Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thomas Pope and the First Brooklyn Bridge

Thomas Pope was a carpenter, a landscape architect, a bridge designer, and a poet.  In 1811, he published the first book ever written in the United States on bridge building entitled, A Treatise on Bridge Architecture in Which the Superior Advantages of the Flying Pendent Lever Bridge Are Fully Proved.  You can find the entire book online at Google Books.

Pope's book gives a detailed history of many bridges around the world and throughout history.  His illustrations are certainly part of the fun of the book.  I have provided a few of them below.  You can see more in the online book.

The most interesting part of the whole book is Pope's proposal to build what can only be seen as a futuristic vision of a cantilever bridge to span the East River between New York and Brooklyn; the first design of a Brooklyn Bridge.

Pope proposed a wooden structure over 1800 feet long and with a free height at its center of over 260 feet!  Pope anticipated by fifty years that bridges that were cantilevered would be built as self-supporting structures from each shore until they connected in the center.  The fact that his bridge design was unbuildable because it was made of wood, a material not strong enough for the span, does not detract from many of his insights.  The clean simplicity of his cantilevered arc design would not be seen for almost 200 years.

Pope's book is filled with bridge history, data, and designs, but these are also accompanied by long stanzas of poetry.  The illustration above contains a few of the opening lines of a poem about his proposed bridge.  They read (and the verse continues):

Let the broad arc of the spacious HUDSON stride,
And span COLUMBIA'S rivers far more wide;
Convince the world AMERICA begins
To foster arts, the ancient work of kings.
Stupendous plan! Which none before e'er found,
That half an arc should stand upon the ground,
Without support while building, or a rest;
This caus'd the theorist's rage and sceptic's jest.
Like half a rainbow rising on one shore,
While its twin partner spans the semi o'er,
And makes a perfect whole, that need not part,
Till time has furnish'd us a nobler art.

[Caps in original]

Pope's bridge was never built.  But the idea of a bridge to span the East River would not die.  Finally, the Brooklyn Bridge, an icon of American architecture, was completed on May 24, 1883.  It remains one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.  But the dream started with Thomas Pope.  And some dreams just will not die.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

De Laude Scriptorum

I have been reading an interesting book by Clay Shirky entitled, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.  Shirky is a good writer.  His book looks at the fundamental changes taking place as the cost of organizing continues to collapse because of the internet.  Shirky contends that we are usually quite aware of organizations or businesses that do what we do, only better.  However, we are completely unaware of new technologies from outside our current paradigm that can not only do the job better, but make our skills irrelevant.  The newspaper is the most obvious current example.  Newspapers have not suffered at the hands of a better printed news format.  They have been decimated by on-line news, or maybe more importantly, on-line advertising.  

Shirky points out that this is nothing new.  In 1492, almost fifty years after the invention by Gutenberg of moveable type, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim (pictured above), wrote a book entitled De Laude Scriptorum Manualium (literally, In Praise of Scribes).  The Abbot was railing against the fact that printed books were destroying the culture and skills of the highly-trained scribes of the monastic tradition.  Who needed scribes when a book could be typeset and printed with ease? The Abbot wanted to get his concerns in front of the widest audience possible.  So what did he do?  He had his book printed!  His own choice of technologies to disseminate his ideas undermined his basic thesis.

A new and powerful technology that dramatically improves on the old cannot be held back.  Printing replaced hand-copied books within half a century.  The automobile replaced the horse-and-buggy in twenty years.  The internet has displaced numerous other technologies in only a decade.

Each of these technology shifts were unstoppable because they changed the fundamental cost structures of the old way of doing things.  Those costs weren't always just monetary costs.  They included time, effort, ease of connection, and a variety of other social costs.  To quote the Borg in the Star Trek movies, "Resistance is futile."  Most of the time, though, we do resist because we have such a vested interest in the old ways of doing things.  Or we see the new way (in its technical infancy) as inadequate, not recognizing that it will improve dramatically.

