Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Technology Triumphs and Tragedies

I was watching PBS last night (what else?) and there were two programs back-to-back that couldn't have painted a starker contrast between the triumphs and tragedies of technology.  The first program was about the Phoenix mission to Mars.  The second described the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti.  As a species, we can successfully place and control a spacecraft on a planet 400 million miles away but we cannot get food, water, or medical relief to a devastated country little more than 400 miles from our shores. How can that be?

The Phoenix Mission is not new news.  The spacecraft landed on Mars on May 25, 2008.  It was fully operational for 151 days before the paling sun of the Martian winter failed to sufficiently recharge the lander's batteries. The lander, never designed to survive the winter, fell silent.  But in those 151 days, the lander analyzed soil conditions, searched for water (which it found), analyzed the atmosphere, and took millions of images.  The mission was a complete success.  The PBS program gave a behind-the-scenes look at the engineers and scientists who built and launched the Phoenix.  You could feel the tension and then the jubilation in the team as the Phoenix made its approach and perfect landing on the Red Planet.  No one on the team will ever forget the experience. You can check out the Phoenix team's website at the University of Arizona here.

The Frontline episode, entitled simply, The Quake, (you can watch it online here) looked at the relief efforts immediately following the most devastating earthquake in Haiti's history.  I now know what anarchy looks like.  The Haitian government was non-existent.  President Preval didn't communicate with his countrymen for a full week after the disaster.  The UN mission in Haiti was so hard hit it lost its  ability to respond.  The UN lost over 100 people including its two top officials in Haiti.  The hastily-appointed UN leadership decided that trying to coordinate any relief effort in the first week would only create a bureaucratic mess and so they did little and let relief simply finds its own path to the disaster.

The disaster is, of course, not over in Haiti.  Port-au-Prince still lies in rubble.  A million people, half the city's population are living in tent cities.  Water and sewage systems are non-existent with the rainy season on the way in May.  How much can one country endure so much suffering?  The Haitian president spoke at the United Nations this morning about the continuing need for relief and long-term rebuilding.  The question for organizations wanting to help is how to do it effectively.

After watching these two programs back-to-back, I felt like I had some sort of psychic whiplash.  The Haitian disaster of course cannot be blamed on technology.  But the response to disaster depends completely on functioning communication, transportation, and medical systems.  These embody countless levels of technology.  When relief falls short, as it did in Haiti (and New Orleans), our technology stands exposed for all of its inadequacies.  Coping with disaster requires planning and resources for something that has not yet (and may never) happen.  We tell ourselves that there are so many more immediate problems to deal with that maybe we can postpone the disaster planning until next year.  Haiti and New Orleans also pointed out what might be called a "failure of imagination."  We simply can't fathom that an entire city of several million people can be destroyed.  How do you plan for something of that magnitude?

Maybe we will never be able to react to disasters on this scale quickly enough. But I watched the Phoenix spacecraft team practice and drill endlessly for any possible contingency they might have had to deal with in the landing sequence.  Fortunately, everything went smoothly but they were ready if it had not.  I only wish there had been a "mission control" of similar capability in the UN that was running disaster contingencies.  Maybe there were, but it sure doesn't seem to have taken into account the magnitude of a disaster of this size.

The programs were a pointed reminder of both our technical skills and our impotence.  I think we can, and must, do better in the future.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Technology: The Platform for the Game

I was thinking about the game, Monopoly.  Almost everyone could draw a reasonable approximation of what the game board looks like.  Even the expressions from the game like, "Do not pass Go and Do not collect $200," are understood in our culture to mean you somehow screwed up.  Curious, I checked Wikipedia and sure enough they had an article on the history of this venerable game.

The game as we know it (now owned by Hasbro) was introduced by Parker Brothers in 1935.  The supposed inventor who came up with the game was an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow.  I was not surprised to see that Darrow was, in fact, only the last in a thirty-year chain of inventors who had contributed to the creation of the game.

The first inventor was a woman named Elizabeth Magie who patented a very similar game idea in 1903.  The picture at the right shows her game board from her patent. She called it "The Landlord's Game." But Lizzie didn't sell the game commercially.  She made her own board and taught her friends and it "went viral", in an early 20th Century sort of way.  The game kept being refined and passed on until it finally made it to Darrow who patented the now-familiar board and then tried to sell it to Parker Brothers.  Like the history of so many great ideas, Parker Brothers listened and then...they turned him down cold.  Darrow persisted and started selling his own version of the game in his hometown of Philadelphia.  Parker Brothers heard it was selling well so they offered Darrow a deal.  Like many ideas, when you look at them a little harder you find that they have many contributors, not just a single inventor.

