Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 - A Year of Wild Weather

While weather is not exactly a technology, tracking the weather most definitely is. I am a big fan of the Weather Underground website.  If you haven't seen it, you should check it out at this link. There is also a mobile app for your smart phone that gives an abbreviated version of the data. I use it mostly for live radar in my local area.

Weather Underground produced a summation video for weather in the U.S. during 2012.  The video is worth a look.

Massive droughts, wildfires, distorted temperature patterns, tornado outbreaks, hurricanes - 2012 brought them all. Severe weather is becoming the norm rather than the exception. I think we better get used to it. There can be little doubt that our climate is changing.

Meteorological technology improvement becomes all the more critical as the weather becomes more extreme. If it were not for the early warnings provided before a tornado outbreak or Hurricane Sandy's deadly landfall, the death toll would have been much higher. NOAA's weather satellites are getting old and need to be replaced.  The Hurricane Hunter aircraft are decades old. I don't ever plan to fly into a hurricane but I surely wouldn't want to do it on one of those old birds.

Let's all hope that 2013 is a year with fewer meteorological catastrophes. We need a bit of a breather.

Friday, December 7, 2012

40th Anniversary of the Launch of Apollo 17

Launch, 12:33 AM, December 7, 1972

Today (December 7, 2012),  marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 17 Lunar Mission. It was the last mission  in which a crew of astronauts left low-earth orbit and spent time on another celestial body. The crew of Apollo 17 - Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmidt - took perhaps the most famous image of the earth, nicknamed later The Blue Marble.

Earth from Apollo 17

It seems odd that you would have to be almost 50 years old to remember the last trip to the moon.  We have in no way given up on space missions - witness the latest unmanned robotic explorers of Mars and Mercury (where ice has been discovered at the poles of the latter). The International Space Station is still in orbit and actively manned by astronauts from a host of countries. But space exploration seems to have aged rather poorly compared to those dynamic days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. The Space Shuttles are now in museums where they join the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 17 on its last mission to the moon. The U.S. is pinning its hopes for future space access on commercial vehicles to replace the retired Shuttle fleet. 

While many Americans will remember December 7th for a far sadder event in 1941, I would rather remember it as the day we again reached towards the stars.

Post Script: Apollo 17 was the last mission for my fledgling aerospace engineering career. I had worked on the lunar experiments for the Apollo 12 to 17 missions. I returned to grad school and changed fields to bioengineering where opportunities seemed a little better. Sadly, I think I was right. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Future of Telephones: The 1962 World's Fair

We are always predicting the future, whether that future comes in the next week, the next decade, or the next century.  Not surprisingly, we miss the mark when it comes to the fine points. The details are always harder to see through the heatwave of time. What is perhaps most surprising is that at times we get the broad outline more or less right.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a video produced by AT&T for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. So how well did this short film of fifty years ago do in terms of its vision for the future? Check it out, the future of phones starts around the 4:50 mark:

The film was set in the world of the rotary-dial telephone. Every phone was owned by the Bell System. The up and coming technology of the future was (drumroll, please) the push-button phone!  No more rotary dialing, just the speed and simplicity of tapping the buttons. Other new technologies on the telephoning horizon included features such as call-waiting, call-forwarding, and conference calling. It was even predicted that you could dial a number while you were away from home to turn on your air conditioner or your underground irrigation system. And where would you make such a call when away?  In a telephone booth, of course!

The Ubiquitous Telephone Booth
There is always the temptation to chuckle at these past predictions of the future. They can seem naive and simplistic. What AT&T didn't see clearly in 1962 was the huge changes not only in technology but also in the business models that were going to turn their industry on its head. They couldn't foresee the government breakup of the company over concerns about its monopoly power. They couldn't foresee that phones would no longer be the property of the phone company but would become commodities purchased in electronics and discount stores. The future from the vantage point of 1962 certainly didn't include cordless phones and, most importantly, the future arrival of cellphones was completely invisible.

Not only did the rotary-dial phone disappear but shortly thereafter went the pay phone and even the phone booth. People used to want privacy for their phone calls. Now people chatter endlessly on their cellphones while walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant. But some things remain the same. They still use call-waiting, call-forwarding, and conference calling. People value new and better services.

The other major gap in Ma Bell's vision in 1962 was that the phone would morph from being a device strictly for talking and turn into a computer that you can carry in your pocket. I would guess that today's smart phones have more computational power than the entire 1962 switching system for a medium-sized city. And with Moore's Law still operating, smart phones have an ever more powerful future.

Lest we take too much pleasure at the expense of the folks of 1962, we are no better at looking into the future.  There are, of course, plenty of futurists who predict that we will be wearing our computers embedded in our clothing and that everything will be digital and online everywhere 24/7. But in these projections we miss the unpredictability of our non-linear world. Things will certainly be very different in some very unpredictable ways. But what remains constant is that we will still want to connect. We will still need talk to those we love and those we whom we work.  As AT&T's marketing slogan said in those days of fifty years ago, we will still want to "reach out and touch someone."  How we will do that remains to be revealed to us. Whatever the answer, I guarantee it will be interesting.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Curta Peppergrinder

I hate to admit it, but I came of age in the era of the slide rule. To be more precise, I had a Post Versalog that I proudly used throughout my undergraduate engineering days at the University of Michigan. No, I did not hang it on my belt nor did I have a pocket protector for my pens. Slide rules were just the tools of the trade if you were in a computationally-intensive academic discipline. I still have my slide rule in a box somewhere in the basement.

Just after I entered grad school in 1974, electronic calculators made their debut. HP lead the way but they were expensive and a lot of engineers didn't like the RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) method of computing. I had a Texas Instruments SR-51 programmable calculator. I still have that, too.  Why? I knew that they would eventually become iconic symbols of a computing past that was rapidly evolving.

It surprised me to learn recently of an even earlier iconic mechanical calculator called a Curta. I had never heard of it or even seen a picture of one but a little digging on the internet last night brought a wealth of information about this little marvel.

The Curta was developed in Europe around the time of World War II by an engineer named Curt Herzstark. Herzstark was born in 1902 and had a natural aptitude for engineering. Herzstark's father owned a mechanical calculator company in Vienna before the war and Curt worked for the company. When the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938 under the so-called Anschluss, the factory was converted to making military supplies. Still, things remained relatively stable until 1943 when the war started going very badly for the Nazis on many fronts. Curt Herztark was arrested for being sympathetic to Jews (he was half-Jewish himself even though he was raised as a Christian). He eventually was sent to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. He was assigned to work as a slave laborer in an adjacent factory. His engineering talents were recognized and he was put to work in the office doing design work. While there, he told the factory supervisors of patents he had been awarded in 1938 for a miniature hand-cranked mechanical calculator that could perform the four basic math functions very efficiently.  Intrigued, his supervisors set him to work to perfect his design. The camp commandant planned to give one to Hitler as a gift of appreciation after Germany won the war.

