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.