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.

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

A Technological Revival

During the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was an unlikely technological revival: airships.

The Hindenburg disaster sunk commercial airships for most of the twentieth century, leaving pretty much only the Goodyear blimps.

During the great economy of the ’90s, investors lined up to toss money at anything that popped up its head, which ended up turning out pretty badly for many of them. There were several airship startups among them.

The Aerium

The Aerium

Cargolifter AG, which opened its doors in ’96 was a German company with a plan to build truly colossal airship freight lifters. The initial plan was to build one with a 160 ton lifting capacity, but there was talk of constructing airships several times that large. The company spent a nutty amount of money constructing a hangar, called the Aerium, for the airships at an old airfield. The Aerium is, to this day, the fourth largest building in the world. You could fit an aircraft carrier inside with room to spare. (I don’t know why you’d want to, though).

Before Cargolifter AG couldn’t get anything other than a small test balloon built, though; they ran out of money and had to fold in 2002. The building was sold to a resort company, who turned it into a gargantuan indoor tropical park, featuring a swimming pool the size of a lake with waves and beaches, miles of jungle paths, spas, and so on and so forth. (Now there’s somewhere I can convince Maggie to go).

The Ukrainian company Aeros is a slightly more cheerful story. They already had a line of products to keep them in business, manufacturing hang-gliders and other ultra light craft. They’re sinking their budget into R&D for the Aeroscraft, a huge, sleek, rigid airship that looks like something out of Star Wars. It’s not a strictly lighter-than-air vehicle, and it also features huge vertical thrusters. They actually flew their prototype this year, after a decade of development.

Maggie and I love hot air balloons, so here’s keeping my fingers crossed we’ll get to start taking commercial airship flights soon enough.

Funiculars: A Slippery Slope

You normally want ramps to have a relatively low slope: it’s hardly going to cut back on the amount of work you need to do to get something to the top if it’s too steep.

Unfortunately, it sometimes isn’t possible to construct a shallow ramp, usually due to terrain. You’ve still got to be able to get up to the top, though, which is where funiculars come into the picture.

A funicular is essentially a pair of linked carts on rails going up and down a slope. Think elevator, but tilted to the side, and using each other as counterweights instead of having their own counterweights.

Funiculars take shockingly little power to operate, since you’re really only hauling up the weight of the load. In fact, some low-tech funiculars operate by filling water tanks at the top cart and draining them at the bottom, which pulls down the top cart and vice versa. They’re an extremely effective way to get around, and since they’re usually in the mountains, you usually get a great view as well, except when you go through a tunnel. You also get quite a few in mines.

Depending on the amount of space available, the carts might have separate tracks, or they may share tracks. When they share track, there’s generally a split rail in the middle of the run that diverts the carts around each other.

Unfortunately, a funicular was the site of the worst ramp-related disaster in history. (Yes, definitely worse than the countless groin injuries caused by ramps in sports.) The Kaprun disaster occurred on a large funicular leading up to a ski resort. One of the large trams used in the funicular caught fire while going up the tunnel. The resulting smoke billowed up through the tunnel, killing more than 150 people, largely through smoke inhalation.

The disaster turned out to be caused mostly by poor training and a fault in the tram car, but public confidence in funiculars remained shaken for some years. (Maggie wouldn’t let me ride the last one we saw, but I think I’ve finally got her convinced that they’re safe.)