Herzstark set to work immediately and produced a complete set of working drawings by the time Buchenwald was liberated by the Allies on April 11, 1945. With the Soviets  on the verge of occupying that part of Germany, Herzstark fled to Austria. He immediately began to seek funding to build his design. Eventually, he found support from the Prince of Liechtenstein who was trying to establish a post-war manufacturing base in his tiny country.

Curt Herzstark produced his namesake calculator (Curta means offspring of Curt) from 1947 to 1970 when, like the slide rule, mechanical devices gave way to electronic calculators. The Curta was nicknamed the Pepper-mill for its obvious resemblance to that culinary device.

Curta's were expensive ($125 to $175) but very compact and highly accurate. Their size made them popular with airplane pilots and rally race car navigators. Over 140,000 of the devices were made during their heyday. You can still find them on eBay for prices in the one to five thousand dollar range.

Curt Herzstark died on October 27, 1988 in Vienna. He had lived through some of the worst of times to see his ideas validated and embraced by a world rapidly moving forward towards high-speed computation. If I were ever so lucky as to find one of these little beauties for a reasonable price, it would join my Post Versalog and SR-51 as a reminder of what came before.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

How To Build a Steam Locomotive

It seems that manufacturing and craftsmanship are reported in some quarters to be disappearing from the the scene. It is true that many manufacturing jobs have been automated.  But beyond automation, some crafts and some products seem to be just plain extinct. The steam locomotive falls into this category.  There are certainly a few old locomotives puffing around railroad museums and there are even a few Class A steam locomotives, like the Union Pacific's No. 844 , still operational enough to remind us of why past generations had a love affair with the steam locomotive.

But how do you build such a machine? Virtually every locomotive was a custom made machine.  It took many skilled engineers and craftsman to create the design and fabricate the components. Parts were made in foundries or forges from molten iron and steel. Holes and surfaces were shaped to exacting tolerances on vertical mills, shapers, and lathes. Assembly was done in giant erection shops with huge overhead cranes. It was an impressive operation.

I recently came across a film clip on YouTube that shows what went into building a steam locomotive in 1937. The setting is England but the operations were the same everywhere.  In the video, you can see a very interesting combination of controlled force and high craftsmanship. In every step you see skilled people working together to build a complex machine. I don't want to read too much into this but I would hazard a guess that they also felt considerable pride in their work.

But this is not the end of the story. In the early 2000s, a group of railroad buffs decided to build the first steam locomotive to be crafted in England in fifty years. The locomotive, a Peppercorn Class A1 (named for the designer), was rolled out of the Darlington Locomotive Works on August 1, 2008.

I find it encouraging that the skills needed to build this magnificent machine have not disappeared completely. I think the men who worked on Number 6207 seventy years earlier would have been pleased to see their work carried forward.

This is, after all, the very definition of craft - a skill learned through apprenticing to a master. When the chain is broken, that craft is in danger of disappearing. Sometimes, it can be resurrected by relearning the old ways. As an example, I think of another video I saw recently of a man in Wilmington, North Carolina who painstakingly relearned how to make tintype photographs.

American Tintype from Matt Morris Films on Vimeo.

Why resurrect old skills and crafts in the digital age? I think we need them to connect us to our heritage. We need to feel a part of a continuity of technology that spans more than our hyper-connected, online world.  While all things digital now dominate our consciousness, the undeniable presence of our physical technology provides an anchor to the real world. And, ironically, the descriptions for how to build a locomotive or create a tintype are most likely to be archived in digital formats somewhere on the World Wide Web. And so it goes.


I found the video for A Study in Steel on The Old Motor.
I found the video for American Tintype on Open Culture.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Technology: The Central Issue in the Election

It's the morning after. The people have spoken and the people say they can't agree on either who should lead them or on what the real issues are.  By a narrow slice of the popular vote (but a strong majority in the electoral vote), President Obama returns to the White House for a second term. But looking at the Red State - Blue State map of the country shows just how differently people feel in broad swaths of the country.

The drumbeat of this last election was jobs and the middle class - the economy.  But that is only the symptom. One cause of our distress is the unstoppable forward flow of technology.  Technology gives us our prosperity but (reflecting the economist Joseph Schumpeter's famous phrase) it also brings creative destruction.  The unemployed (and worse, the unemployable) might argue that destruction is never creative.

Technology raises our standard of living. We enjoy the benefits of the technology every day of our lives. Most of us love new technology. We are willing to stand in line for hours to get the newest iPhone or iPad. We love our DVRs, our internet, our reliable cars, and our ATMs.  We notice the loss immediately when there is a temporary power blackout. When a big natural disaster occurs, as just happened with Hurricane Sandy, we are literally off the grid. We can no longer function without the technologies that support us.

Technology, like time, moves in only one direction: forward. Older technologies are replaced with better versions or are made entirely obsolete by new technologies.  It is that change that brings so much disruption.  People whose skills are based on an old technology lose their jobs. They don't have the skills for the economy enabled by the new technology. It is not that they need to somehow just get retrained to do the same job using a little newer technology. The old job is gone forever, replaced by technology. It's the same story whether you think of a manufacturing job now automated by robotics or a bank teller replaced by a computer-enabled ATM.  The bank teller can't take a computer class and compete with the ATM. Technology has simply wiped out the need for the human teller.

And so this election which seemed on the surface to be about jobs and the economy is really about how to cope with changing technology. How do people find work in the new economy when they lack the skills needed? The answer is always the same: re-education.  People need to get themselves retooled just as their former workplaces have been retooled.  This is by no means easy. Most people have mortgages, children to support, bills to pay. How do you they gain new skills when they can barely put food on the table?  I believe this is one of the most important issues we face in the coming decades. Because technology isn't going to take a breather. It isn't going to stop at this point and say in effect, "Time-out to catch up." The engine of creative destruction will continue to inexorably plow forward. The single skill that everyone should learn is the ability to continually re-educate ourselves. Obsolescence is not a theoretical discussion. It is critical to putting food on the table.

Technology contributed to this election in more subtle ways than simply displacing workers with automation. The very nature of new, computerized technology allowed financial institutions to play fast and loose with our money in unprecedented new ways. The result was the financial meltdown.  But that same technology provides the ability to attract foreign investments and allows more effective competition in global markets. But if you just lost your home to a mortgage foreclosure, foreign investments seem irrelevant. It feels like an economic problem, not a technology issue.

So where do we look for relief from problems that are enabled by new technology? Still newer technology will bring some relief but also new problems.  We will need everyone to understand these issues more clearly. We will need the means to continually redevelop job skills. We will need better schools for our children that prepare them for this exponentially-changing world. We will need more ways to retool in mid-life. We will need the leadership at every level - business, government, community - that helps us to manage the inevitable changes ahead.

