Why are Rockets like Amphorae? Pt 1.

Short answer: They’re both technological local maxima.

“whoo hoo, I’m a local maxima!”

Long answer:

If asked “what container do you use to ship large volumes of wine?” the answer is  pretty clearly “the barrel, duh.” But if you asked that question two thousand years ago, it would be “amphorae, duh. Barrels are expensive, tiny, shoddy containers made by barbarians.”

(ASIDE) Amphorae were the dominant vessel for liquid transport in the mediterranean world for centuries. You probably think of amphorae as little urns that look something like this:

Achilles (left) is a metaphor for barrels in a historical context

But that will be like someone a thousand years from now thinking of a custom Porsche when someone says “car”: they’re both high-end luxury goods. Instead of being painted with Greek men killing each other, most amphorae were several feet long and looked something like this:

Transport Amphora

Today, it’s clear that barrels have many advantages over amphorae: they’re lighter, less fragile, and don’t need special racks to hold them during transport. So why were they ever chosen over barrels? Historical momentum and initial conditions.

Amphorae were developed in tandem with Mediterranean trade – amphorae enabled trade in valuable liquids and in turn, increased trade incentivized innovations in amphora technology. All of this occurred around the Southeastern Mediterranean (present-day Egypt, Greece, Lebanon etc.) Here, wood was relatively scarce and expensive. What was cheap and plentiful? Rich river mud. What’s made out of mud? Amphorae. As trade expanded from this region into the rest of Europe, so too did the practice of using amphorae to transport liquids. Archeologists have found amphorae in Britain and Northern France, where wood is far more plentiful, so it would have been easy to use barrels instead.

So why didn’t barrels begin to dominate trade as soon as heavily wooded regions connected to the trade routes? The same reason we’re still using rockets to transport everything to space: Historical momentum. What did it take to shift the balance from amphorae to barrels? Something that hasn’t happened yet to space technology: a massive shock.

To come, in no particular order: Werner Von Braun, Muslim Invasions, and space cannons.



Possibilities of Feasibility

I wrote a new post over at the SSDS blog about the value of engineering research on technologies that may not yet be feasible.

Basically, this is how technological tipping points happen – once we figure out that a technology is possible, it lies dormant until developments in other fields make it feasible, at which point it bursts into usefulness.

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.


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.