my eye after I wrote about Hubble in one of my last posts.  The book is not about Edwin Hubble but it does give you a sense of the fascination that motivates those who look deep into the night sky. I highly recommend watching the slideshow to get some sense for the awesome beauty that can be found in our universe.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edwin Hubble


My wife and I have been watching a Teaching Company lecture series entitled "Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe", taught by Sean Carroll.  It is a fascinating look into the makeup of the universe, of which only five percent is the stuff that is known to be visible anywhere.  Twenty-five percent is Dark Matter which can't be seen but which behaves like particles and exhibits a gravitational pull.  The other seventy percent is Dark Energy which does not behave as particles and is thought to be evenly distributed throughout the universe.  It is postulated to be there because it is the only way in which the behavior of the universe can be explained.

Carroll is a good teacher.  In his second lecture, he was talking about the expansion of the universe and the role that Edwin Hubble (1889 - 1953) played in providing data to show that this expansion was taking place. Hubble was able to demonstrate that the farther a galaxy was from any observation point (like the earth) the faster it was receding away from that point.  This is now called Hubble's Law.  It works no matter where you might stand in the universe.  If you are a long way from the earth, it is not that the intervening galaxies would be seen to be coming towards your point of observation.  They would be seen as receding even there.  It seems counter-intuitive, as is much of particle physics and cosmology.

My ears perked up a bit higher when Carroll was describing the path that Edwin Hubble took to become a world famous astronomer.  Turns out, he was a bright kid and a great high school athlete.  He excelled at track-and-field at the University of Chicago and set a high jump record while a student there.  He won a Rhodes Scholarship and went on to Oxford University where he first studied law and then switched his major to Spanish.  When he came back to the States, he taught Spanish, physics, and mathematics at the New Albany, Indiana High School before enlisting in the army in World War I.  Does this sound like the path to becoming a world renowned cosmologist?

After the war, Hubble returned to the University of Chicago to pursue what he had decided was going to be his career: astronomy.  He studied at the Yerkes Observatory at the University and after he received his Ph.D., he was invited to join the staff at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles.  He spent the rest of his career at Mt. Wilson.

There is hope for all of us late bloomers who can't quite figure out what we want to be when we grow up.  It took Hubble some time to figure out where he needed to be but when he did, he was extremely productive.  Hubble was not alone.  Samuel Morse and Robert Fulton were both accomplished artists in their first careers before finding later success in technology.  Henry Ford was a mechanic at the Detroit Edison.  Thomas Edison was a telegraph operator.  It would seem that a lot of creative people don't come into their own until they have passed through an incubation period of shorter or longer length.  What seems to be common among these people is that when they heard their muse, they followed it.  Maybe we would be better off as a society if more people left their dead-end jobs for more creative paths.  Certainly, Hubble didn't go directly from the high school classroom in Indiana to Mt. Wilson.  He needed education, and he got it at the University of Chicago.  So what if it takes a little retooling?

Most of us are not going to have a scientific law named after us or a satellite-based observatory named in our honor.  But that's not the point.  It seems to me that the point is to do what releases what is best in each of us.  The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, is quoted as having said, "Follow your bliss".  I think following your passion would do just as nicely.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year: 1960


The New Year is usually the time to look forward, make those resolutions, vow to do better.  I thought I would take a look back in time fifty years, to 1960, and see what has changed.  Of course, the answer is "a lot", but I have forgotten just how pervasive the changes have been. Here are some things that come my mind.  If you have others to add, drop me a comment.

In 1960....

- Television was analog, black-and-white, and came in through your antenna.
- Telephones were owned by AT&T, were mostly black, and still had rotary dials.
- Cars had no seat belts, shoulder harnesses, air bags, or other collision safety features.
- Tires were bias-belted, not radial, and lasted about a third as long.
- Airliners were almost all propeller-driven.
- We still had not put a person in space, let alone on the moon.
- The only computers that existed filled large rooms and were tended by special gurus.
- Cameras still used film which was predominantly black-and-white.
- Home record players and televisions were built with vacuum tubes.
- 45 RPM records were the rage for hit rock-and-roll songs.
- 33 PM Long-playing records were just coming on the scene.
- Automobiles had carburetors, mechanical ignitions, and needed frequent tune-ups.
- Long distance phone calls were an infrequent event and reserved for special events.
- Phoning someone when away from home required a pay phone, found in a phone booth.
- Gasoline cost about 35 cents a gallon.
- Plastic was just coming into its own as a material for consumer products.
- Flying from New York to Paris on a 707 required a fuel stop in Gander, Newfoundland.
- The Interstate Highway system had only been underway for a little over five years.
- Engineers did complex calculations with slide rules and mechanical calculators.
- Shoe store fluoroscopes that allowed you to see how shoes fit had just been banned.
- Doctors were routinely shown smoking in cigarette commercials.
- Just about everything that was in a bottle came in one made of glass.
- Dishwashers in the home were still very uncommon.
- Many women sewed a portion of their families' clothing on a home sewing machine.
- Milk was still delivered to the home by milkmen.
- The U.S. launched its first weather satellite in 1960.

You get the idea.  Of course, the equally interesting list is what wasn't around.  There were no:

- cellphones
- mp3 players
- video cameras
- home vcr or dvd players
- microwave ovens
- personal computers
- internet or worldwide web
- e-mail
- stereophonic music systems
- lasers
- LED or LCD anything
- high speed (bullet) trains
- catalytic converters for cars
- anti-lock brakes
- intermittent windshield wipers
- video games
- car navigation systems

The theme that runs through most of these items is the importance of solid-state electronics. Our world has been fundamentally remade on silicon.  While not a new observation, it does show how pervasive and powerful one technology concept, the microchip, can be.  I wouldn't be writing this on my laptop and posting it on my blog without it.

But the electronics revolution is only one part of a larger theme:  a materials revolution.  Not only did the last fifty years bring silicon and all its derivatives, but t also brought polymers and plastics which have had an almost equally large impact.  It brought fiber optic filaments which allowed the world to be wired with high-speed networks based on laser pulses (also a silicon technology).

Materials technology is down there at the ground level of invention and innovation.  That is why there is so much hype about nanomaterials.  These promise to unleash another wave of innovation.  Whether they do so remains to be seen.  Maybe the collateral risks to our health and environment will knock them out in their infancy.  Further out is the promise of materials engineering through biotechnology.

It is fun to think for a minute about what the lists for 2060 will be.  It seems quite certain that someone looking back to today will think of us as hopelessly antiquated.  Kids will wonder how anyone could have even survived in those backward days.  Happy New Year from the Good Old Days of 2010.