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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.

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