Technology

The start of many of the greatest technology companies is an advancement in technology. This ‘revelation’ may be surprising because of the watered-down way we experience products. By the time we can buy something in a Radioshack, it is warrienteed free from defects and imperfections. Those defects are the hallmark of anything ‘new’, much less those things which are both new, and worse, ‘technical’.

It’s often important to consider the question ‘why now’. Why was this company ‘foundable’ in 2015 and not 2014 or 1914. Why did the rock that is the Earth sit around for 500 million years before life sprang up? Did something change in it’s environment? