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Timing and the Evolution of Technology

More important than invention in the evolution of technology is the concept of timing. Few of the technologies that we're surrounded by today are independent inventions. Rather, they're amalgamations of inventions, ideas, and concepts, brought together either for a specific purpose or accidentally discovered in the pursuit of something entirely different.

For example, Hero, of Alexandria, Egypt, designed a working steam-driven engine in the second century B.C. At that time, Alexandria was a Roman province. Rome relied on slaves as an inexpensive labor-saving device, giving Rome little incentive to put this new steam engine technology to good use. It took 16 centuries, after England had finally abolished its own practice of slavery, for the steam engine to come pummeling into everyday life, dragging the industrial revolution behind it!

Like any other technology, digital technology is simply a set of tools. The first modern example of binary digitizing actually took place in the textile industry in 18th century France. Jacques de Vaucanson created an automated loom to select particular threads to create patterns "programmed" on a metal cylinder, resembling the device inside a music box. But instead of protrusions that struck against harmonized tines, the loom had indentations to allow ratchets to thread according to holes punched in paper. A hole in the paper was "on," no hole was "off." And although this new technology proved vastly superior to the handlooms that had been used for centuries, the concept didn't really take off until more than 100 years later, when the concept of "punched holes" was finally adopted by Herman Hollerith to create the modern calculating machine.


Interestingly, in 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, forerunner of Computer Tabulating Recording Company (CTR), which changed its name in 1924 to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

Hollerith had probably never heard of Jacques de Vaucanson, and may have had little or no interest in the textile industry. But with technology, as mentioned earlier, timing is everything! In other words, the real miracle of technology is its ability to adapt from one use to another, when and where it's needed and can be applied. A hundred years earlier, guilds and trade unions saw "logical looms" as a threat to their existence. But in 1890, Hollerith's calculating system—including punch, tabulator, and sorter—allowed the official 1890 population count to be tallied in six months. When all the census data was completed and defined, the cost was $5 million below the forecasts, and saved more than two years' time. Although Herman Hollerith may not be a household name, his use of technology in one industry has changed the face of almost every industry in one way or another over the last 100 years.

No technology is the creation of one or two geniuses. Technology is a series of steps that lead into something that someone (not necessarily of any particular IQ) puts to good use. It's frequently a matter of context. What if Edison had invented the light bulb, but there was no way of providing electricity to the public, or the public was unwilling to use it? It was only because of years of development on limelight that Edison thought the pursuit worthwhile at all. Edison was not just an inventor, but a businessman—and a very shrewd one, at that. He never took on a project unless he already knew there was a market for it. Edison rarely hesitated to take the necessary steps from successful invention to successful business.

After Herman Hollerith's tabulating machines became common in the use of census-taking, the tabulating company recognized that to stay in business it would need to create additional uses for its technology, beyond census-taking once every ten years. Hollerith's little company discovered scores of new and interesting uses for the tabulating machine: calculating trajectories for artillery firing tables, solving early electrical and mechanical equations, and the like. However, the CTR was not an overnight success. The little company viewed itself as a manufacturing concern and not necessarily as a technological one. In those days, technology and machinery were viewed as pretty much the same thing.

Part 2 of this series continues this condensed view of technological history by describing the rise of technology as something entirely separate from machinery.

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