Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tech Almanac is on Facebook and Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Waves of Innovation, Waves of Materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

When Google and Apple Are as Passe as Ford

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo and logos from Wikipedia]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The History of the Internet

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

Via: MBA Online

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Heavy Machinery, An Occasional Series

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Charles W. Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits:

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

More to Explore:

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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Forces of Creative Destruction

Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. ... The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers, goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates. ...The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation - if I may use that biological term-that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about  capitalism.  It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.

Joseph Schumpeter, Economist, 
Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942

I can hardly pick up the newspaper or scan the news online without seeing an article about the stagnant economy, our so-called Great Recession.  Unemployment figures remain stuck at an official 9.5% with broad agreement that the real unemployment level is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent if you factor in people who have quit looking for work.  Unemployment benefits have just been extended to 99 weeks in recognition of the persistent lack of hiring by business.  The stock market is up as corporate profits recover but businesses remain cautious about adding back workers, preferring to sit on piles of cash to tide them over if another dip occurs. Many articles suggest that the displaced workers will never be called back to their old jobs.  What is going on?

I would suggest that we are in yet another significant phase of Schumpeter's Creative Destruction.  We are seeing one economy (call it the White Collar Economy) being dismantled before our eyes and a new, as yet undefined era beginning.  Creative Destruction is not new.  It has always been part and parcel of capitalism.  Newer, cheaper, more automated means of getting any job done will displace older, manual methods of production.  It doesn't matter if you are talking about making steel or producing business invoices.  If a task can be economically automated, it will be.  And the people who did those jobs will be gone, never to be recalled.  

This is not news.  To illustrate the point, I came across a video on the Internet Archives that was made back in the 1930s. It laments the closing of the old steel mills in favor of new, more automated mills.  The people in the steel town were the victims.  They lost their jobs as the factories and their skills became obsolete.  This little documentary (produced by the Economics Department of New York University) is interesting to watch.  If you can hang in there for the full 28 minutes of the film, you can even hear a pathetic song written about a housewife's lament when her husband remains persistently unemployed.  Corny, yes. But substitute office cubicle for old steel mill and the story still rings true.

Technology creates and newer technology destroys.  It goes on and on.  We are seeing the destruction of so many white collar jobs by newer technology.  Some of these are the straight automation of tasks that real people used to do - such as telephone answering machines replacing receptionists.  Others allow people to do jobs for themselves that once required another person's skills.  Word processing software basically made obsolete the secretary and the typing pool.  Now we have EZ Passes for tollroads displacing toll booth operators, automated phone trees displacing whole product support functions, and self-checkout at the grocery story displacing cash register clerks.  Bank tellers are becoming an endangered species.  Most people (unless they live in New Jersey) can't even remember gas station attendants.  Real estate is now almost entirely a web-based activity making real estate brokers another vulnerable occupation.

So what are the people who used to do these jobs supposed to do?  Where can they still get a good job?  For any one individual, it is a tough question.  For our society as a whole it is The Big Question.  How many options do ordinary workers really have? Most job training programs are now seen to be ineffective.  The curriculum usually covers a few basic computer skills and some tips on writing resumes.  But those aren't going to cut it for companies looking for specialized technology skills or in an economy where there are five applicants for every opening. Many people lack either the education or the aptitude for technology jobs.  I read a lot about the opportunities to create Green jobs but it seems to me that most of these jobs will require the same skills as other technology jobs.

There are no easy answers.  Major shifts caused by Creative Destruction almost always leave a generation or more of economic carnage in their wake. The sad truth is that many people will never recover their old jobs or incomes. But there is no going back even if we wanted to. Somehow, we have to improve our educational system and support the entrepreneurial companies that create half the new jobs in this country. People have an amazing ability to be creative and resilient.  We need to support ideas with every tool we have at our disposal and create new ones we haven't tried yet.  Why can't micro-loans be as useful in our economy as they have been in Third World countries?  Why can't we offer more mentoring by both working and retired entrepreneurs on how to start a business?  Why can't we teach people to use more advanced technology tools like computer-controlled machinery that might give them a shot at a job?  Why can't we create a web-based Suggestion Box or forum within communities where people can contribute their ideas on how to create employment?