While I might sound naively utopian, I believe that it can be done. Why? Because we have done this over and over again in our history. Think of the changes that occurred when manufacturing was first industrialized in the 19th century. Think of the impact of electrification, the automobile, and the internet. All these have made our lives immeasurably better. But they made many skills obsolete. We don't need telegraph operators or buggy whip makers. We have managed our way somehow through the changes. We will continue to do so. It has never been easy. But I believe in technology and I believe even more, I believe in people's ability to adapt.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Machines and Nightmares

I recently finished reading a riveting memoir by Agnès Humbert entitled, Résistance, A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France.  This book is a diary of Humbert's experiences from the time the Nazis invaded France in 1940 to the end of World War II. Humbert was an intelligent  woman who was employed at one of the museums in Paris at the time of the invasion. At the age of 43, she decided to work with some trusted friends to produce an underground newspaper of the same name as the book, Résistance.  The little group of a dozen friends lasted about a year until it was betrayed by an unknown informer. The Nazis executed the men involved by firing squad and Humbert and several other women were convicted to five years of slave labor working in Nazi factories in Germany.

What does any of this have to do with technology? Humbert was assigned to work under the most horrifying conditions at a rayon factory in Krefeld, Germany.  I will skip over the descriptions of the malnourishment, abuse, filth, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis to relate something she wrote while working at the factory. While pondering the inhumanity and total unpredictability of her situation at the hands of her captures, she remarked in August, 1942:

"I wonder - a worthy subject for meditation - what Descartes would have made of industrial machinery. What a subject for a philosopher! Not just the relationship between man and machine, and all the upheavals, material, moral and social that come in its wake, but simply the thoughts that sometimes come into your head when you are working at a machine. There's no tricking a machine; it's just not possible. A part out of alignment? Production immediately slows down. A loose screw? The whole machine seizes up. I like and admire the incorruptible integrity of the machine. With work done by hand there is always a little leeway, a margin of error, and any time lost can be made up with a little effort or improvisation; machinery, on the other hand, admits absolutely no possibility of inaccuracy or prevarication, is immune to all excuses, lies or flattery, Enduring, unswerving and fiercely tenacious, machines can teach men a marvelous lesson in integrity. The builders of the future, of our future, should take inspiration from man's handiwork, the Blessed Machine!"

I had to think about this for a bit because the machine she was describing was the spinning machine which extruded the viscous rayon pre-polymer through a very fine platinum minaret into an acid bath to form the thread. She had to work on this machine without any protection for her skin or eyes. The pre-polymer is extremely caustic to the skin. The acid is not only caustic but leads to blindness. The slave laborers were offered no protective clothing or gloves and had to work ten to twelve hour shifts even while Allied bombing raids were going on. She was a mass of sores and unable to even see for days at a time. How could she sing the praises of machinery? Because she desperately needed to experience something that had integrity.

Humboldt's countrymen in her opinion had totally lost their integrity in rolling over without fighting back against the Nazis. What kept her alive through her incarceration was a feeling of integrity - she would never bend or yield to her captors. She never cracked under interrogation by the Gestapo when they wanted information on her colleagues. She never once begged for mercy. She was one tough lady.

Humboldt survived the war. She was liberated by the U.S. Army while being held captive in April 1945. She stayed for a few months after her liberation and worked tirelessly, but fairly, to identify the true Nazis in the area that were trying to fade into the woodwork. She returned to France and lived for almost another twenty years, dying in 1963.

It still amazes me as I reread her words on machines that she could have been so lucid about such a subject in the middle of such horror.  Having never worked with machines, I would have thought she would have hated them. Yet, she found something positive in them even under the worst of circumstances. I stand in awe. I would love to have met her.

You can get the book on Amazon. There is also a Kindle edition.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fordlandia: Ford's Utopian Amazon Community

I just finished reading Greg Grandin's book, Fordlandia, The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.  Grandin is a good writer and he brings to life the story of Ford's attempt to build a model Midwestern town in the Amazon jungle.  The rationale that Henry Ford gave to the world for investing in this ill-fated adventure was that he needed a steady supply of latex rubber. The real reasons, as Grandin makes clear, were far more complex.

In the 1920's, Henry Ford was hailed as one of the most influential businessmen in the country. He not only had created the Model T and the assembly line that built it, but he believed that a robust consumer economy depended upon a middle class that earned enough to have buying power.  His Five Dollar workday was one of the major factors in building such a market of consumers.

Ford's massive operations, first at Highland Park and then at the River Rouge plant in Detroit, were models of efficiency. They were also models of how workers could be turned into cogs in a vast and dehumanizing industrial machine.  Fordism, as it was called, was represented by the stopwatch and the check list. No detail was too mundane to not be improved and made more efficient. His vast industrial operations and those of other large corporations drew people to the cities seeking jobs with steady wages. Industrializing America was the nemesis of Rural America.

Ford was born and raised on a farm and he hated it. As soon as he could, he escaped to Detroit to find work in machine shops and later the Detroit Edison before turning his creative hand to automobiles. But as Ford's empire grew, his nostalgia for a simpler past also grew more important to him. To capture this disappearing America, Ford began collecting old machinery, tools, steam engines, pots and pans, sewing machines - anything that represented the past. He kept all his treasure in one of his warehouses at the Highland Park plant. Later, he started collecting whole buildings: Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, homes of poets, country churches and schools - even his own family's farmhouse.  He needed a place to put all this stuff. In 1929, he built Greenfield Village and the adjoining museum to house his collections.

Similarly, Ford began to build communities from scratch that were models of his vision of the right balance between industry and agriculture. Several of these were in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where lumbering and the sawmill provided the balancing arms of his vision. He thought he could use the same model to improve the Tennessee Valley, and he envisioned dams and hydroelectric stations that would supply him with power -- built next to new, idyllic communities that had the most modern schools, hospitals, and sewage plants. His dream for transforming the Tennessee Valley was thwarted by local and national politicians.  Ironically, it would be those same politicians who later created Ford's vision themselves during the Great Depression with the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

When latex shortages threatened the automobile industry, Ford decided he could kill two birds with one stone by building a model community in Brazil to tap and export latex rubber. The work began in 1928. By 1945, after building Fordlandia and later Belterra, the failed venture was handed over to the Brazilian government and Ford Motor Company left the Amazon forever.  Grandin's book does a great job of explaining the missteps, naiveté, and bad luck that plagued the operation from beginning to end.

Ford was not the first, nor probably the last, to dream of creating his own vision of what a community should look like. Almost all of these visionary industrial communities have ended in failure. One of the most extensive was Pullman, Illinois. George Pullman built this model community to house his workers for his new railroad car workers. The town lasted barely ten years before it was brought down by labor strife. Like Fordlandia, one man's vision of what should happen was a far cry from what did happen.