So what prompted me to be thinking about Monopoly?  I was thinking that it could be a good analogy for the three big forces that make up modern life: Business (or the Economy if you prefer), Government, and Technology.  Of course, this is not all there is to life.  You also have American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.  But I do think these three are the major drivers of the world we live in.  The Monopoly game obviously represents Business or the Economy.  Buying and selling, banking, real estate, transportation - this is the competitive world of free markets. Isn't it ironic that the winner of the game completely wipes out free markets and achieves a complete monopoly?  Government represents the rules of the game.  It sets out what can and cannot be done.  In the parlance of business, "it levels the playing field." Government also runs programs for public safety (the jail) and the entitlement programs like Community Chest.  Government plays a critical function in the game. Without rules, the game would degenerate into chaos.

So where is Technology in my little analogy?  Technology is the platform that the game board sits upon.  It provides the underpinnings for Business.  The Monopoly board is, of course, static, i.e., no new properties can be added to the board.  There is no Google or Microsoft. But in the real world, technology is the one of the greatest contributors to new enterprises (i.e., properties) being brought into the game.  Without technology and innovation, we are stuck in a world which is based almost solely on real estate (kinda like Florida).  There is only so much real estate and the board never gets any bigger.

Many of the troubles we are now facing can be traced to the fact that we are generating new technology at a slower rate than we have in the past.  Our inventiveness is slowing down.  For instance, patent filings in the U.S. declined for the first time in over a decade.

Compared with other countries, we are no longer as innovative as we once were.  That does not bode well for the future.  We need to be doing more to support R&D in both our businesses, our universities, and our national labs.  If we think our economy is hurting now, wait and see what it will be like in another decade if we continue on the current track.  It won't be pretty.

Government can do a lot to help through tax policies, education initiatives, trade agreements, and assuring better broadband internet access.  Business has to get more innovative and be willing to stick its neck out a little further to support new ideas.   We, as a nation, have to try to understand better how the new global game is now being played to see that changes are not just suggestions, but mandates.   Like it or not, technology has been driving our world since the Industrial Revolution began over two hundred years ago.  As we move ever deeper into the Knowledge Economy, we have to do what is required to remain competitive.  Monopoly was invented deep in the Great Depression to provide a game to let people get their minds off their troubles.  We don't want to see our Great Recession become another breeding ground for fantasy business board games.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vanished Occupations

I was looking at a "most e-mailed" story on the NPR website entitled, The Jobs of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations.  The NPR feature is a combination of old photos, text, and audio clips from people who used to do the work.

And what are the Obsolete Occupations?  Lector, Elevator Operator, Copy Boy, Pinsetter, River Driver, Iceman, Lamplighter, Milkman, Switchboard Operator, Typist in a Typing Pool, Typesetter, and Telegraph Operator.  All of these jobs were displaced by a combination of technology and changing society.  The article makes clear that you can still find some of these jobs in small specialty niches or in different parts of the world.

I can remember as a kid living in East Lansing, Michigan that our milkman came around with a horse-drawn milk wagon.  Lest you think I am that old, this was a gimmick on the part of the delivery service to attract business.  Still, I did get to see at least one older way in which technology was practiced.  I can remember hearing the horse and wagon coming, grabbing a carrot or apple for the horse, and racing out the door to see who would get there first.  On one occasion I won the foot race with my brother and presented a nice carrot to the horse.  But even horses can apparently have "bad days at the office" because after sniffing the carrot the horse turned his head and bit me on the shoulder.  My love of horses ended at that moment.

Of course, any list like the one in NPR story begs the question of what the Obsolete Occupations will be fifty years from now?  So here are a few of my predictions.  Add your own (you might even include your own job in the list):

  • Pharmacists for routine prescriptions
  • Bank tellers
  • Retail store checkout clerks
  • Telephone repairmen
  • Toll collectors for highways and bridges
  • Fast food customer clerks
  • Automobile transmission repair specialists
  • Oil change mechanics
The key to all of these is to think about automation or obsolete technology.  But our ability to project something like this accurately is more limited than we might think at first blush.  The reasons we may need certain jobs can change for reasons other than automation.  Take the milkman or grocery-man for an example.  In our neighborhood, a start-up company called Simon Delivers has been carving out a niche to deliver complete grocery orders to busy families where both spouses work and don't want to hassle with the grocery store.  The need being filled is not limited mobility as it was in the past but limited time.  There are a number of these types of small niche innovators who are capturing an unmet need, but these are the minority.  The bigger picture is inexorably towards automation replacing people.  

So what should the high school guidance counselors suggest?  Any job in which automation is not likely to be a factor in the near future:  physician, nurse, dentist, dental hygienist, lawyer, engineer, writer, actor, and many more.  Just think "brain power."  This also is why we need to get everyone educated beyond a high school diploma.  The jobs which not only pay, but are even there, will take brains, lots of brains.  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Notes: The Brooklyn Bridge

The Great Bridge:  The Epic Story of the Building the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1972, 636 pages.