We are very poor at projecting the future.  If we do attempt to foresee what is coming, we think in a linear extrapolation from what is happening today.  We cannot foresee the non-linear future, the future of disruptive technology shifts.  There are a few among us who can see a bit more clearly but we usually dismiss their predictions as science fiction (or worse).  These futurists may get the broad strokes right but the details are always different and hence we don't remember later that some had seen it coming.  Maybe it's better that way.  Most of the time, I like surprises.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Kevin Kelley on Technology's Epic Story

Kevin Kelley is something of a technology guru.  He was the first executive editor of Wired magazine.  Kelley spoke to the Amsterdam TED conference last year on "Technology's Epic Story".  He has some interesting things to say (although I am not sure I would agree with his entire thesis).  If you haven't looked at the TED Talks before, check out their website.  They have many interesting speakers addressing a broad range of topics.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dream Machine in Miniature

Imagine spending fifteen years on one hobby project.  That's what one Italian man did to pursue his dream of building a perfectly-scaled, operational model of a Ferrari 312BP.  Even if you aren't into cars, you should watch the five minute video to see what it means to spare no effort in building the perfect model.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Olympians and Innovators Share the Same Character Traits

I have to say it: these people are incredible.  They compete on the highest level.  They persevere through every trial and tribulation.  The new ones are constantly trying to find some sponsorships that will allow them to continue on.  They get virtually no attention for years and then they are in the spotlight and often as not, they fizzle. Olympic athletes?  You bet, but the same characteristics describe innovators and entrepreneurs.

As I am watching the Winter Olympics this week, I am struck by the personal characteristics that define people who have an all-encompassing passion to see their dreams materialize.  The Olympic athletes are constantly coming back from horrible injuries, putting in years of drudgery to perfect their abilities, and never, ever, giving up.  That kind of focus is the same thing that drives inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.  It is the old aphorism about being a "monomaniac with a mission."

Great athletic performances and great new innovations usually seem to burst on the scene, almost from nowhere.  Few of us see the years of dogged effort, the sweat, and the disappointment that precede that moment of glory.  Athletes that compete at the Olympic level have more than extraordinary self-discipline.  They have a natural gift of "physical intelligence" (body skills) that can be honed to a fine edge.  Innovators and entrepreneurs are also born with nascent talents that can be developed.  Levels of talent vary greatly, of course, in every endeavor.  But those blessed with great talent can do great things with their gifts.

There are talented people who are born into terrible circumstances and never get the chance to fulfill their promise.  One of the figure skaters from France had been adopted by a family after being found abandoned as an infant in the streets of Brazil.  What if he hadn't been abandoned?  Would his talents have been supported?  How many thousands or millions of others have their talents wasted?

When I think about the great innovators that I have studied, they almost always have persevered through one trial and tribulation after another to try to bring their ideas into the world.  John Fitch fought for years to see his idea for a steamboat become a reality.  Thomas Edison has reached almost mythological proportions in his search for the one right filament to make a practical electric lightbulb.  The list of innovators goes on and on.  But they all shared in the quality of perseverance.

Of course, having a single-minded focus is no guarantee of success.  Fitch, for example, finally gave up being rewarded for his steamboat innovations and died in despair and virtually penniless. The recognition he so much wanted came long after his death.  Edison was more fortunate, becoming famous in his own day. Without self-discipline, focus, and drive - the belief that it is possible to bring about real innovation - no great advances ever happen.  Most people dislike change, which gives the status quo tremendous inertia.  Moving that inertia takes smarts and a lot of hard work.

Every four years, as I watch the Winter Olympics, I get inspired all over again by the athletes' performances and their stories. It fills me with hope when I see what dedicated people can accomplish.  I think watching the Olympics should be required viewing for any would-be innovator or entrepreneur.  So should reading the stories of our past innovators and entrepreneurs.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Power of the Web: We Are the World 25 for Haiti

If you read my last post on the Invisible Web, give a listen to this terrific example of what the web can do to bring people together to deal with some really big, tough problems - in this case the earthquake in Haiti.  The music in this video begins at about the 1:00 minute mark.  If you want to help, you can buy the music video or the music file at iTunes and all the proceeds go to Haiti relief.


The Invisible Web

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, wrote an op-ed piece on February 9th for the Washington Post where he put forth a number of ideas for getting innovation flowing again in the United States.  One of his ideas is for more H-1B visas so that foreign technical people who have been educated in the United States can stay here to work after finishing college.  Another is to extend R&D tax credits, and another is for leaders to develop a higher tolerance for failure.  Schmidt believes that we need to be willing to undertake riskier projects. If we never fail, we aren't taking enough risks. His final paragraph reads:

We have everything else we need to climb out of the current morass. Right now, somewhere in the United States, someone is working at a kitchen table, in a dorm room or a garage, developing an idea that could not only create a new industry but could also just possibly change the world. If we provide the right environment, she'll do the rest.