Grandin, in his epilogue, sums up the issues well:

"Ford, the man who in the early 1910s helped unleash the power of industrialism to revolutionize human relations, spent most of the rest of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to contain the disruption he himself let loose, only to be continually, inevitably thwarted. Born more from political frustration at home than from the need to acquire control over yet another raw material abroad, Fordlandia represents in crystalline form the utopianism that powered Fordism -- and by extension Americanism. It reveals the faith that a drive towards greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the world and that technology itself, without the need for government planning, could solve whatever social problems arose from progress's advance. Fordlandia is a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be controlled." 

Arrogance, naiveté, hubris, utopianism -- you might think we would know better by now. But in some way, I admire Ford's efforts even as I cringe at the outcomes. Ford was a complex man who could easily be both admired and despised. He legitimately earned both.  But to give up on building dreams such as those that Ford dreamed is perhaps to give up on dreaming at all. If I had the choice, I would take the dreamer.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Curiosity: The Rover

"The top of the atmosphere down to the surface... it takes us seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to earth - that's how far Mars is away from us. So when we first get word that we've touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive or dead on the surface for at least seven minutes."

- Adam Steltzner, EDL Engineer

By now, we all know that the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is safely on the surface of the Red Planet. But I think it is worth taking a minute to marvel at the complexity of simply getting something the size of a small car successfully onto the surface of Mars.

It begins with a launch vehicle to get the massive payload off the earth's surface and into a trajectory to intersect with a planet over 350 million miles away. It continues with getting the probe into orbit and then, most amazing of all, landing something this big as gently as you might have your car lowered to the service shop floor after an oil change. And the kicker in all this: it has to be done automatically with no intervention from earth. The distances involved are just too large to have any real-time control.

NASA and Cal-Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the nerve center for this adventure. They produced a wonderful simulation video of what was involved in getting Curiosity onto the surface.  You can watch it here:

Why spend a billion dollars to put a one-ton rover on the surface of Mars? The name says it all - Curiosity. When we stop being curious, we stop living. We stop being the best we can be as humans.  Curiosity is going to bring us many more surprises in the coming weeks and months.  The payback will be worth the money.

So here's to the engineers!  Let's take a moment to stop and think about what they just did.  Simply amazing!

Monday, July 23, 2012

View From the ISS by Knate Myers

Maybe you've seen already this recently released video by Knate Myers on Vimeo. He took photo footage shot by the astronauts on the International Space Station and set it to the music of John Murphy's Adagio in D Minor, the soundtrack of the movie, Sunshine.

The imagery is mind-blowing. Anything I might say about it would be a cliche. For best enjoyment, watch it in full-screen mode using the HTML5 video rather than the Flash video. At least on my machine, it played smoother. Enjoy!

View from the ISS at Night from Knate Myers on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are We Losing Our Ability to Fix Things?

I read Louis Uchitelle's essay in Sunday's New York Times entitled, A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox. Mr. Uchitelle's piece laments what he perceives to be the loss of the ability of the average American to work with his or her hands to fix things - whether things around the house, or the family car, or even on the job.  He describes legions of Home Depot shoppers who need in-store training on how to fix a faucet or install a replacement window. He equates this loss to the diminishing ability of Americans to innovate through a hands-on, we-can-fix-anything attitude.  Mr. Uchitelle believes that this loss shows up "in the wistful popularity of books like 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' by Matthew M. Crawford." [I read Mr. Crawford's book a couple of years ago and I thought it mostly a scree against white-collar workers.]

In the same issue of the Times was a second article entitled, How a Cellphone's Case Can Imitate Its Maker, by Randall Stross.  The article delves into the differences in the difficulties of repairing smart phones and ePad devices depending on the manufacturer. In his column, Mr. Stross focused on a web-based company called iFixit which sells online manuals and tools to change cellphone batteries, replace cracked touch screens, and make other repairs to our electronic paraphernalia. As a bad example Mr. Stross cites the iPhone 4 which is put together with special screws specially designed by Apple to be unremovable without a special screwdriver. Enter iFixit which sells not only said screwdriver but replacement screws that work with the ordinary variety of torquing tools. iFixit calls their product the "Liberation Kit".  Their claim is that anyone can replace an iPhone battery in less than five minutes.

I was struck by the completely different attitudes in these two articles. One laments the loss of handyman capabilities while the other celebrates that we can indeed do-it-ourselves. Which is the truer picture?  I would suggest that the lack of fix-it knowledge is a least as much a function of manufacturers designing products that can't be easily repaired as it is that we are losing our desire to fix things. Take the automobile as a prime example. Most men (I'm not being sexist, it just seemed to work this way) used to know how to change the oil in their cars and if pressed could replace the spark plugs, points, air filters, and maybe even the brakes. Today, the entire motor is hidden under a one-piece shroud that envelops virtually the whole engine compartment making access nigh-on impossible. The engine is carefully monitored and controlled by several computers which are no longer accessible or adjustable with the wrenches and screwdrivers found in most toolboxes.  We now are informed of the status of the inner workings of the engine only when we get the dreaded Check Engine Light illuminated on the instrument panel.  Even then, you need an engine analyzer to read the computer error codes to see what might be bothering your ailing vehicle.

But despite my experience, given the tools and the knowledge, a lot of people are willing to give some reasonable repairs a try. Not everyone, of course. Not everyone fixed their cars even in the days of the Model T.  But I would argue that most people with a little encouragement will try to repair things that seem within the knowledge of someone with a normal amount of mechanical aptitude. We like to fix things. The reason fix-it shops have disappeared is not because we don't like fixing things, it is because most things are not designed to be fixed. Open the average DVD player these days and you find a box with one electronics board that does everything, some injection molded plastic parts that are ultrasonically welded together and a cheap optical laser to read the DVD. None of this can be repaired if it has a problem. The only solution is to junk it.

It used to be different. When radios and tvs had vacuum tubes, even drug stores had so-called tube testers that allowed a homeowner to check a tube to see if it needed replacing and sold the tubes on the spot! There was a company called Sam's that used to sell extensive repair manuals and schematics for every radio and television set made (all in the USA, by the way). Shop manuals for cars were commonly sold to car owners.  Most home owners had at least a few books around on DIY subjects.

So I'm not buying Mr. Uchitelle's argument that people just don't seem to know how to do anything these days. Give them the tools and a little instruction and people can do some amazing things for themselves. To prove my point, I would refer Mr. Uchitelle to the growing popularity of "maker fairs" and magazines such as Make which celebrate a whole new generation of DIYers. The internet is bursting with websites that teach people how to do everything from changing an iPhone battery to repairing a furnace. I'm not worried about our hands-on, can-do attitudes going away any time soon. We are still a nation of doers.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Automatic (Rail) Road Machine

As I wrote in my last blog, machines that can lay an entire road in one operation are now a reality. I just came across a video of such a machine.