A Picture History of The Brooklyn Bridge, by Mary J. Shapiro, Dover, 1983, 122 pages.

May 23, 1883 was the last day that people commuting between New York City and Brooklyn needed to take a ferry.  The next day, the Brooklyn Bridge was officially opened for business.  The opening celebrations that day included everyone and anyone who was a dignitary or connected to the building of the bridge.  The review committee was headed by President Chester A. Arthur and Governor of New York, Grover Cleveland.  The mayors, the aldermen, the trustees of the bridge company, all were in attendance.  Everyone was there except the Chief Engineer, Washington Roebling.  Roebling, in fact, had not set foot on the bridge once in the entire 14-year history of the construction of his bridge.  That fact is part of what makes the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge such an epic.  And no one writes a better historical narrative than David McCullough.

I read McCullough's book just this week.  I must confess, for someone who professes to enjoy all things historical about technology, I have had his book for years but it has gone unread.  Maybe it was my reprinting his speech on history here in this blog a few weeks ago.  Maybe it was the fact that I came across Mary Shapiro's wonderful photo documentary of the bridge in a used bookstore.  Whatever the reason, I sat down and started to read them both together.  I am so glad that I did.  McCullough writes beautifully about the characters and events that shaped the bridge.  He writes at great length about the engineering and the construction of the bridge itself.  But when it comes to visualizing something so complex, the old saw that "a picture is worth a thousand words" remains true.  The Great Bridge does have photos and illustrations in the middle of the book but there are so many more good photos and engravings in Shapiro's Picture History.  If you are interested in reading McCullough's book, I would seriously suggest getting a copy of Shapiro's book as a reference companion.

As the subtitle of McCullough's book suggests, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge really was a saga.  Construction of a bridge across the East River had been thought about for years - as far back as 1811 when Thomas Pope imagined his Rainbow Bridge that I wrote about a while ago.   It was on an East River ferry that became trapped in the ice in 1852 that John A. Roebling conceived of an idea for a great bridge spanning the river between New York and Brooklyn.  John Roebling was the pre-eminent bridge builder in America and with him that day was his young son, Washington Roebling.  Because of the Civil War and economic problems, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge would not start until 1869.

John Roebling was the engineer who designed the bridge, including its massive gothic towers and the multiple traffic lanes and pedestrian walkway.  But on June 28, 1869, before any work could be done on even the footings of the bridge towers,  John Roebling badly crushed his foot in an accident at the ferry dock.  He contracted tetanus and died a horrible death 24 days later.

From the beginning, John Roebling had intended that his son, Washington, would be the Chief Engineer on the bridge.  Washington Roebling (photo) was trained as an engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.  In 1861, Washington enlisted as a private in the Union Army.  Over the course of the Civil War he would become a hero at Gettysburg and finally resign his commission in 1865 at the rank of Colonel.  Shortly afterwards, he joined his father in Cincinnati to help him complete the suspension bridge over the Ohio River (the bridge still stands today).  Washington Roebling was no novice when he assumed full responsibility for constructing his father's design in 1869.

The building of the bridge was inevitably linked to politics and scandal in both New York City and Brooklyn.  Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall was an early backer of the bridge and it was only Tweed's downfall from other disclosures that removed that particular opportunity for pillaging the public coffers.  Politicians were always trying to use the bridge for their own political purposes.  Through it all, Washington Roebling refused to become embroiled in any of the controversies or to bend to any of the political pressures.

Washington Roebling himself would be crippled for years afterward from Caisson's Disease, otherwise known as the Bends, when he was down in the New York caisson, 70 feet under the East River, in December, 1872.  Roebling was in such pain that he requested a leave of absence and from that time forward performed all his duties as Chief Engineer by mail and written instructions.  His wife, Emily, acted as his corresponding secretary, caretaker, and confidant.  She became well-known to the assistant engineers of the bridge and later would often visit the construction site to convey instructions from her husband.  By unanimous choice, Emily Warren Roebling was the first person to walk across the decking of the bridge when it was completed in late 1882.  The Brooklyn Bridge was very much a family legacy: father, son, and daughter-in-law.  It is a story about honorable engineers and far less honorable politicians.  Mostly, it is a story of the triumph of will - personal and collective.

The Great Bridge was McCullough's second book following The Johnstown Flood (1968).  Several publishers offered him advances to write other disaster stories including one on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  But McCullough decided that he didn't want to become labeled as a writer of disaster stories and wanted instead to write a positive story - the building of the  Great Bridge.  Virtually every book after The Great Bridge has won McCullough awards, including two Pulitzers (Truman and John Adams).  If this book had come later in his series of books, it probably would have won a Pulitzer as well.  But the book did receive wide-spread critical acclaim at the time and now, 38 years later, it is still in print and still thought to be the single best history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

McCullough began his book with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, written for Harper's Weekly, May 24, 1883 (the day the bridge opened).  Shuyler was in some ways the first of the architectural critics in this country.  Schuyler wrote:

It so happens that the work which is
likely to be our most durable monument,
and to convey some knowledge of us to the
most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility;
not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.