Next time I pick up the newspaper, I would like to read about some new ideas for dealing with unemployment,  I would like to read where our elected leaders are doing something constructive to address the problem instead of bickering with each other over political ideology.  I would like to read about people who are finding ways to re-enter the workforce, or about employers hiring people again in jobs that work in the new economy.  

Creative Destruction.  We need more Creative and less Destruction.  We can do this.  We must do this. 

[Picture credit: Ludwig von Mises Institute]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Enabling a Revolution, Enabling Wealth

I saw a column by Rich Karlgaard this morning in Forbes entitled "How the Cheap Revolution Confuses Policymakers".  Karlgaard's title is a little misleading.  His article mostly focuses on how Moore's Law has driven down the cost of all things silicon and made the resulting products cheap.  (Moore’s Law refers to the fact that the number of transistor elements on a chip have doubled roughly every two years.) Making products cheap and affordable has made some people very, very rich.  Karlgaard tries to pull biotechnology advances into Moore's Law. But it is a bit of a stretch to say that biotechnology has made medicine cheap. 

Nonetheless, I subscribe to at least part of his thesis.  Some new technology platforms change everything.  They change how we live, how we work, who is rich, and who is poor.  Some technology platforms are so powerful that they can elevate nations to world leadership and relegate others to a has-been status.  Not all new technologies do this, of course  What sort of technology platforms can have such powerful effects?

The key is to be found in technologies with the broadest power to reach deeply into our world and change areas that would have never even occurred to the original developers. Here are a few examples that pop to mind:

The Printing Press - Gutenberg developed movable type so that he could print indulgences and bibles and make a few bucks. The printing press allowed for mass communication that changed the course of history.  Do you think Johannes could have foreseen the power and reach of his invention?  The Enlightment would never have happened, or happened much more slowly, without the printing press. 

Iron and Steel Processing - The Medieval world was one built of wood and stone. The discoveries (mostly) in England of how to smelt iron and later steel cheaply and in high volume had a dramatic impact that reached into every part of the lives of people in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Without the ability to produce iron and steel cheaply, there would have been no steam engines, no railroads, no modern bridges, ships, or skyscrapers.  Those who controlled the steel mills became fabulously wealthy.  Those who worked in the mills had lives of misery.

The Automobile - This is an assemblage of inventions and materials (including the internal combustion engine, cheap fuel, steel, and rubber) that gave everyday people the ability to travel where they wanted, when they wanted at very low cost.  Whole industries were created to build and service automobiles and trucks. The highway system changed the face of the country just as suburbs changed the nature of our towns and cities.  Who was rich?  Auto and oil magnates, steel executives, and rubber company CEOs. 

The point I am trying to make is that some inventions have the ability to have very broad utility. They have uncounted ways of being exploited for products and services and hence for profits.  If there is a way to exploit one of these technologies, some entrepreneur will find it.

I would agree with Karlgaard on how pervasive the Silicon technology has been.  Look at who became wealthy.  The list includes chip company founders, personal computer execs, internet execs, venture capitalists, and social networking company founders. Less obviously but just as importantly, the wealth of bankers and financiers is tied directly to the enablement of silicon technology. Without computing, the world of instantaneous and complex finance would be impossible. 

What will be the next powerful technology platform?  If I knew, I would have my money there and I wouldn't be broadcasting my answer.  But I don't know.  I would hazard an educated guess, however.  It will be a new material.  I don't know if that will be a nano-material or a DNA-based, self-assembling material, but it will be some sort of material that opens doors that can't even be conceived of today.  My other prediction is that this next new material technology is a long way off and will take even longer to exploit.  Fundamental technologies are like that.  

Karlgaard writes of the Cheap Revolution but all powerful technologies have made things cheap.  But not all technologies have the capability to create such a profound impact.  That's why when we experience one, it is dubbed a "revolution".  We are still riding the Information Revolution.  Who knows what the next will be called?

[All pictures from Wikipedia]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Simulating the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed our world forever.  I was reminded of that yesterday when in the span of two hours I went from a museum exhibit on Antebellum cabinetmaking to an IMAX film on the Hubble Space Telescope.  Only 150 years separates a cabinet shop, in which every tool was hand-powered, from a Space Shuttle mission to repair an earth-orbiting  telescope.  Sometimes we lose track of just how far we have come and how fast we have gotten here.