The video below shows a multi-part machine which lays high-speed railroad tracks. The video was shot in Europe but a similar machine is being used to lay tracks on the high-speed rail line between St. Louis and Chicago.  According to the source that I saw, these are the only two such machines that exist in the world. It's quite an operation. Give it a look:

[A "Hat's Off" to my sister-in-law, Peggy, for bringing this to my attention.]

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In 1958, Disney Imagines the Future of the Highway

As long as I seem to be on an automotive futures theme, I want to draw your attention to part of a Disney television production from 1958, entitled Magic Highway USA. The show was part of the Wonderful World of Disney series, Most of this program explored the history of the highway in the United States. But the last ten minutes looked to the future.  You can watch the whole thing at the link about or just the last nine minutes here:

I love these old predictions of the future. Almost all of them have people flying around in their personal helicopters or living in some undersea colony. The buildings all look like they came out of the Jetsons. But just like in the Futurama exhibit that I wrote about a couple of entries ago, some of the predictions turn out to be remarkably accurate. Others turn out to be true but are embodied in some way other than that described. And of course, there are the "dead wrong" predictions. So how did the Magic Highway USA predictions turn out?  Here's a list of what was in our futures, circa 1958:

Dead Wrong Predictions:

- Multi-colored highway lanes to give motorists a color-coded path to their destination
- Radar screens to allow drivers to see in poor visibility
- Fog-eliminating devices to clear the roadway
- Atomic reactors to melt tunnels through mountains in a single pass
- Cantilevered highways hung from the side of mountains
- Automatic servicing of the car in the homeowner's garage
- Tandem vehicles that separate into parts for different destinations
- Special highways for new forms of vehicles (e.g., tubular highways)
- Individual parking spot for your car in your office at work
- Massive parking "cylinders" at shopping malls instead of parking lots
- Highway "elevators" to lift cars up sheer cliffs
- Gas turbine-powered automobiles
- Atomic-powered automobiles
- Jet engine-powered automobiles
- Cars that convert from highway vehicles to cabin cruisers

Nothing much surprising in this first list. This is the usual science fiction view of the future. What was more interesting to me was the number of predictions that turned out to be true, even if they were accomplished in a slightly different way. Have a look:

More-or-Less Correct Predictions:

- Larger, simpler highway signs that can be easily read at high speeds
- Roads specifically designed for better visibility
- Electronic navigation controls (at least there are now onboard navigation and traffic monitoring GPS systems)
- Rear view mirrors are television cameras (back-up cameras are becoming common)
- Helicopter rescue of traffic accident victims
- Integrated road building machinery that can lay down whole roadways at one pass
- Prefabricated bridges and overpasses
- Form-in-place concrete structures, such as bridges
- Wider, faster expressways that extend the areas from which people can commute to work
- A nation crisscrossed by a network of super highways
- Communities that are built around the design of the freeways for better access and commuting
- Preprogrammed route selectors (think GPS systems)
- Electronics that drive the car to its destination (not here yet but Google is working on a driverless car)
- Business conferences on video screens (... at least for a passenger)
- Family entertainment systems in the car (think DVD and game counsels)
- Ability to know your location on a synchronized electronic map (GPS again)
- Office buildings that combine multi-level parking and office facilities
- Moving sidewalks (at least in airports and convention centers)
- Solar powered automobiles (experimental cars are here. Production cars?  Hmmm).
- Air-conditioned routes across hot deserts (in-car AC is now virtually standard).
- Roads over subfreezing mountains (high-speed roads over subfreezing terrain are common in the northern parts of the country)
- Vehicle travel under the ocean (the Chunnel between the UK and France pops to mind)

Like most technology visions, this program also had its moments where it lapsed into the rhapsodic:

"These giant arteries will link together all the nations and help to create a better understanding among the peoples of the world. As in the past the highway will continue to play a vital role in the progress of civilization. It will be our magic carpet to new hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future!"

Have you ever noticed how technology (whether embodied in better highways or in the internet) is always predicted to improve the relationships between peoples? There is some truth in these euphoric predictions but there is an equally true and opposite reality: technology creates frictions between the peoples of the world. Technology has never been a panacea. And predicting the future of technology remains one of our most difficult challenges.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Horseless Age

In my last post, I wrote about Futurama, an exhibit sponsored by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair. Futurama was Norman Bel Geddes vision of an America of 1960, fully connected by interstate highways. That vision became reality.

But visionaries have always been with us. I recently came across an editorial written in 1896 in the first publication that exclusively focused on the automobile. The magazine was called The Horseless Age and the publisher was a man named E.P. Ingersoll. He was a tireless reporter and promoter of all things automotive. In the fifth issue of Volume 1 of his journal, he penned an editorial with the very sedate title of "Effects on Land Values and the Distribution of Population."  But what he wrote was an insightful analysis of things to come.

The first thing that caught my eye when I read his piece was that it was the trolley and bicycle that began the movement of people to the suburbs - even before the advent of the automobile. When this editorial was written, there were essentially zero automobile companies in the U.S.  Any cars that were being purchased were imported from France and then only by the wealthy. It was this same trend to the suburbs that was illuminated in the Futurama exhibit forty-five years later. 

Ingersoll clearly understood the impact of transportation systems on land values. What Ingersoll didn't state was that it was the cost of transportation and not just its availability that drove land values. I think of the falling home prices today in the outer exurbs as people respond to high fuel costs by trying to move closer to the urban centers. The problem, of course, is that their homes are worth less than they owe on them, essentially trapping them in the exurbs.

Finally, I think Ingersoll deserves credit for not mincing words about congestion in the cities. He understood that the poorest people in the cities could never afford their own cars and hence would remain locked in the slums. Today, the poor are still locked in the slums of cities and run-down neighborhoods. They might have a car but if they do, it is usually very old and in very poor condition. Their upward mobility is close to zero.

Ingersoll's editorial isn't that long. I repeat it here verbatim:

"One of the most interesting phases of speculation called up by the motor movement relates to its probable effect on land values and distribution of population.

 In the aggregate the constant tendency of land values is to increase as population increases, and there is no reason to believe that this tendency, now very strong in this country, will be checked for some time to come. Every mechanical improvement introduced adds to land values, which may be considered as the capitalized value of civilization.

 But while the general tendency to increase will in all human probability remain unchanged, local changes are bound to result from the general introduction of motor vehicles as the have resulted from the introduction of other improvements in locomotion.

The trolley car has opened the suburban property, and by connecting rural towns has made populous streets where before were farmers' houses.

The bicycle has had a similar effect upon land values, pushing the line of possible residence near business centers further out, and hence making such outlying sites more desirable and more valuable.