If you are more the visual type, instead of reading the books I would recommend watching Ken Burns' 1981 documentary entitled The Brooklyn Bridge.  David McCullough is the narrator.  You can download the video from iTunes for a couple of bucks.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Innovation in Healthcare: For One and for All

Healthcare dominates the news of late.  But the stories are all about politics, partisanship, and money.  I would rather focus for a moment on the positive side of the picture - the incredible advances that have been made in healthcare in the last fifty years.  You can almost make a case that medicine as we know it was only invented in the last half of the 20th Century.  Think about the technologies that we take for granted:

  • Heart/Lung Bypass Machines for heart surgery
  • Cataract removal and lens replacement
  • Feasible organ transplantation because of anti-rejection drugs
  • Minimally-invasive surgery
  • CT Scanning
  • MRI
  • Anti-viral drugs
  • Vaccines
  • Cures for childhood cancers
  • Angiography
  • Coronary stents
  • Pacemakers
  • Joint replacements
  • Dental implants
The list goes on and on.  It is truly remarkable how far the medical sciences have advanced.  Most of this technology was developed in the United States, another measure of the innovation we have enjoyed in this country.

You might think of these technologies as being focused on individual health.  The biggest impact on longevity, however, continues to be due to public health:  clean water, sewage systems, clean air,  better nutrition, and mass vaccinations of the population are a few examples.  It seems to me that the talk of the last year to fund "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects could have been seen as a way to maintain and improve our public health.  Most of the water pipes in major cities are a century old and falling apart.  Same goes for the sewer systems.  Money spent on these projects would not only help unemployment, they would help maintain our public health.  Seems like win-win to me.  Innovations don't always come in shiny packages.  Some come right out of the faucet. 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

When Was the Last Time...?

We have become almost immune to the introduction  of new technology in our lives.  New cellphone?  Ho-hum.  New laptop?  So 90's.  New television?  Is it a flat-screen? 3D?  No?  How yesterday.  We may not pay much attention to when new technologies arrive in our lives, but I think we pay even less attention to when they disappear.

I was thinking about some of the technology that I used to take for granted but are now so very, very gone.  So here's a short list to prompt your thinking.  Make your own list for fun.

When was the last time you:

  1. Rolled down a window in your car with a crank?
  2. Used a rotary-dial telephone?
  3. Placed a call from a free-standing phone booth?
  4. Changed channels on a television by turning a clicking knob?
  5. Adjusted the picture quality on the tv by rotating the tv antenna?
  6. Played a newly-minted lp record on your turntable?
  7. Took the film from your camera to get snapshots developed?
  8. Replaced the muffler on your car?
  9. Had a car with a vinyl top?
  10. Put a floppy disk in your computer's drive?
My point is only that technologies often fade away quietly.  We don't miss them unless it is from some sense of nostalgia.  In fact, you can probably still do all of the things on the list but they are just no longer the norm.  

Part of what got me thinking about this was a post I saw on Mashable that had a post about ten gadgets with retro styling.  The one I liked the best was the USB drive that comes in an old cassette tape box, complete with the writable labels (just like the original).  Now, instead of putting together a bunch of songs on tape, you put them together on the USB drive.  Neat, but for this to seem cool you have to remember what a cassette tape was.  You do remember tapes... don't you?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why I Love the History of Technology

[Update 3/21/2010:  The quote I paraphrased is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not Shakespeare.  Good thing I wasn't an English major.]

How do I love the History of Technology?  Let me count the ways... 

Okay, so that is a very bad paraphrase of Shakespeare.  Sometimes I ask myself, "why are you so interested in this stuff?"  Maybe you are asking that same question?  To answer my own question, here, in no particular order, are ten things that popped into my head about why I love the History of Technology:

