Computers…in hiiiiistory pt. II

Continuing yesterday’s theme, another unappreciated aspect in the history of technology is the nonlinearity of progress. Many steps in a seemingly straightforward progression are made possible through advances in other, wildly disparate fields.

Take, for example, the miniaturization of microprocessors from yesterday. It wasn’t simply a matter of ‘oh, we’ve put 1,000 transistors on a chip. Check. Now lets put 5,000 on instead.’ It took simultaneous advances in material science, microscopes, machining, and mining – and those are just the ‘M’ words that were immediately salient.

Many of the supporting advances are overlooked because they are far less glorious than the technologies they enable.  Oh boy, you made mining bauxite 1% more efficient – but that efficiency allows thousands of tons more aluminum to be produced for the same price, driving down its value and making it not prohibitively expensive to produce, say, an airplane. Just another angle on how continuous changes can lead to discrete tipping points.

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Or take this awesome integrator (ok, I’m a little biased towards really clever mechanical mechanisms. At first, I looked at it and thought ‘that’s really clever, but it doesn’t really have any technology (gears, pins, metal arms) that hadn’t already existed for hundreds of years before it was invented in the 19th century. Now that I see how it works, I could totally recreate that if I needed to help rebuild humanity.’ What I neglected was further behind the scenes: the operation of the integrator depends on precision machining which was only made possible by advances in the 19th century in things like metallurgy and power production. Even if a Roman had had the idea, he would not have been able to implement it. 

Often, people do have ideas before there is the necessary technology for it to be realized in a way that actually catches on. Take the Neiman Marcus Kitchen Computer – somebody knew that having the world’s recipes at your fingertips in the kitchen was a great idea, but iPads and allrecipes.com didn’t exist yet to support it.

 From what I can tell, one of the common themes among successful entrepreneurs is that they can recognize when a number of disparate technologies have all reached a point that they can be pulled together to create something new and awesome. 

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