The slight depreciation which these new agencies of locomotion have caused in the case of land devoted to industries injuriously affected by them is but a sign of the stimulating effect in other directions. The bicycle and the trolley depressed the prices of certain grades of horses and this has undoubtedly depressed the values of some lands devoted to raising such grade of horses, though this depression is apt to be quickly relieved by putting the land to more profitable uses.

Country hotel sites have in many sections been given additional value from the fact that they are frequented by bicycle riders seeking rest and refreshments on their outings.

The general adoption of the motor vehicle will intensify these tendencies. It will make suburbs easier of access, improve the trade of country hotels in many places, and still further depress the business of horse-raising. Much of the land now used for horse-raising and growing horse feed will in process of time find other uses more in harmony with the trend of progress.

The establishing of new factories will stimulate the growth of population locally, as has been observed in the case of the bicycle industry, but there is not the slightest hope that the motor vehicle will relieve the congestion of cities; for the congested districts are inhabited by the very poor, who cannot afford to buy a vehicle of any kind."

Note: The Horseless Age remains in publication today but its name was changed around World War I to Automotive Industries. You can read all the early volumes of the magazines on Google Books.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Our Futurama

The lines formed as soon as the gates opened. It was the premier attraction. People were willing to wait for hours in the hot summer sun to see it. Many saw it multiple times during their visits. When they finally got into the building and entered one of the moving cars, the magic began.

Exhibit Building. Note the lines.
I might be talking about the iconic ride, Spaceship Earth, the geodesic-like sphere at Epcot in Disney World.  It is the the ride that most captivates people in our modern-day version of a permanent "world's fair".  But I am writing about General Motor's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Futurama was the single most popular attraction at the fair by a large margin. People would wait for hours in the long snaking lines that wound up a curved ramp to finally enter the building through a deep-red slit in a towering wall. Huge letters, "G" and "M", defined the edges of the opening. Once inside, visitors would seat themselves in one of moving modules called "carry-go-rounds" that formed an endless loop slowly moving past the perimeter of the exhibit. Music and narration would emanate from a speaker in the back of each module, exquisitely timed to what the passengers were viewing.

Futurama was industrial and stage designer Norman Bel Geddes vision of what the United States would look like in the future of 1960. His vision was conveyed in a massive, 36,000 square-foot model of a city and countryside of that distant time 21 years in the future. The model contained over half a million individually-fabricated structures, a million trees, and fifty thousand vehicles.  Viewers were, in essence, flying over the landscape at a low altitude and witnessing what they might look forward to in the years ahead.
Model city. The tall buildings are actually about four feet in height.

The central theme of Futurama was that a network of better roads and superhighways would provide for a transformation of the nation. The current dirty and congested cities and clogged local highways would be replaced by cities that were clean and accessible by multilane, limited-access highways.  People would be able to live in green communities outside of the city and drive to work on modern roadways with higher speeds, better safety, and a minimum of congestion.

The Last Intersection 
The last scene in this futuristic vision of 1960 was of a city intersection with multilevel roads and modernistic buildings. When the visitor left the carry-go-round and walked through the exit doors, they found themselves in a full-sized version of the same intersection they had seen in the model. The illusion must have been startling. Perhaps most startling of all was that the vision, in fact, came true. The superhighways that Norman Bel Geddes portrayed became our interstate highways and toll roads. The green spaces where people lived away from the cities became our suburbs. We might not have quite gotten there by 1960 but most of us finally did.  And has it been the utopian vision described in Futurama?  We would, of course, say no. But we are not the same people who looked at it from afar and saw it in sharp contrast to their own world of 1939.

We don't have world's fairs in this country any more. The last one was held in 1984 in New Orleans and it declared bankruptcy halfway through its six-month run. Maybe because of television and computer imagery we can no longer related to the seemingly-quaint idea of a physical model of the future.  Dioramas to portray the world to come are expensive to build and go out of date quickly. Even Spaceship Earth at Epcot requires constant updating on what its vision of the future of communications looks like.  But let's just imagine for a moment that we could hire someone like a Norman Bel Geddes of 2012 to build a Futurama of 2035. What would it look like?  Would we see a better world ahead, as Futurama did, or would we see something much more worrisome?

I think we have become more cynical about the promise of technology.  At least we no longer believe in the illusion that it can solve all our problems. More often that not, we see technology as creating as many problems as it removes.  The internet and its attendant privacy issues are just the latest example of the duality of every new technology.  It might be easy to fall into envying the untroubled vision of technology portrayed in the 1939 World's Fair but these people were not naive, either. They saw their world being torn apart by the beginnings of World War II. They didn't know yet about atomic bombs but they saw - correctly - a horrific conflict ahead. Yet most people interviewed at the fair were optimistic about the longer-term future of the country. The American Way promised a brighter future for themselves and their children.  We might be tempted to disagree with them in our own times.

They say that hope dies last. I don't think we are anywhere near the end of hope but I do think we are facing some tremendous challenges in the coming decades and we have only just begun to see them looming ahead of us.  I would suggest that we build a new Futurama that would be a marker to help us get a better fix on the future.  I, for one, would even volunteer to help pay for it. And I would certainly stand in line for a few hours to see it.

Note: General Motors produced a film about Futurama, entitled "New Horizons". You can watch it on YouTube below. It runs about 23 minutes but is worth the time.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


I am on a diet trying to shed a few of those extra pounds that so insidiously creep up on us as we age. I haven't had so much as a cookie in three weeks. Why, then, am I watching a documentary entitled, The Kings of Pastry (a 2009 film by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker)? Am I eating vicariously? Beyond the scrumptious-looking treats, the film raised an interesting question in my mind.

The premise of the film is the desire of French pastry chefs to earn the coveted title of "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" - or MOF, for short - that is the premiere achievement for French pastry chefs. Every four years, a competition takes place in France where the best pastry chefs are invited to spend three days in a peer-judged event.  The results will determine if they will be allowed to claim the appellation of MOF and wear the tricolors of France on their chef's jacket collar. It is considered to be the pinnacle of the profession and pastry chefs have been known to compete for decades to try to win entry into the select group.

The competition is grueling. Three days of entering the kitchen at the crack of dawn and being there for ten hours or more without a break, even for lunch. These chefs are not just producing little creme puffs or eclairs. Their efforts produce sculptural works of art in sugar. They might work for a day on one piece only to have it shatter into a million sweet fragments when they try to move the sculpture to the display area. The competition is intense.

The film got me to thinking about professionalism and pride in your work. I find it interesting that where these sorts of competitions exist to identify the "best-of-the-best", you can always find a sense of professional pride in whatever occupation is involved.  Recognition comes from an elite cadre of your peers who judge whether you are good enough to join them in the Inner Circle. You receive the appellation and you wear it as visible evidence that you are in this select group. Others outside the profession may have no idea what any of this means but your peers know and you are held in high regard. Most of all, you know yourself to be at the top of your game.