  1. Creativity and Innovation:  New technology brings something into the world that wasn't there before.  It taps into that urge that we all feel to create.
  2. Beauty:  Yes, technology can be beautiful, whether it is the sweeping curves of a suspension bridge of the elegance of a functional design.  We create technology that has an aesthetic to it.  Well-designed technology possesses deep beauty.
  3. Interesting People:  Technology always comes from people and new technology comes from people who are passionate, quirky, resourceful, and determined.  They can be inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.  Their desire to create makes for fascinating personalities.
  4. Exciting Stories: The birth of a new technology is always filled with drama.  To read about what people had to overcome to see their ideas through is always interesting. Sometimes the story is about personal sacrifice.  Sometimes the story is high adventure.  They are all interesting.
  5. Society and Culture:  Technology shapes our culture at its most fundamental level.  We become different people because of new technologies.  But technology also has a darker side, creating real dilemmas for society to grapple with.  Look at the issues we now face in our digital world.
  6. Legacy:  All of the people who have persevered to bring their ideas into the world have left us a legacy.  Their work stands as a testament to their having been here and having made a difference. The old saw for some kind of immortality says, "plant a tree, write a book, have a child."  I think you could add, "birth a new technology".
  7. Science:  Science and technology are intimately linked although it has not always been so.  Technology used to precede new science and then the science would provide the understanding on how to advance a technology.  Technology provides the tools of science. But, while often written in one phrase, science and technology are not identical twins. They are fraternal twins: linked but different.
  8. Enterprise:  Technology is not the same thing as invention.  There have been many inventions that have never made any difference in our lives.  To make a difference technology needs to come into the world and the path is by way of enterprise.  The story of business is intimately linked with any history of technology - and the struggle to create the business is often just as dramatic as the struggle to create the technology.
  9. Learning:  The History of Technology demands that I learn new things all the time.    It also provides great lessons about life.  While our world is very different than even thirty years ago, the characteristics innovators need and the challenges they face are the same. The past has much to teach us and I, for one, am the better for knowing.
  10. Perspective:  The History of Technology allows me to see a story against a larger background.  Often, the clarity of hindsight makes it much easier to see the relationships, the nuances, what worked and what didn't...and why. As an added bonus, we get to know how it all came out!

I am sure that I could come up with more reasons but this seems like a pretty good list for now.  As I look the list over, it seems like many of these reasons apply to almost anything you might find deeply interesting.  So maybe I haven't gotten to the nub of it just yet.  For whatever reason, it just resonates with me.  What does that for you?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Hindenburg Disaster

I came across some newsreel footage from the National Archives (via the Internet Archives) that show the disaster of the Hindenburg crash in Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937.  This newsreel gives you some idea of what an 800 foot long airship looks like in flight. Ironically, the Hindenburg crashed exactly one year to the day following its maiden flight in 1936.

The interior of the airship was beautifully appointed as you can see in the photographs below.  At one point, it even carried an aluminum grand piano, although it was later removed to allow more room for passengers.

The Hindenburg had just completed its first Berlin - New York voyage of the 1937 season.  Due to bad weather, the airship had to idle for some hours before landing in Lakehurst, NJ (at the Naval Air Station which had mooring towers for large airships).  Everything was normal in the landing until the hydrogen-filled dirigible suddenly exploded near the tail section.  The entire craft was consumed in a minute and 35 of the 97 people on board were killed.  The images of the explosions shocked the world which had rarely witnessed a disaster unfolding in front of the cameras.  The cause of the explosion has never been determined.

Today, with video in our cellphones and with all our portable video cameras, capturing events as they happen is not nearly so rare an occurrence.  That doesn't mean that disaster is any easier to take now than it was on the Hindenburg's final day.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beach's Pneumatic Transit Company

In my last blog, I wrote about Rufus Porter, frustrated airship pioneer and founder of the magazine, Scientific American.  Porter founded the magazine in 1845 but by 1846 he had already sold it to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach.  Munn and Beach continued to publish the Scientific American for the rest of their lives.  The magazine stayed in their families for generations.  Like Porter, Beach was also an inventor and a frustrated developer of new technology.  [Alfred Beach pictured from Wikipedia]

Scientific American's publishing offices were in New York City.  Traffic in the city was becoming unbearable in the years immediately following the Civil War.  The melee of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys mixed with pedestrian traffic made it difficult to get anywhere, especially at the morning and evening rush hours (sound familiar?).  Beach was a strong proponent of a subway system for the city.  He saw little future in talk of a steam-engine powered subway which would have all the attendant smoke and soot to contend with.  But he was very enamored with an idea that had begun in London to use pneumatic-powered tubes to move everything from mail to people.  Small tubes were being installed in stores and banks to move papers and money from one part of the building to another.  Intermediate tubes (about three feet in diameter) were being explored as a way to move packages and small freight.  Entrepreneurs in London had even proposed a pneumatic tube large enough to transport a subway car.

Beach picked up on this idea and tried to rally local officials to his cause.  Unfortunately, in the late 1860's , New York City was essentially owned by Boss William Tweed and his Tammany Hall ring.  Tweed received kickbacks from the horse-drawn trolley companies and a subway threatened that revenue stream.  Beach thought he could work around Tammany Hall by asking for a charter from the state to build two parallel intermediate-sized tubes to move letters and packages.  As this was no threat to Tweed, it was allowed to go through.  But Beech had other plans than what he was willing to put forth in his request to the state government.  

