Saturday, November 26, 2011


Artist's Rendition of Curiosity on Mars
This morning, we witnessed the launch of the latest Mars roving explorer, aptly named, Curiosity. What a wonderful moniker for a machine that will, hopefully, spend the next few years exploring the surface of Mars and sending back gigabits of new types data to the anxiously awaiting scientists here on Earth.

Curiosity is something that you don't hear much about these days but it is very clear that curiosity has been one of main drivers of our technological advances for millenia.  Certainly, a lot of technology developed less from curiosity and more from simply trying to fill a need.  But with all the potential solutions that people tried, there had to be a lot of, "I wonder what will happen if...".

Boulton and Watt Steam Engine
You might argue that curiosity is more a driver of science than technology. Science is almost entirely based on the desire to learn and understand - not a bad definition of curiosity itself. As technology developed, it often preceded the science of understanding how the physical world worked. Steam engines, for example, developed before the thermodynamics of steam were understood. Once the science caught up to the technology, major advances and refinements became possible.  James Watt had the benefit of 50 years of scientific investigation of steam before he made his much-heralded advances in the improvement of Thomas Newcomen's original steam engine design.

It seems to me we live in an age of curiosity but most people experience it in ways that aren't so much related to science and technology. We are social creatures and seem to be endlessly fascinated with what other people are doing.  We try to keep up with them through any number of social networking websites. We are curious about the rich and famous and scan the gossip magazines and newspaper columns for juicy tidbits.  We check our smartphones to find out the latest football score or read our email. As humans, we cannot help but be curious.

As you can tell, I am all for curiosity.  We need to follow our desire to know more than we do.  But what we seek out is at least as important as the desire to seek in the first place.  We might need to lift our sights a bit and seek to know something more interesting than what's the latest on Lady Gaga. We might want to spend just a little time learning more about what is going on in our world. What's behind Occupy Wall Street? What's happening in Egypt? What's happening in electric vehicle design, or climate change, or even green energy initiatives?  Most of what I see going on in social networking is like a candy bar - a quick energy boost but no substance.

Personal Disclaimer: I also spend a fair amount of time each day on Twitter and somewhat less time on Facebook. What I follow on Twitter are posts that relate mostly to news, technology, science, and culture. Why? Because I find them interesting. There is so much that is being put out there each day that it is nearly impossible to keep up with it. I try to screen the Tweets that relate to technology and technology history and put them up on my own Twitter Stream - TechAlmanac1.  As I screen this torrent of information, I learn a lot that I otherwise would be unaware of. 

I am not advocating for Twitter or any other particular  web tool. I am not even advocating for the internet. Curiosity can be pursued anywhere.  Curiosity is like a muscle - use it or lose it. The more you open yourself to wondering about something, the more you find the world an interesting place.

We need more well-directed curiosity.  The great thing about curiosity is that it requires no particular preexisting expertise.  It only requires a desire to learn something new.  I believe that if we are not learning something new our minds are stagnating and even going backwards. Let's hear it, then,  for Curiosity.

p.s. Stay tuned over the coming months to Curiosity, the Mars Rover. Its landing on Mars eight months from now will be one of the most technically challenging landings ever attempted by a space craft. JPL has put together a really good animation of how they plan to get Curiosity on the surface.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Art of the 20th Century Limited

Having just written in my previous blog post about the 20th Century Limited, the premier passenger train run by the New York Central Railroad, I thought I might share a couple of iconic poster images of this train made by the well-known graphic artist, Leslie Ragan. Ragan was born in Woodbine, Iowa in 1897 and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught there for awhile and later moved on to New York and then Europe. During the 30s and 40s, Ragan did quite a bit of commercial illustration for the NYC RR. But Ragan's poster images of the streamlined Hudson locomotive - with industrial design by Henry Dreyfuss - stand as icons of what we today call the Machine Age. These images seem to exude the power of the mighty locomotive at its pinnacle of success.

Poster from 1938
Poster from 1946
Railroad posters fell out of favor after WWII. The automobile took over the medium and  long-distance travel that use to be the domain of the railroads. The advent of the interstate highway system in the 50s was the final nail in the passenger train coffin.  But the images live on and give us a sense of what once was - or more accurately - what we like to think once was.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

High Speed Rail Redux

I frequently see articles in various news sources about the controversies of building high-speed rail in this country. The proponents argue that, rather than getting on an airplane, the lines will provide much easier and more pleasant ways to travel between distant cities. High-speed rail will rejuvenate outlying areas along the route that will see a new wave of investment in housing and business. Critics argue that high-speed rail will never pay for itself. People much prefer to drive or fly. If too many stops are planned along the route, the line will no longer be high-speed.  And because passenger rail is now run by Amtrak, a government-owned corporation, high-speed rail will turn into a taxpayer boondoggle.

It's worth remembering that long before the current debate, the U.S. had many "high-speed" passenger lines run by private railroad companies. These lines were profitable even as automobiles became the preferred mode of local transportation.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these early high-speed trains was the 20th Century Limited, operated by the New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago.  The service was inaugurated in 1902 and ran for 65 years, finally being discontinued in 1967.

In the early days of the 20th Century Limited, it took 20 hours to make the overnight run. By the 1930s, the time had been reduced to 16 hours. The train left New York City at 6:00PM Eastern time and arrived in Chicago at 9:00 AM Central time the next morning. The train consisted of Pullman sleeping cars, a dining car, a postal car, and a baggage-club car - usually nine or ten cars per train. Passengers entered and left the cars over specially-designed red carpets, giving rise to the expression "the Red Carpet treatment". Men were given carnation boutonniers and the women perfume when they boarded. Everything was meant to convey taste, efficiency, and good service.

NYC RR J3-a Hudson by Henry Dreyfuss
The trains became decidedly more beautiful in 1938 with the advent of the streamlined trains of industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. The powerful Hudson-class locomotives oozed an impression of power and speed, even when standing still. Compared to the brick-like design of today's Amtrak engines, the Dreyfuss-designed trains made people feel they were partaking in something special.

The 20th Century Limited, like the European Orient Express, became an iconic image for American culture and was used as a backdrop in many films including Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Hard to imagine a similar movie on the Acela.  The 20th Century Limited was only one of dozens of "named trains" that crisscrossed the country in the middle of the last century. The ghosts of some of those trains now reside in the few long-distance Amtrak trains that make their way (usually slowly due to outdated trackage and equipment) between distant cities .

I, for one, would like to see high-speed rail brought back into wide usage in this country. While some argue that it is a waste of resources, the future belongs to fast, efficient transportation with a low-carbon footprint. Most of the rest of the industrialized world gets it - the last century's transportation options will not be adequate for the coming century. A little classy design by a modern-day Dreyfuss would also be much appreciated.  Oh yes, and bring back the Red Carpet.