Are there similar sorts of recognition in science and technology? Yes and no. The most prestigious national groups in the U.S. for science and technology are the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Technology. These are mostly recognition for academic achievement. There is the Presidential National Medal of Technology and Innovation which is granted to individuals and groups that have made significant contributions to U.S. inventions and innovations. But none of these gets at the sort of thing I was thinking about. Is there ever a peer-reviewed competition to determine the best, say, airline pilots, truck drivers, bridge builders, or software programmers? My guess is that there is something in each of these fields. Do they get to claim a visible recognition of their stature? Are there names known to their peers? In France with such a strong culture surrounding food and wine, it seems natural to honor chefs and vintners. In our country, so based on commercial success, it seems that the salary or the position in the organization suffice as recognition.

What might happen if such recognition was started for occupations that don't provide recognition at the moment?  Would the whole occupational area rise in its performance if there was, say,  a Master of Postal Clerks or Master of Welding? (There is such a thing, by the way, as a Master of Wine for wine tasters and it has exactly the effect I am writing about).  I doubt that we will ever get a Master of Fast Food or a Master of Greeters at Walmart. But maybe this helps to separate what are jobs from those that can rightly be called professions.

Food for thought (sorry, I couldn't help the pun).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

iPhone: Computer in My Pocket

Two weeks ago, I (finally) bought an iPhone 4S. I had been debating whether to buy one for a long time. For someone who writes a blog on technology, I felt almost as though I was some kind of anachronism. How could I not have a Smart Phone? Many of my friends have had one for years.  I was still on my plain-vanilla cellphone which, in addition to making calls could even send text messages using a little keyboard! Ooooh.

So why so long?  Well, I didn't want to be one of those people who whips their iPhone out walking down the street or while they are sitting in a darkened movie theater or while they are at the dinner table. I am all for connectivity but is it necessary to check your email or text messages every ten minutes?  The answer, I think, depends on your age. If you are a twenty-something, your life revolves around social networking. The expectation is that you are always online. Your friends want immediate responses. If you happen to be a little older, the fact that you can email someone when you get back to your home computer seems like connecting at light speed compared to growing up with snail mail. For the most part, my friends are not hanging out on line waiting for instant responses on where to meet up for tonight's social event.  Social networking with yourself isn't very much fun.

I have also learned that most of my email is, well... , boring. I have signed too many email political petitions and now my mailbox is filled mainly with the seemingly-urgent Rant-of-the-Day from one action group or another. I am suffering from Rant Fatigue and mostly hit the Delete button. Having removed the political email, I next winnow out the Groupons and Living Social coupons. Most days, I don't need a Brazilian or a facial so those go in the trash. What's left is an all too meager number of real emails. So, I didn't get an iPhone to check my emails and text messages.

Why did I get the iPhone? I wanted a mobile Information Appliance. I wanted to be able to look up locations on Google Maps. I wanted to find a good restaurant with Yelp. I wanted to know the answer to some question using Wikipedia. I wanted to check movie reviews on IMDB. I want to know if it's going to rain in the next 30 minutes. Could I have done without any of those functions? Sure. I have done without them so far. But the ability to have a computer in my pocket (for that is what a Smart Phone is) gives me an odd sense of freedom. I can navigate through my day a little better. I can find the answers to questions I will surely forget to look up by the time I get home (senior moments).  I feel...I admit it... hip.

I worried that I would become a slave to my new iPhone but, so far, I have surprised myself at how infrequently I check my emails (maybe for all the reasons I already mentioned).  My iPhone just nestles down in my pocket ready to give me answers when I ask. Oh, did I mention Siri?  This little artificial intelligence gnome is someone I want to get to know better.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to check my iPhone. I want to know...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


What does Llewellyn Park, New Jersey have to do with Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz trumpeter?   They are connected, if only through my web meandering yesterday. Maybe everything is connected at some level but I thought I might share with you the path of my meanderings as an example of what you can learn along the way.

I was looking at a book that is a chronology of automobile events. In the chapter on pre-automobile events, I found this entry:

Alexander Jackson Davis designs Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, the first suburban subdivision in the United States. Planned in the romantic style with curving, non-gridiron streets.
That got me curious about both Llewellyn Park and Alexander Jackson Davis, which sent me off to Wikipedia. Today, Llewellyn Park is home to perhaps a few hundred extremely wealthy individuals. From the beginning, the community was planned to provide beautiful mountainside vistas to the residents. Estates varied in size from a couple of acres to ten acres, all nestled within the woods and highly-planned landscaping for a suburban Eden. The development was the brainchild of Llewellyn Solomon Haskell, a prominent New York City businessman who asked the architect, Alexander Jackson Pope to design his new suburban community. When it was built, Llewellyn Park was as close to downtown Manhattan as was Central Park. Thomas Edison built his palatial estate, Glenmont, in Llewellyn Park.
Glenmont, Edison's Estate

U.S Customs House, New York City
Not to belabor Llewellyn, I started to look at what else Alexander Jackson Davis had designed. Davis was one of the preeminent architects of the first half of the 19th century. He was famous for both his Greek Revival designs (like the New York Custom's House) and his Italianate homes.  One of those homes was the Blandwood Mansion in Greensboro, North Carolina - within an hour of my home. The Blandwood Mansion was the home of Governor John Motley Morehead. The home was originally constructed in 1795 but Morehead had the house redesigned by Davis in 1844 in the Italianate style. Davis had never been to Italy but the pictures he saw inspired him to design many grand homes in the style. Blandwood was the furthest south of all of Davis's designs.

Blandwood Mansion
Governor Morehead's family lived in the mansion until around 1900. in 1907, Blandwood was sold to Col. William H. Osborne to be the location of the North Carolina franchise of the Keeley Institute.  The Keeley Institute was based in Dwight, Illinois.

The Keeley Institute was probably the first U.S. institution to treat alcohol and drug addiction as a disease, rather than a moral failing. The founders of the Institute were Leslie E. Keeley, a doctor in Dwight, John R. Oughton, a local druggist, and a Fargo, N.D. merchant named Curtis Judd. The treatment they devised was an injectable concoction that they termed "bi-chlorides of gold".

The first Keeley Institute was opened in Dwight, Ill in 1879 with the slogan, "Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it." The treatment which consisted of four injections a day plus other remedies plus rest became known as the "Keeley Cure". The Cure turned out to be a huge moneymaker for Dr. Keeley and his compatriots. They built a complex of buildings consisting of offices, laboratories, and a hotel to house their patients. By sheer coincidence, I had come across  a Detroit Photographic Company image of the Keeley office building a while back in Dwight - a magnificent Richardsonian structure with an enormous portal - taken sometime before 1902 when the building complex burned in a fire.