Unbeknownst to Tweed and his cronies, Beach planned from the beginning to build a demonstration subway using the pneumatic principle.  If challenged, he planned to tell people that he found it cheaper for his package test purposes to build one eight-foot diameter tunnel than two four-foot diameter tunnels.  Beach wanted as little visibility as possible for his project until it was complete.  He thought that if he could win over the public with the demonstration of a working prototype subway, he could overcome the political resistance from Tammany Hall.  He underestimated Tweed and the Machine.

Beach wanted to build his subway beneath Broadway, the main New York thoroughfare.  Beach rented the basement of the Devlin's Clothing Store building as a site to secretly begin excavating his subway.  The digging was done round the clock but the dirt was hauled out of the basement only at night.  It was placed in sacks and carried away in wagons with muffled wheels.  Beach's 21-year old son, Fred, was foreman for the digs.  Beach even invented and built a special tunneling shield to aid in the excavation.  The eight-foot diameter cast iron shield was moved forward by hydraulic jacks which could even be steered to allow the tunnel to turn corners.

After 56 days, the tunnel had been dug all the way under Broadway.  It was 312 feet long and ran from Warren Street to Murray Street.  Beach's single subway car ran on rails and was almost circular in cross-section to closely fit the circular walls of the tunnel.  It was plushly appointed and lit by on-board gas lamps.  Power came from a huge stationary fan system coupled to a steam engine.  The twin blades of the fan generated enough air velocity to briskly push the subway car through the entire length of the tunnel.  Reversing a valve on the fan system brought the car back again.  Beach even built an extravagant 120 foot-long lobby as a demonstration underground subway station. The station was ornamented with expensive furnishings, frescoes, an underground fountain, and even a grand piano.  The whole demonstration had cost Beach $350,000 out of his own pocket.

The subway was opened for public demonstrations on Feb 28, 1870 and it caused an immediate sensation.  People loved it - even if it didn't go anywhere.  Trying to capitalize on that enthusiasm, Beach applied for a charter from the state to build a longer subway system.  The resolution passed both houses but was vetoed by the governor - a Tammany Hall lackey.  But Beach didn't give up.  He was counting on public opinion and a change in his political fortunes to carry the day.  In 1872, it looked like he was going to get his break.  Tammany Hall had been exposed by the New York Times for its corruption and Boss Tweed was under indictment.  The Governor had been swept out of office in November of 1872 as a Tammany crony and the new Governor was much more favorable to Beach's ideas.  His charter granted, Beach formed The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company.

But when Beach tried to raise capital for the project, he ran into an entirely new opponent.  John Jacob Astor III owned much of the real estate along Broadway and he didn't like the idea of a subway tunnel that might cause structural problems under any of his property.  He stonewalled the project and got his friends to do the same.  Beach was by this time exhausted and out of funds.  He closed up his subway station and tunnel and abandoned the project.

Subways did not come to New York City until 1900.  In 1912, a work crew digging a new tunnel broke through into an old tunnel they hadn't known was there.  In it they found a perfectly intact subway car and a glorious underground station complete with water fountain.  Beach's subway was once again back in the limelight.  His pneumatic tunnel was mostly dug out for new construction but his efforts were recognized by a plaque that was placed in a local station.

Twice, publishers of the Scientific American had grand ideas and twice they had been thwarted from seeing their dreams realized.  Both ideas were ahead of their times.  Innovation demands viable technology, tenacity, and more than a little bit of good luck.  

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rufus Porter and the Dream of Flight

A few days ago, I stopped into the Friends of the Library Bookstore at the Sarasota Library.  I found a little book (51 pages) entitled, A Yankee Inventor's Flying Ship, which had been published in a very limited edition back in 1969.  In the book, the Minnesota Historical Society had re-published two pamphlets by Rufus Porter, which he originally published in 1849 and 1850.  I was intrigued to learn something about this man and his ideas.

People have yearned to fly for as long as they have watched the birds soaring in the breezes.  Leonardo da Vinci drew up a number of complex flying machine designs, although none of his concepts were ever built in his lifetime.  Recently (2005), a hang-glider he designed was constructed to his original specifications and it actually worked - although it was not very stable compared to modern designs.

Long before winged aircraft, balloons were the first vehicles used for manned flight.   In 1783, the Montgolfier Brothers developed hot-air balloons that were used for the first tethered and free-floating flights with people on board.  Almost immediately, there was a competing technology:  hydrogen-filled balloons.  The first successful human flight in a hydrogen balloon took place in December of 1783, only a couple of months after the Montgolfiers' flights.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Disappearing Skills

I was watching a PBS program last night that was produced by the Great Scenic Railway Journeys folks.  The show was a travelogue for various scenic railroads across the United States and Canada.  The footage of both the trains and the scenery was beautifully filmed.  It was a testament to many, many people that the old steam locomotives (and other old railroad equipment) were still operational on these tourist lines.