But, not to worry.  If you want to relive some of that past, the gaming community makes it possible for us to go back and try our hand at building a facsimile of the business empires that drove the Industrial Revolution.  Three games which let us satisfy our closet fantasy of being a business mogol are SimCity, Railroad Tycoon, and Victoria II.

SimCity and Railroad Tycoon have been around for awhile but are still popular.  Originally introduced in 1989, SimCity continues to be the granddaddy of simulation games.  You can set the time frame of the city you want to build and then construct your city with industries, utilities, and services appropriate to those times.  SimCity continues to enjoy a strong following and has seen multiple updates over the years. 

Railroad Tycoon (the latest version being Railroad Tycoon 3) is another game that dates back to 1990.  In this simulation game, you get to build your railroad empire - complete with industries, old steam engines, and financial disasters.  Railroad Tycoon 2 introduced the concept of hiring Virtual General Managers - simulations of historical railroading figures.  Here is Wikipedia’s description:

It is interesting to notice that the variations introduced in the gameplay by each manager are somewhat based on the given managers' real-life personae, history and impact on exploitation and management methods. For example, hiring Eugene V. Debs as a General Manager will procure your exploitation with spectacular benefits that somehow fit well with Debs' personal involvement in the world of early 20th Century labor. As Debs' view of labor was socially oriented and aimed at the Common Good, so will hiring Debs as a Manager increase your railroad's popularity in the communities you serve. As Debs strove to procure a safest workplace for Train Crews during his early involvement as a Railway Union Representative, so will your railroad become safest and less prone to derailments and breakdowns. However, in order to make things harder on you, the game developers have decided that you can't hire Mr. Debs as manager until your railroad becomes very prosperous (it needs to be, since hiring Debs comes at a cost of $95,000 a year).

It looks like a new version of Railroad Tycoon is slated to come out this October.

The newest kid on the block is a game called Victoria II which is scheduled to be released this month.  Victoria II lets you pick a European country and guide it through the Industrial Revolution.  The games allow you to control natural resources, political parties, reform movements, colonization, and military conquest. What could be more satisfying than to build a thousand coal smoke-spewing factories and employ an army of itinerant and child laborers? Here's a small trailer for the game:

The Industrial Revolution was the result of a complex set of interactions between political, technological, and philosophical influences.  Academics are still pondering what really caused the Industrial Revolution to happen where it did, when it did.  While this game is no substitute for real scholarship, it can teach us a lot about a very dynamic time in our history.  The sense of being able to control at least some events in an omnipotent fashion is a very seductive way to learn.  Don’t get me wrong; I still favor good scholarship. I am jealous that of the three games, only SimCity is available to us Mac owners. I need to buy the PC simulator that runs on my Mac to play a simulation of the past world.  I am sure I would learn something.

[Pictures are all from Wikipedia]
[Victoria II Trailer from YouTube]

Additional Reading:

The Industrial Revolution, by Charles Beard, pub. 1919, on Google Books.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Chicago History Journal

I recently discovered a wonderful history website written by Sharon Williams called the Chicago History Journal. I have posted here in the past about George Pullman and his sleeping car empire.  Sharon very kindly asked if I could provide something for her website which you can find here.  Sharon also maintains the Chicago History theme on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  Check them out and thank you, Sharon!

My earlier post on Pullman:

George M. Pullman: Force for Progress or Corporate Despot?


From Sharon William's Chicago History Journal

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Building a Castle the Old Fashion Way: By Hand

How would you go about building a 13th Century castle even if you had a complete set of  plans?  Now, how would you do it if you had to leave all your modern technology back in the construction yard and use only the tools and techniques that were available to craftsmen of that period?  I'm not sure I would have been up to the task - even with modern equipment.  I know I would not take on the task without modern tools.  But two groups on two continents are doing just that.

The first project (and the parent for the second) is called Guédelon.  Back in the late 90s, a woman in this region southwest of Paris got the idea that she could kill two birds with one stone. (Is that a 13th Century expression or maybe it's Shakespeare?)  The idea was to put local people to work rather than having to depend on the spotty support for the region coming from the French government.  The other was to solve a historical puzzle:  How were these incredible structures built?

You might think that no one would invest in such a foolhardy idea... but you would be wrong. In fact, Maryline Martin, the French woman (who worked for a time at Pier 1)  sold her idea to local businessman, Michel Guyot, who helped find the money to buy land and begin the process of building a castle from scratch.  The project now employs 67 people and has an annual budget of $3.25 million.  The plan was to have the project become at least partially self-funding through tourist admissions.  The castle now has over 300,000 visitors a year.