I agree with much of what Schmidt says, but is a lack of innovation the Big Problem?  If we just roll up our sleeves and become more innovative, will everything be all right again?  Don't get me wrong.  I am totally in favor of innovation, the more the better.  But is a lack of innovation the Big Problem that drives unemployment and the other ills we are experiencing today?  If we had ten or a hundred more Googles, would we be okay?  My short answer is "No".

So what is the Big Problem?  One thing I am certain about is that the issue of innovation and job creation is very complicated and no single (or simple) fix is likely to change the outcome by itself.  It shares this characteristic with other big problems like the healthcare crisis, climate change, energy dependency, jobs, the banking mess, to name a few.  As a nation, we prospered in the past because we had: 1) loads of natural resources, 2) the ability to attract immigrants and encourage their creativity, 3) a rising standard of living that allowed people to buy products made in our own factories (which were cheaper than imports) and because 4) international transportation costs were high and locally made products were better products anyway.

We have reached a point in our history where the old drivers of growth and prosperity just don't have the same impact that they use to have.  For the most part, I don't think this is a situation that exists because we have become lazy or self-satisfied.  The problems are a direct result of our own success in creating products that the world has wanted to buy.  Those products and technologies helped other countries come up the learning curve and let them compete more effectively in an increasingly global market.  The rest of the world is very aware of the high standard of living that we enjoy (in better economic times) and, not surprisingly, would like to share in that same prosperity.  As Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, never tires of pointing out, the world is getting flatter by the day.

The problem for which we need a new solution is how to sustain a high standard of living while coping with an ever more complex and interconnected world.  Over two hundred years ago, the Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, postulated the idea of the Invisible Hand which says in effect, if each of us acts in our own self-interest, we will collectively be better off as if guided by an Invisible Hand.  It worked when the world was rapidly moving from a pre-industrialized society to becoming a highly industrialized society.  Maybe if Adam Smith were alive today he would help postulate another idea that would fit the post-industrial world into which most of the First World is rapidly evolving.

We need lots of new approaches.  And in that way maybe a lack of innovation is, in the end, actually the Big Problem after all.  But this is not innovation in the usual sense of how to foster hi-tech businesses or how to invest more in basic R&D.  It is the innovation of rethinking how we can sustain the life we want on an ever-smaller, more interconnected, and fragile planet.  This will require us to do more than act in our own self-interest.  It will take  coordination across scientific disciplines, governmental bodies, business networks, and a host of other actors.  Maybe Smith would have called it the Invisible Web.

We have such an Invisible Web. It's called the internet or the World Wide Web and it is how you are reading this blog.  It allows us to connect with each other in ways that Smith could never have dreamed possible.  But the Web is just the beginning.  While we can finally talk to each other more easily, we must match that ability with the ability to work together to solve problems.  We need the social and collaborative skills that come naturally to those who have been raised in a wired world.  I know that we must stay open to change, the very thing that is the most difficult for many of us to accommodate.  Change will come, regardless.  I would rather it was a change for the better. It can be if we learn how to live and work together.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Shuttle Endeavor Approaching the Space Station

The astronauts on the International Space Station took this stunning shot of the Shuttle Endeavor as it approached on February 9th.  If you look at it just right, you can almost turn the image around and think the Endeavor is floating in a blue sky (it is, of course, the ocean and atmosphere).  Photo from the NASA website.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Our Amazing and Expanding Universe

I am a fan of Open Culture, a blog on all things about learning out of Stanford University.  Yesterday's post was entitled 10,000 Galaxies in 3D and it is an amazing video that is well worth watching.  I encourage you to click over to Open Culture but I have provided the video below if you prefer to see it here.

The video is a terrific look at the Hubble Telescope's Ultra Deep Field Project.  The power of Hubble is truly staggering.  And to think Hubble would have been rendered much less useful if it hadn't been repaired by the Space Shuttle astronauts four times over the years (the last time less than a year ago).  This is a great example of why it is important to keep moving forward with manned space flight.

Open Culture picked up the 10,000 Galaxies' video from the very interesting astronomy website, DeepAstronomy.  This is also worth a look if you have any interest in the night sky.