[Image of replacing a locomotive tire circa 1940 from the Library of Congress via Flickr.]

I watched vignettes of about a half-dozen railroads and I kept picking up the same message:  the skills needed to keep the finicky beast, otherwise known as a steam locomotive, moving is rapidly disappearing.  There are no "Locomotives-R-Us" parts distributors for steam locomotives. Every part that wears out has to be made from scratch in the railroad's own shops.  Everything, from the smallest bearing replacement to a complete overhaul, requires tools and skills that are hard to find on the curriculum of most vo-tech schools. 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

American Renaissance Men

Lately, I have come across a number of items that fit the pattern of American Renaissance Men of the 19th Century.  When we think of the Renaissance Man, the usual image is of a 16th Century Italian like Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). My dictionary defines a Renaissance Man as "a person with many talents and interests, especially in the humanities."  Notice that the definition does not limit the concept to one particular age.

So what made me think of this?  A few things.  I have been watching a Teaching Company course on the Masterworks of American Art (a great course, by the way).   I have also been keenly aware of many of the inventors who have helped to define our technological past.  I could not help but see that so many of them went beyond the boundaries of just one area of excellence.  Here are a few Renaissance Men to think about:

Samuel F.B. Morse (1791 - 1872):  Painter, but best-known as the inventor of the electric telegraph and his eponymous code. Morse painted portraits and historical subjects before turning to inventing.  He is said to have been motivated to invent the telegraph when he received a message too late for him to return home to be at his wife's side when she died.  This is an example of his portrait painting: Mrs. Daniel de Sassure Bacot (1830).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. Penguin Press, 2008

[UPDATE:  I just read that Clay Shirky gave the keynote speech at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services, NFAIS, Conference.  He summarized his book in five words: Group Action Just Got Easier.  You can read an interesting post on his speech (which augments what I have written here) at the blog, What I Learned Today.]

Ready or not, here comes the 21st Century!
   - From Lyrics of Virtual Party, by Noel Paul Stookey (Paul, of Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Paul Stookey's little comic song, Virtual Party, tells the story of a married man who decides to visit an internet chat room party late at night only to meet up with a mysterious woman who wants to get to know him better.  He loses his nerve and goes to bed only to discover that his wife, whom he thought was sleeping, had insomnia and is signed on to her computer and is that mysterious woman he met online.  As the title implies, we live in a world where the virtual is becoming the norm.

The song struck me as being particularly relevant having just finished reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody.  I don't know where I was in 2008 when it was first published but I recently found it on a table in Barnes and Noble and it looked interesting.  It was.  Mr. Shirky is a well-known contributor to many newspapers and periodicals. He mainly focuses on the impact of the internet as an agent of change.  This book is an extended exploration of the topic and he turns over some very interesting rocks for us to peer under. 

Mr. Shirky's basic premise is that the almost costless nature of connecting with each other on the internet has re-written our most fundamental assumptions about what is possible for people to accomplish by working together.  His examples, which range from the effort to recover a stolen cellphone to writing the largest encyclopedia in history (Wikipedia), bring his points to life.  The "costs" of bringing groups together has collapsed to the point where goals can be easily pursued that no corporation could ever afford to take on.  

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sagan and the Symphony of Science

I came across a unique website via Discover Magazine's Discoblog, called the Symphony of Science.  A musician named John Boswell has put together a number of mashup videos on his website that use old science program footage, digital re-mixing, and auto-tuning software to transform spoken text into a sort-of singing.  One of the scientists he features prominently is Carl Sagan and his series, Cosmos, which I blogged about last year.  Other scientists who "sing" in his videos include Steven Hawking, David Attenborough, Neil deGrasee Tyson, Jacob Bronowski, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, and many more.

Boswell got into this to try to combine his interest in electronica, music tools, and his love of science.  The results are very cool.  You can see his first (and most watched) video, A Glorius Dawn, below but click through to his website to watch the others.  They are all different, and all intriguing. Boswell deserves kudos for his creativity. Nicely done!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Linchpins of Technology

I was thinking about all the changes brought about  by digital technology and the internet.  It really is staggering to live through a technology change with this level of impact.  I was talking to a friend about it recently and he remarked on how there has never been a time of greater change.  This may be true but it got me to thinking about other technologies and the impact they had in their own day.  I would only give up my internet connection kicking and screaming.  I would sooner give back the television than the computer network.  So what are some of my candidates for "Linchpins of Technology"?  What technologies, if suddenly yanked out of our culture, would create the biggest craters?

I would nominate two technologies that are so embedded in our world that life as we know it would change overnight.  First, remove the internal combustion engine.  That would bring not only cars and trucks to a stop, it would also stop buses, diesel locomotives, ships, motorcycles, airplanes, emergency power generators, golf carts...the list goes on.  Not only couldn't we drive, we couldn't feed ourselves, move any goods in or out of our factories and stores, or even get sick people to the hospital fast enough to save their lives.

