Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shoes and ships and sealing wax...

Guglielmo Marconi (1908)

Not quite about those things, but related. I was thinking about "technology" and it's impact on our lives. In particular I was thinking about the "march" of technology, the way technology develops and changes and the rate at which it does. Modern things like mobile phones and iPods are relatively new conceptually and relatively new in terms of their length of use. I can remember the first time I saw a "mobile" phone. It was 1988 and it was a large installation in the boot of a car. The dialling prefix was 007 I think! How things have changed, and quite rapidly too. Within about 2 years of seeing that I was regularly seeing handheld phones.
Three of the things I use in my daily life date back a relatively long way however in "technology years":
  • The sextant dates back at least 250 years in its present form and longer in concept. Yes the sextant really is not required equipment today but it does a very effective job and it's relatively unchanged over a long period of time;
  • The 35mm camera. Oskar Barnack built the first prototype of the 35mm camera in 1913 and after a delay because of the first world war the camera went into production in 1924. Very little has changed with the 35mm camera in that time - particularly if you still use a Leica.
  • HF radio. Marconi is credited with the invention of HF radio, though there are many challenges to that claim and many contributors. Nevertheless, HF radio has been around for over 100 years. Sure the rigs of today are very different to Marconi's spark gap rigs but the propagation and principles haven't changed. You can hear morse used every day on the bands. Some people use it exclusively and manually key it as well.
The thing that gets me thinking is that although each of those technologies (and Morse as well) is, to some extent, anachronistic they are each viable and effective tools today. Why do some pieces of technology endure and why do some come and go? Will any of the "inventions" of today endure for 100 years or more into the future in a largely unchanged form?
And another thought - why have I used so many inverted commas today?

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