All of this reminded me of one of my favorite Monty Python songs, The Galaxy.  I found a version of the song on YouTube.  The cleverness of the song is at least partly how well Eric Idle incorporates the science of cosmology into the song.  Give it a listen.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

David McCullough: Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are

I first came to know the work of historian, David McCullogh, not through his writing, but through his narration of Ken Burns' PBS production, The Civil War.  McCullough's voice was melodious and had the sort of character that made him instantly believable.  Since that time, I have read many of his fine works of history including John Adams and 1776.  He is a gifted writer who makes history come alive.  He has even written on the history of technology with The Great Bridge, on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas, the story of the Panama Canal.

In 2005, McCullough gave a speech entitled, Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are, for a conference sponsored by Hillsdale College.  I came across the speech in my files recently and I noted that the college gave permission to reprint it as long as it was accompanied by the following credit:

Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College,

I think the speech is terrific and I am going to copy it in full below.  I don't usually send out long blog posts but this will have to be an exception. If you don't want to read the whole thing on line, you might print this one out. It runs about six pages, but once you start reading, I think you will finish it.  I am in awe of his skills as a writer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Technology Changes

I have been reading a book entitled, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium, by Robert Friedel (MIT Press, 2007).  Friedel's book is a high-level overview of a thousand years of Western technology.  But his book is not simply intended to give yet another review of everything from water-wheels to steam engines.  Friedel asks the question, "Why did the West [meaning Europe and America] continue on an upward technology trajectory for the past thousand years?"  He postulates two basic reasons: a culture of improvement, and ever better means of capturing new ideas.

I don't intend to write a review of Friedel's book here.  I haven't read enough of it yet.  From what I have read, however, I am not finding that Friedel provides many explicit examples to support his thesis.  He covers a lot of technology areas but he doesn't get at the motivational aspects as well as I had hoped. This left me wondering, "Why do things change?" Certainly, there are lots and lots of examples of rigidity to change.  We can all recall expressions like, "Because we've always done it this way."

From my point of view, I see technology change as being motivated by three different causes.  The first (and simplest) reason is because it makes our lives easier.  Why carry the bundle of wood if I can do the same job by putting it on a wheeled cart?  Why carry water from the well if I can lay some pipes into the house?  Basically, changes that come about from a desire to make things easier saves us sweat, time, money, or scarce resources.  While I mentioned money, the motivation is not making money but saving money.

The second basic motivation for technology change is making money - the more, the better.  By inventing an electric lightbulb that replaced gas lighting, Edison made a fortune.  And to be clear, his motivation was indeed to make a fortune. If I had invented the cellphone to replace the land-line telephone, I would be living like a king.  The motivation is wealth and the vehicle is a business, selling something new, better, or different.  A business person is less motivated directly by a change per se than how much he or she can make by selling the new product or service.

The third basic motivation (and probably the least common in everyday life) is the pure psychic juice that an inventor gets out of creating, much like the artist derives satisfaction from creating.  There might be a secondary motivation of labor-savings or making money but the prime mover is creative joy.  It seems to me that true inventors, more often than not, invent more than one thing.  Many are serial inventors who just keep moving from one invention to the next for the creative "high" it gives them. This is not to say that any of their inventions have to be successful selling in the marketplace.  The inventor has to invent just like the painter has to paint.

The other point I would add about the second motivation of making money that differentiates it from the other two is that competition is a positive spur to innovation.  The inventor is not so much driven by competition as creativity.  The desire to make your own life easier doesn't require a competitor.

To summarize, my three candidates for why technology changes are 1) to make life easier, 2) to make money, and 3) as an act of creation.   There is no rocket science here, but I think the motivations are so fundamental to most people that it is hard to see how technology could not change.  We have all experienced each of these motivations, even if we didn't always follow through on them.

All of the motivations I have outlined are at the level of the individual. I think the answer to Friedel's question of why the West has advanced might lie in things beyond individual motivation.  To give just a couple of  examples, Europe has always been made up of numerous countries under differing governments, competing with each other for power, wealth, and territory.  As time progressed, power and wealth were decided as much in the marketplace as they were on the battlefield.  Competition between countries fosters innovation as surely as it does between competing companies.  

Another reason that Europe accelerated so dramatically was also tied to the fact that there were numerous countries - countries who traded with each other.  Trade is cooperative and, unlike competition, fostered the transfer of technology between seller and buyer.  If Europe had been homogeneous (more like China in that era), perhaps there would have been less trade or rivalry and hence less rapid technological advancement.