The internal combustion engine remade our world in less than three decades (1890 - 1920).  It did so at a more fundamental level than digital technology.  We could turn off the internet and we would struggle mightily for awhile, but we could go back to the world of 1995.  It wouldn't be pretty.  The number of digital systems that we depend on would rapidly become very, very apparent.  But most of us can remember how we did things before the digital era and we might make it work again.  Take away our transportation networks and we would simply fall apart.

Another technology whose loss would be even more devastating than the internal combustion engine is  the electric power distribution grid.  We experience what this would mean every time a storm knocks out the power to a wide area of the country, like it recently did in New England.  But for critical applications, we have our friend, the internal combustion engine, to power the backup generators at hospitals, airports, and other critical facilities.  No power:  no lights, no heat (furnace blower motors), no refrigeration or air conditioning, no computers, no television or radio...even the garage door won't open!

I can easily understand why governments are so worried about attacks on the power grid.  It would be paralyzing.  And unlike disabling hundreds of millions of internal combustion engines at once, knocking out the power grid (or at least critical pieces of it) is quite possible.  Come to think of it, it IS possible to knock out all the internal combustions engines at once.  It happened in the 1970's.  It was called the Arab Oil Embargo.  No oil, no gas, no fuel, no operating engines.

Both of these "linchpin technologies" share something in common.  They are both at their hearts,  systems.  The electricity grid allow energy to be used in places far removed from the sources that generate it.  The internal combustion engine is the key component of our transportation system. Both systems free us from the tyranny of geography.  Both are critical because they form a backbone upon which everything else is built.

The Industrial Revolution was powered by the steam engine, the first energy source that could be built anywhere without being dependent on the vagaries of the wind or falling water.  Mechanical power from steam engines came from gears, shafts, belts, and pulleys directly coupled to the engine.  Hence, the uses of that power had to be built in the same place as the steam engine.

The real industrial revolution came when the steam engine was coupled to an electric dynamo which could transform the power of the steam engine into mobile, distributable electricity.  Motors and lights on the far end converted the energy back to useful forms. It took some clever inventing to get from Edison's original DC system to the AC systems that made long-distance power transmission practical, but most of the kinks were worked out in only twenty years (1880 - 1900).

The internal combustion engine also brings portable, distributable power.  This, in turn, makes possible a transportation network with much greater flexibility than the railroad. Perhaps the real comparison to electricity is oil.  But oil was around for awhile before the internal combustion engine and it was only in harnessing the oil's energy that made petroleum products critical to the world.  Still, I vote for the engine more than the oil.  It was the seminal invention that made it all possible.  By the way, the invention of the internal combustion engine (like all inventions) has a long history.  The first to receive a patent was invented by the Englishman, Samuel Brown, in 1823.

Take away the internal combustion engine and we are back to the horse-and-buggy.  Take away the electricity grid and we would return to our own form of the Dark Ages.  I now believe that the more ubiquitous and invisible the technology, the more critical it is to our lives.  When the media goes on about the latest new "hi-tech" gadget, like Apple's iPad, I have a more balanced view for what real high technology is.  Very quickly (if we are not already there), digital systems will play at least as critical a role (if not an even more critical role) in our lives than the other two I have mentioned.  Systems and networks are the true Linchpins of Technology.

Do you have another view of this?  I am always interested in your thoughts.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sean Carroll and the Arrow of Time

Sean Carroll is a cosmologist at CalTech. He is also a gifted teacher.  I became aware of Carroll when my wife and I ordered a lecture series by him from the Teaching Company.  His course was entitled, Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe.  In the 24 lectures of this course, Carroll explains why the "stuff" we can see in the universe is only five percent of what is thought to be there.  Twenty-five percent is Dark Matter, needed to explain gravitational effects, and seventy percent is Dark Energy, needed to explain the perpetual expansion of the universe.  I would recommend the course. Even though it is taught using layman's language, it is very detailed.

Carroll prepared that course in 2007.  Since that time, he has written a new book called From Eternity to Here: the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.  This book attempts to explain why time goes in only one direction.  "Well", you say.  "Duh?"  But it is not so obvious why time goes in one direction.  The fundamental laws of physics work with time going in either direction.  How can it be that we only get older?  Turns out, entropy has a whole lot to do with it.  Entropy is a measure of disorder and it can only get bigger.  Entropy explains why eggs turn into omelets but not the other way around.

You can see Carroll in action (and for free!) in a two-part video lecture he gave at the University of Sydney in December of last year.  Part One is here and you can see the link for Part Two on the right of that page. Each video lasts 30 minutes. If you like what you see, you can order his book from this link at Amazon or you can read the blog, Cosmic Variance, to which he contributes at Discover Magazine.  He also has his own website. Enjoy.