History’s Arc of Innovation

I always hear people going on and on about how we’re in the greatest age of innovation and technology, with more amazing things being invented now than ever before. I’ll have to beg to differ there, and I can back up my argument, too:

The Library at Alexandria

The Library at Alexandria

  • The oldest folding chairs date back to the 14th century B.C. from Ancient Egypt.
  • The first fishing reel dates all the way to at least 4th century China.
  • Beer predates recorded history, and has even been linked to the rise of civilization.
  • Wine predates recorded history and is possibly almost as old as beer.
  • Reclining armchairs date back to the Napoleonic War.
  • Organized sporting events predate recorded history.
  • The oldest dice ever found are more than 5,000 years old—coincidentally, they were found in the oldest ever backgammon set.
  • Humans bred dogs before recorded history, or even the invention of agriculture.
  • The earliest form of chess originated in the 6th century in India.
  • The Arawak Native Americans invented the barbeque grill long before any Europeans showed up in the Americas.
  • Playing cards were invented in China during the 9th century.
  • The written word is between six and nine thousand years old; the first proto-books popped up not too long after.
  • The housecat was domesticated in Ancient Egypt, though some experts believe that the process started long before that.
  • The oldest known direct ancestors of the guitar are well over 3,000 years old.
  • Baseball caps are more than a century and a half old.
  • People began drinking coffee—in Yemen—in the 1400s.
  • Native Americans, probably the Arawak, invented the hammock in the Caribbean more than a thousand years ago.

So, the next time someone dismisses ancient peoples as primitive: just smile and nod, then kick back in a hammock with a beer and a good book.

Learning from The Tacoma Narrows

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse is one of the best known architectural failures in modern history, and it is used as a lesson by everyone, from architects and civil engineers to insurance agents.

Built in 1940 across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State, the suspension bridge lasted less than a year before collapsing. The only casualty was a dog stuck in a car.

Due to a very tight budget, the bridge was constructed with lightweight girders, as per the lowest bid design. (In my work, that Tacoma Narrows lesson is one of the many reasons I don’t just go for the lowest bid). During construction, the bridge’s thin design, low weight, and less-than-durable construction resulted in frequent vibrations and shaking whenever the wind picked up. It got so bad that the workers nicknamed it Galloping Gertie. Not exactly a trust-inspiring name.

The Bridge Collapses

The Bridge Collapses

The bridge began undergoing severe oscillations (or, to be a bit less technical about things: the bridge shook itself to bits) under heavy winds on November 7th, 1940.

I won’t go in depth on the science behind the collapse; you can find that easy enough. I’m more interested in what lessons it gives us about ignoring nature. For all the amazing things mankind has done, we still need to respect nature or it will come back to bite us. All of our technology and inventiveness allows us to stand up to nature, but push it around? Not a chance. We need to foster a design philosophy that promotes working with nature, not against it.

This sounds like hippy talk, I know, but it’s nothing new. Heck, the idea goes back millennia. Look at any number of cultures that lived in hot climates—high ceilings, big windows, light colored paint. Cultures that live with heavy rain? You build your foundations strong, angle your roof, and pick your building site really carefully.

Why’d I decide to blog about Tacoma Narrows, when so many people already use it as a lesson? Well, I think some people missed that one—like my son-in-law, who decided to have his shed built by the cheapest contractor: at the edge of a hill, with no real foundation to speak of. He’s going to be picking his tools out of the stream for weeks.

Inventing the Hyperloop

The way I figure it, most billionaires are just investors: they’re simply using money to make more money. It’s not real exciting, but if you really want to be rich that bad, I guess it works.

A few billionaires are more interesting to me, though—guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who actually get involved in producing new things.

Elon Musk is especially noteworthy right now. He’s started a private space corporation (SpaceX), co-founded Tesla Motors, and most recently is pushing for the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop is a conceptual transportation system that would be able to move passengers at speeds twice, or more, of a passenger aircraft. Essentially, it’s a high speed train in a sealed tunnel with most of the air pumped out, letting it speed unhindered by air resistance, track friction, weather, or any of the difficulties facing other modes of high-speed transportation.

