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Notes From The Field

While sitting in an underground auditorium in Washington, D.C.’s Federal Triangle recently and listening to a visionary panel of policy wonks and geeks discuss the future of American communications, I was struck by how much Abraham Lincoln would have appreciated—and supported—the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Broadband Plan. The high-speed wired and wireless communications system it envisions will revolutionize the communication business and the fabric of American society on the order of magnitude that railroad and telegraph lines did in Lincoln’s day.

On my commute home from St. Paul to the western suburbs of the Twin Cities, a little before 6 p.m. on August 1 last year, I neared the 40-year-old I-35W bridge. Construction work had blocked half the lanes and choked it with traffic, so I passed by and took a different bridge over the Mississippi. Fifteen minutes later a truss-supported section near the southern end of I-35W failed, causing a chain reaction that brought down 1,200 linear feet of bridge and sent 100 vehicles crashing into the river. Thirteen people died.

About a decade ago, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History started to work more aggressively at documenting recent inventions. To that end, in 1997 the museum instituted its Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) program. MIND aims to ensure that the story of American innovation will include the contributions of “garage” inventors as well as those of greater renown.

UNTIL RECENTLY, RE searchers into pre-World War II television had only contemporary descriptions and blurry still photos of glowing screens to rely on. Now, however, a Scotsman named Donald F. McLean has managed to extract moving images from television signals that were recorded onto shellac phonograph disks as early as 1927—when most people were still getting used to radio.

OBERLIN, OHIO: Anyone who writes about women inventors must eventually face a stubborn truth: Most of the important things in history were invented by men. Most does not mean all, of course, and several large books have recently been published to catalogue the technological contributions of women. Yet if you listed the 100 most important inventions of all time and the key figures usually associated with each, no more than a small handful would be female.

OAKLAND, CALIF. : For decades the slide rule was a universal emblem of the engineering profession. A slide rule sticking out of the shirt pocket, along with the inevitable black glasses and bad haircut, was the easiest way for a cartoonist or filmmaker to show that someone was an engineer. Groups of students carried oversized versions at their graduations, and a drawing of a slide rule was invariably used in newspapers to illustrate an engineering-related story.

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