I love this idea.  What a win-win.  The New York Times had an article last Sunday by Steven Erlanger in which he described some of the technology used for the construction:

The walls are now high enough that stones are raised using a pulley system driven by a man walking in a large wooden wheel, like a hamster on a treadmill.  Plans call for a new wheel soon in which two men can walk.

The castle will be under construction for 15 or 20 more years.  Visitors can talk to the stone masons, carpenters, and other craftsmen employed on the project.  (Speaking French would help the dialogue, of course).

If a trip to France seems out of reach at the moment, there is still hope.  The Guédelon founders decided to do it again... in Arkansas!  A second medieval castle is underway about 60 miles south of Branson, MO, just over the Arkansas state line.  The NY Times had an article on that project as well in Sunday's Travel section.  So far, the working name for this new castle is the Ozark Medieval Fortress. It too caters to visitors and is a great place for a historical and family-fun visit.  Don't worry, the construction won't be done any time soon. Completion is scheduled for around 2030.  You can speak with the craftsmen here as well.  I think they speak English.

Still, the French project just has to be more authentic.  I mean, you can go down the road just a piece and visit the real deal - a thousand-year old castle named Saint Fargeau.

But as grand as that chateau is to see, it is not under construction.  Guédelon serves a very useful purpose, not only for lovers of all things medieval, but also for real historians of technology and architecture who still don't know all the techniques used to build these old castles.

I'm sure you can get a nice glass of wine in the Visitor's Cafe (at least at the one in France).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

King Tut's Chariot

The New York Times ran an interesting story on August 3rd describing a recent addition to the King Tutanhkamun exhibit that is going on in New York near Times Square.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is King Tut's chariot - not a ceremonial chariot but the real deal.  Of the six chariots found in Tut's vault, this was the only one that was not obviously intended as a ceremonial burial vehicle.  The wheels and axles of this chariot show real wear indicating that this simple but elegant vehicle was actually used.

Earlier conjectures on the cause of Tut's death suggested he was murdered as he had a hole in his skull.  This is now known to have been created in the embalming process and more modern forensic analysis indicates that he probably died of malaria complicated by an infection from a broken bone.  The money at the moment seems to be that he might have fallen off this same chariot and broken his leg.  Hence, it was buried with him when he died.

It's not often you can see a wheeled vehicle of any kind that is thirty-three hundred years old. This is the first time that the chariot has been allowed out of Egypt by the Egyptian antiquities authorities and it is a real coup for the exhibition.  Two horse-powered. As Steve Martin would say in his classic parody, "Funky Tut!"

(Photo of chariot from Times website)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New Book Page

I've decided to add a separate book page to the blog where I can add books that I've been reading. Look for the link at the top of this page just below the banner.  The first book I've added is Gavin Weightman's, The Industrial Revolutionaries.  I will update the page from time to time as I find books of interest to this blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego Blocks

I have written several times over the past couple of years about the Antikythera Mechanism, a complex astral computer built two thousand years ago.  The Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated and perplexed scientists since being discovered in a shipwreck off the tiny Greek island of Antikythera a century ago (and hence the name).  The Mechanism simply shouldn't exist given the modern assumptions on what the Greeks knew at the time about gearing and machines. Yet, there it is - a perfect mechanism.

Now a clever Lego engineer, Andrew Carol, has built a replica of the workings of the Antikythera Mechanism in Lego blocks.  You can see Carol's description of his work and even a short video here.

As if one of machine wasn't challenge enough, Mr. Carol also built a Lego version of the Babbage Difference Engine.  If you are so inclined, you can read the technical details of how each of these Lego machines was built.  Personally, I don't need to make one of these machines to admire Mr. Carol's creativity and skill. And where would this world be without Legos?  Who knows what might have been invented earlier if those ubiquitous little blocks had been around?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Last Roll of Kodachrome

NPR has a very interesting story up on their website about the last roll of Kodachrome ever made.  Kodak ended production of its iconic color slide film last year and gave the very last roll to National Geographic Photographer, Steve McCurry, to shoot and process.  The results are going to be shown as part of an upcoming Nat Geo special.

Another iconic technology passes.