A small, hand-propelled German submarine, the Brandtaucher, sank in 1851 in sixty feet of water, with her captain, Wilhelm Bauer, and two crew-members aboard. Her hull immediately began to collapse under the pressure of the sea. Captain Bauer, who had built the tiny craft, knew that if he could keep his two companions from panicking while allowing the water to rise steadily inside her, the interior and exterior pressure would equalize and they would be able to open the hatch and get out. They did.
On the greeting-card racks this past Christmas could be seen a minor technological miracle—a Christmas card that upon opening showed a small yellow light that glowed while the card played a tinny but recognizable version of “Jingle Bells.” The yellow light was the latest addition to a novelty that made its first appearance a couple of years ago—the electronic greeting card.
Most great monuments of nineteenth-century American engineering, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, dominate the surrounding landscape. By contrast, the Hoosac Tunnel, dug through a mountain in western Massachusetts, is inconspicuous, as tunnels naturally are. Yet it stands in the front rank of the projects of its age by whatever standards of measurement one chooses. On the one hand, its construction, which began in 1851 and ended in 1875, took almost two hundred lives, damaged many reputations, and nearly claimed the solvency of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
NEWARK, N.J.: Confronted with the dolorous industrial flatlands that stretch away to the south of Newark, New Jersey, most tourists would agree with the visitor who characterized the area as miles and miles of “robot vomit.” But it is a paradise to members of the Society for Industrial Archeology. This organization of historians, architects, engineers, and other enthusiasts recently took a one-day bus trip through industrial New Jersey to visit places that any other tour would want to avoid. I went along.
For 12 million years it trickled, meandered, and snaked, before bursting violently loose to slash to its final destination. Then, one winter day in 1935, this ancient, tempestuous journey abruptly ended in a remote canyon as the last of more than 5 million buckets of concrete was poured onto the crest of a 726-foot wall that blocked its path. Observers watched in awe as the nation’s wildest river puddled up behind the massive structure. Soon the benign-looking pond would reach back for 115 miles to a depth of 500 feet, the largest human-made lake in the world.
At about five o’clock one morning this past October, the retired physicist Willard S. Boyle received a scientist’s ultimate wake-up call. At first he couldn’t bestir himself—who could be calling at this ungodly hour?—but the phone was insistent, so his wife dragged herself out of bed.
A couple of minutes later, she was shaking him awake. “Stockholm is calling.”
On April 26, 1944, the 72-year-old Orville Wright posed for a photograph at the controls of a Lockheed Constellation, a triple-tailed, four-engined behemoth that could reach 340 miles per hour and had a ceiling of 24,000 feet. Only four decades earlier, Wright had taken the Flyer, a fragile creation of wire, wood, and muslin, on the first controlled, powered, and human flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. He noted that his first wobbling flight of 120 feet had been shorter than the Constellation’s wingspan.
“Now you don’t have to miss ‘Kojak’ because you’re watching ‘Columbo’ (or vice versa),” crowed 1976 Sony Betamax ad copy that drew millions of people to buy a revolutionary new device called the videocassette recorder (VCR).
While its initial pull was home video recording, most VCR users didn’t know how the set the clocks on their decks and so couldn’t record a thing. The flashing “12:00” on the VCR became a national punchline. It was clear that Americans wanted VCRs so that they could rent and watch prerecorded movies, not record programs.
Apple’s iPhone was not the first cell phone with an integrated music player (the Samsung Uproar, 2000), nor the first with a touchscreen interface (LG Prada, 2007). And phones with touchscreens had been available for nearly a decade. The iPhone wasn’t even the first on which a user could download and install mini applications (the Palm OS–powered Handspring Treo 180, 2002). So what was so special about it?
After 18 hours of labor on June 11, 1997, Sonia, the wife of 45-year-old software engineer Philippe Kahn, finally kicked him out of her Santa Cruz, California, maternity ward room. So he adjourned to a nearby desk and started fiddling with his laptop, cell phone, and digital camera. He’d planned to take pictures of their newborn, transfer the pictures from the camera to his laptop, post the pictures to a Web site, and e-mail his friends—all of which was then relatively advanced, technologically speaking.
While some technologies are easy to explain—the video recorder, wireless telephony, or the portable computer, for instance—others require a bit of explanation and hands-on experience before users “get” it.
Reaching the portable computer intersection of uniting smallest effective size with highest reasonable usefulness has tortured personal computer makers for 30 years. Over the last decade, the functionality side of the equation has won out. As soon as portable PCs could match the full functionality of a bulky stationary model—becoming so-called “desktop replacements”—laptop sales started to take off.
Food riots shook the Egyptian textile manufacturing center of El Mahalla El Kubra in the spring of 2008, and a 29-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate journalism student, James Buck, was covering and photographing them. In the early evening of April 10, police detained him. While sitting in his cell with his cell phone, Buck surreptitiously tapped out Arrested.
In the space of just three years, soon after the accuracy of the 30-year-old global positioning system (GPS) was narrowed to just one meter in 2004, sales of personal navigation devices (PNDs) exploded by 200 percent—and that doesn’t include the equally expanding market for cell phones equipped with GPS capabilities. The new generation of large-screen smartphones is advancing the spread of this suddenly indispensible technology.
Normally night spreads from east to west with the rotation of the earth, but the evening of November 9, 1965, was different. Darkness also spread from north to south. Southern Ontario went dark first, much of New York State a few seconds later, then most of New England, and finally New York City. By 5:28 P.M., thirty million people were stumbling toward any light available. Subways stopped and furnaces chilled, and America briefly lost one-fifth of its electricity. What was the cause?
My father had a concept he called “gadget value”—the intrinsic interest of machinery unrelated to its use. I have found plenty of it over the years in steam locomotives, steamboats, theater organs, and interurban cars, but never so much as in the cable car. In graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became interested in the city’s cable-car system, which had been the biggest in the country.
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, a slightly built, forty-year-old research professor from the University of Pittsburgh, became a hero. On that morning, before one hundred and fifty news reporters and five hundred scientists and physicians crammed into an auditorium at the University of Michigan, “amid fanfare and drama far more typical of a Hollywood premiere than a medical meeting,” according to an account in The New York Times, it was announced that Dr. Salk had developed a vaccine that had been found effective in preventing poliomyelitis.
Elting E. Morison, Killian professor of humanities emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of technology. Though a great fan and chronicler of America’s industrial growth, he takes a clear, unawed view of his favorite subject.
We have all been taught to be critical of the written word, but we tend to let the omnipresent graphics of our era pass without close scrutiny. This we do at our own loss and peril. Graphics are rich stores of information, but often they lie about quantitative information and are unnerving and confusing when they could be aesthetically pleasing. In his recent book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte tells us what we should treasure, reject, and censor in graphics—and much more.