So what?  The reason to think about these things is so that people can contribute as best they can to improving our situation.  We need inventors.  We need innovators.  We need improvers.  Our standard of living is embedded in technology change.  I like the life we enjoy in the United States.  We ignore innovation at our own risk.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Shuttle Power

I was reading last night about the waterwheel and how it transformed Medieval Europe.  The Domesday Census of England that was ordered by William the Conquerer in 1086 noted that there were over six thousand waterwheel-powered mills in over three thousand locations.  The waterwheel was used by the Romans and may even date back to the Greeks.  But in Medieval Europe, it blossomed. For the first time, wide-spread use of machine power transformed society.

With waterwheels on my mind as I went to bed, I set my alarm for 4 AM to watch one of our own versions of the power of the machine - the last scheduled night launch of a Space Shuttle.  We are visiting my wife's sister, who lives just south of Daytona, FL.  The Shuttle Endeavor (officially, Mission STS 130), was supposed to go up the night before but a low cloud deck scrubbed the launch.  We have tried before to see a launch from near the Kennedy Space Center but the iffy nature of launches has never let us see one up close.

NASA has their own cable channel which is also streamed on their website.  So I decided to watch on my laptop from the backyard of my sister-in-law's house (about 50 miles north of the Cape).  The night sky was filled with broken clouds.  I worried that the light pollution from city street lights might obscure my view.

The countdown went flawlessly.  I watched on my laptop, cradled in my arms, as over six million pounds of liftoff thrust launched Endeavor into the night sky.

At first, I saw nothing.  Then to the south, I could see the clouds backlit as if shrouding an intense fire.  But this fire was moving very quickly towards me.  Finally, the moving light broke free of the clouds and I could see the long plume of the rocket engine moving very quickly and silently across the black sky.  It moved so much faster than I expected and passed by quickly, all still silent.  And then, the most eerie rumble came rolling upward in intensity.  The sound was trying, without success, to catch up with the light.  Even fifty miles away, the rumble could be felt as much as heard. What a thrill!

In the nine minutes that I stood out in the cold pre-dawn air, a Space Shuttle leaped from its home at Cape Canaveral into earth orbit.  Nine minutes.  It has taken me longer than nine minutes just to compose this blog.  It takes less time to launch six astronauts into orbit than it takes me to drive to the local convenience store.  I thought of our ancestors and their waterwheels.  They could never, in their wildest imaginings, have thought that their descendants would control such immense machine power.

There are only four Space Shuttle missions remaining before the venerable vehicles are retired.  Let's hope that the private enterprise initiatives to replace the Space Shuttle come through soon.  Otherwise, our astronauts will be thumbing their way to other lands to get into space.  And the United States will be the poorer for it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Job Voyager: The Work We Do

I came across a very interesting graphic at the Design Age blog on the Fast Company website.  This graphic shows in a nutshell the occupations of U.S. workers from 1850 to 2000.  The graphic is called Job Voyager and was put together by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.  Here is a static shot of the overall data (click on the link to see the full graphic):

The occupations shown in blue are male and the ones in pink are female.  What struck me immediately was the decrease in the proportion of people employed in farming, farm labor, and labor.  You can also easily see the much-increased diversity of occupations in which we are now employed as well as the increasing role of women in the workforce.

The Job Explorer site has a search box where you can type an occupation and get an expanded view of all related occupations.  For instance, here is the data for engineering-related occupations.

Engineering has not only been dominated by men until recent times, but it has also grown substantially as a recognized occupation since the early 20th Century. 

It is fun to speculate on what this graphic will look like in another 150 years.  Surely, it will change dramatically.  What will be the occupations that disappear as surely as farming has almost disappeared in the last 150 years?  

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Book Wheel and the Origin of Technology Books

I love books.  I have piles of them sitting on my desk and in my family room in various stages of being read.  I came across the Book Wheel and thought how cool it would be to have one.  As real as it looks, the Book Wheel was never built.  It was a "paper invention" of the Italian military engineer, Agostino Ramelli (1531 - 1600).  The illustration was published in 1588 in a book entitled, The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli.  
The book belongs to a genre called Theater of Machines.  These late Renaissance books were some of the first printed books with detailed technical illustrations.  The term Theater of Machines comes from the first book of this type published in 1571 or 1572 by Jacques Besson (1540 - 1573), a French mathematician and failed clergyman. His book was entitled Theatrum Instrumentorium et Machinarum (Theater of Instruments and Machines, hence the name of the genre).  The Smithsonian has a copy of both Besson's and Ramelli's book in their Dibner Library.  You can flip the pages of the books virtually using the hotlinks.