This thing could potentially hit thousands of miles an hour (depending on how low they can keep the pressure in the tube; that’s the big limiting factor). Rather than using maglev (magnetic levitation) or wheels, the train would float on air rails, very similarly to how an air hockey table works, and it would be accelerated by linear induction motors.

This concept isn’t new. The idea of vacuum trains has been around for decades. This is one of the first attempts to really build one, though. While all of the initial design work was done by Musk’s engineers, he then took the unusual step of releasing all of the designs and plans. All of them. He turned it into an open source project.

Most of the current work on the project is by a group of engineers called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. (The old saw about engineers getting to name companies holds true here).

That’s not to say that it doesn’t face plenty of troubles of its own. They’ve still got to figure out how to handle earthquakes, any number of technical issues, and even zoning issues. But I feel confident saying that we’ll get to see this fly one day.

Orion: They Belted Out the Name

NASA's Orion Spacecraft

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

 

NASA recently had an unmanned test flight of their Orion spacecraft—a new vessel meant to replace the space shuttle, and to take humans beyond low earth orbit for the first time since Apollo 17.

I’ve been following the program with avid interest for years now. I’m a sucker for the space program. Always have been, always will be. Orion is reminiscent of Apollo in many ways, yet now it’s a bigger, beefier Apollo craft. One thing that bugs me about Orion, though, is the name.

See, years ago there was another Orion. Project Orion never actually got a vehicle up into orbit, but that’s probably a good thing, since it was fueled by nukes.

Project Orion

Project Orion

Note that I didn’t say nuclear power, either. I said nukes, as in actual nuclear bombs. Project Orion flew by detonating nuclear weapons right behind it to launch itself forward. It would have worked, too: absurdly well, in fact. It would have made anywhere in the solar system easily accessible, in fact, and may even have opened up the neighboring stars to us.

The real problem, though, was that most of the designs involved launching from the Earth’s surface, which, as it turns out, was a bit of a bad idea. Detonating a big sequence of nukes in the atmosphere? Good way to give everyone in a thousand miles cancer. The program was canceled in ’63 after the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

It’s not to say the new Orion isn’t impressive in its own right: there are plans to use it for prospective Mars missions, or even for potential asteroid explorations. I just think that the government could have chosen a better name for the thing.

I do know this: I plan on being there for the first manned launch.

The Mark of Civilization

When you think about the Roman Empire, one of the first things that pops into mind is their aqueduct system…unless you’ve been watching too much TV, in which case you’re likely thinking of their gladiators or legions.

Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Roman Aqueduct, c. 1st century, Spain

I feel pretty comfortable saying that the reason Rome was so stable for so long was due to their roads, aqueducts, sewer system, and other civil projects. It always grates me a little bit when people talk about the gladiatorial games being used to pacify the population—they certainly did that, but this was secondary to having clean water, plenty of food, and sanitation.

Thanks to the Roman Empire’s extensive civil improvements, Rome itself had a population of more than a MILLION people. That’s just nuts for a city in the ancient world. Athens maybe had 300K, and it was enormous for its time. There are only a few other ancient cities of comparable size at all.

That’s where Rome’s real success lay: not in conquest but in civil planning and construction. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record in this blog space, going on about how people focused on war as the key part of history bugs me. (Maggie jokes sometimes that she is worried I’ll start buying Grateful Dead shirts and growing a ponytail.) It’s not about hating war, though. It’s about acknowledging that what we build and how we build it is, ultimately, the most important legacy of a society.

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment as President? The Interstate Highway System. What do we remember about the Egyptians? The pyramids. If you look at any society from more than a couple decades or so, what part of it lasts? Their construction.

The aqueducts have stood for millennia. I rest my case.

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Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0