Keeley Institute Office circa 1902
The buildings were rebuilt and the facade of the office building was reused - albeit in a heavily modified design. The Keeley Institute itself stayed in operation until 1965. The treatments were controversial as to their effectiveness but at least they treated alcoholism as a disease. The Institute was sort of the Betty Ford Center of its day. Many thousands of people passed through its portals including many celebrities.

Bix Beiderbecke
And finally, this brings us to Bix Beiderbecke, the young jazz trumpeter of the 1920s who played in Paul Whitman's Orchestra. Beiderbecke was never healthy but seemingly he was bent on self destruction through drug and alcohol abuse. In 1929, when he was only in his mid-20s, he went to Dwight to the Keeley Institute to dry out. He was there a month and seemed in good shape when he left. But the Depression left him without much work in his native Midwest and he returned to New York City with all of its temptations. He died of his alcohol addiction in 1931 at the age of 28 .

And so that is how Llewellyn Park is connected to Bix Beiderbecke. It is a connection built on links between seemingly-unrelated subjects. Yet, the world is connected through just such random links. I love the internet but I sometimes hate it when I get off on one of these tangents. Nonetheless, I learned a lot for just one day.  May you be so blessed (or cursed).

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Serpent and the Telegraph

It's interesting how connections sometimes come about. I am on an email list for the Library of Congress and there was a post on their blog about Hans Christian Andersen (yes, the same Andersen of fairy tale fame). The blog post was announcing that an American family had donated some letters between one of their family members and Andersen that were written in the 1860s and 1870s. The blog mentioned that some of Andersen's stories, including "The Great Sea Serpent", had first appeared in english language publications such as Scribner's magazine.  The "Serpent" appeared in the January, 1872 issue.

"The Great Sea Serpent" is a fairy tale of how the fishes and sea creatures reacted to the laying of the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1866.  In the story, the cable is thought to be some great sea serpent that originated from the creatures on the surface. The fish were trying to decide whether to bite it in two because they despised its presence in their world. The wise ones among them advised the more adversarial fish to leave it alone. The story ended with this paragraph:

Good for nothing!” said all the creatures in the sea, and held fast to the sea-cow’s opinion, so as to have an opinion. The little fish had its own thoughts. “That exceedingly long, thin serpent is perhaps the most wonderful fish in the ocean. I have a feeling it is.

The very most wonderful,” say we human folks, and say it with knowledge and assurance. It is the great sea-serpent, long ago the theme of song and story. It was born and nourished and sprang forth from men’s cunning and was laid upon the bottom of the sea, stretching from the Eastern to the Western land, bearing messages, quick as light flashes to our earth. It grows in might and in length, grows year by year through all seas, round the world, beneath the stormy waves and the lucid waters, where the skipper looks down as if he sailed through the transparent air, and sees the swarming fish, brilliant fireworks of color. Down, far down, stretches the serpent, Midgard’s snake, that bites its own tail as it encircles the earth. Fish and shell beat upon it with their heads—they understand not the thing—it is from above. Men’s thoughts in all languages course through it noiselessly. “The serpent of science for good and evil, Midgard’s snake, the most wonderful of all the ocean’s wonders, our—GREAT SEA-SERPENT!

I always find it interesting when technology intersects with art and literature. Who would have thought that something like the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable would inspire a fairy tale? And yet, through the form of the fairy tale, we see Andersen revering the cable as one of mankind's greatest achievements. He was not alone.  The cable of 1866 (there had been an earlier attempt that failed in the 1850s) would connect the continents and that connection would never again be broken.

Now, of course, the telegraph looks so terribly antiquated.  We can hardly imagine that messages would have taken two weeks to travel in letters from England to America before the advent of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph. I wonder if Hans Christian Andersen was alive today, would he write a fairy tale about the internet? Would we have something like "The Great Spider Web of Communications"?  It would be nice to think so - but somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's Needed for Successful Innovation?

In Sunday's New York Times, Susan Cain, who is an author and essayist, published a piece entitled, "The Rise of the New Groupthink". In this very well-written essay she more or less bursts the bubble of the current trend which prioritizes group activities over solo efforts. As she writes in her opening paragraph,

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink., which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 
But there's a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. 

I couldn't agree with her more. In my 35 years of experience working in, and directing, R&D labs, I saw numerous examples of the best ideas coming from the solitary work of individuals. Team meetings had their place but not at the creative front end. This was the territory of the individual, not the team.

In thinking about what makes successful innovation tick, I see four things that are needed for successful (in this case, commercial) innovations:
  1. Very bright people who have the spark to think in new ways.
  2. Freedom for those individuals to explore their ideas without close supervision.
  3. Extreme persistence that provides the energy to surmount the inevitable naysayers.
  4. A very smart commercialization team that knows how to get the innovation to market.
When I was running R&D labs, I saw my job as identifying those people who had the really glorious new ideas and giving them space, time, and resources to flesh out their ideas. Often, my "management" meant wandering into their labs from time to time to have them show me what they were up to. Being willing to give them the support they needed quickly opened the door to their enthusiastically showing me their early ideas. The worst thing I could do would be to assign a team to them too early before the creative work was well along.

Our labs would often have fifty to a hundred technical people in them but not everyone had the creative spark. Many were more comfortable shepherding the creative ideas of others along the path to commercialization. It was never easy to pick out the really creative people during the hiring process.  Sometimes, those who seemed creative were just blowing smoke.  It often turned out that the quiet people were the really creative individuals. They were comfortable in the world of ideas more than they were in interacting with people.

Even so, getting a new innovation underway often took the combined efforts of both the innovator and supportive management. There was always a reason that the really creative ideas were deemed by upper management to be impractical or unattractive from a marketing perspective.  The innovator was often the best person to explain the technical nuances of his or her idea. My role in management was to wrap the idea in the acceptable attire of our business so that it wasn't seen as too outside the box to be acceptable. Often, ideas would percolate for years before suddenly becoming "obvious" to everyone that they should be commercialized.

At that point, getting a really good team of people together to go through the paces of manufacturing, marketing, perhaps regulatory approvals, and sales became the priority. Great teams could do wonders to get the idea out the door. But not all teams were great and many good ideas would languish for want of a strong commercialization team.

The inventors and innovators were often gratified to see their ideas go all the way through commercialization but that wasn't what motivated them. Their motivation came from the freedom to do it again -- to come up with another new idea.  They basked in the knowledge that they were appreciated for what they could create.  We all crave the approval of our peers. For them it came not through promotion to becoming a team leader but through the ability to have the space to explore their ideas.

In Ms. Cain's Times' essay, she quotes Steve Wozniak, the engineer who designed the Apple II computer:

Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me... they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone... I'm going to give you some advice that may be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team. 

I couldn't agree more.