Besson started something big with his Theatrum Instrumentorium.   These Theater books were showpieces that were designed to impress the reader with the technical sophistication of the author.  Almost all of the illustrations are fanciful inventions that were never built - and might not even have worked.  But for the first time they provided clear illustrations of mechanisms, gears, and other mechanical devices that were later incorporated into truly useful machines.

Before the Renaissance, almost all technical work was done by craftsman who passed their knowledge down orally from master to apprentice. Most of these skilled craftsman were illiterate or at best, sub-literate.  Moreover, the skills they taught were often quite literally "trade secret", the means by which they protected their business.  There was no other practical means of legal protection of intellectual ideas.
Everyone knows that Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) kept extensive notebooks of his ideas for machines.  But Leonardo kept his notes secret.  He even wrote in a code (he taught himself to write in the mirror image of script) that was only intelligible when viewed in a mirror.  He did not disclose these works during his lifetime.  Another Renaissance Man, Fillippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446), who built the dome on the cathedral in Florence, deliberately left no records at all of how he achieved his engineering masterpiece.

The Theater of Machine books were very well received.  But books like these were rarely produced before the advent of moveable type printing in the mid-1400's.  They also needed the invention of linear perspective drawing (another Brunelleschi invention of around 1425) and the availability of copper engraving plates around 1500.  The copper engravings showed much more detail than previous woodcuts.

In the 1600's, there was a veritable explosion of technology books.  Many were plagiarisms of the Theater books and other texts but the result was the same:  technical knowledge began to diffuse to other countries and other craftsman to be incorporated into new machines.  Drawings became ever-more refined with details describing dimensions, tolerances, materials, and processes for fabrication.

In 1790, when patents finally emerged as a means of protecting inventions in America, the Patent Office required a drawing, a written description, and a working model.  The latter was because drawings still did not convey the essence of how mechanical details might work.  The model requirement was dropped in 1880, partly because drawings had improved but mostly because the Patent Office ran out of room to store the models.

What put me on to all of this was an entry in a book I am reading entitled, Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790 - 1860, by Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar (published by the Smithsonian in 1986). Hindle and Lubar described the Theater of Machines books which led me (via Google) to a wonderful blog named BiblioOdyssey which focuses on illustrations from books of all ages.  This blog is well worth a visit for the diversity of books and illustrations that are presented.

Now, if I just had my Book Wheel...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Solar Storms and Damage to the Communications Grid

I was interested to read over at the Discover Blog, 80 Beats, that NASA is going to be launching a new satellite next week tagged the Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO.  For all that is known about the solar system and the universe, surprisingly little is known about the engine of our own sun - specifically the deep causes for solar storms.  The SDO's mission is to take a very high resolution image of the sun every 60 seconds in order to provide visual clues to measurable electromagnetic behavior here on earth.  The hope is that eventually, NASA will be able to forecast solar storms.

One of the biggest storms ever observed occurred on Sept. 2, 1859.  The electromagnetic field was so strong that telegraphers operating between Boston and Portland, Maine were able to communicate without any electricity in the system except that generated by the solar storm.  They actually had to disconnect the batteries that normally powered the telegraph so as not to burn the batteries out.  I had never thought about the communications grid being vulnerable even in the days of the telegraph!

In 1989, a massive solar storm took out some of the power grids in the United States and Canada.  Last year, the National Academy of Sciences released a study report that estimated the damage to the power and communications grids from a solar surge the size of the 1859 storm at one trillion dollars.  The sun operates on an eleven-year sunspot cycle and reverses its magnetic poles every twenty-two years.  While the 1859 storm has been established to be the single largest event in the last 500 years, it is only a matter of time before another major solar storm erupts.

At least solar storms are a force of nature and while they can damage the grid, it is not the same as the damage from malicious hacking attacks.  Given the ever-increasing dependence on the grids, however, anything that can be done to harden them seems like a good investment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Timelines of History at the British Library

The British Library has just released a new animated timeline of (not surprisingly) British history.  The timeline has a subcategory for medicine, science, and technology.  The graphics and implementation are very well done as you can see in the screenshot below.  Check it out.  It is worth the visit.

A New Look

I have given the Technology Almanac a new look.  I hope you like the updated format.  All the same functionality is still here.  I have a couple of requests if you like what you have been reading.  First, pass it on to anyone else that you think might enjoy it.  Second, please feel free to make any suggestions or comments about what you see here.  I am always interested in feedback.  Thanks for reading.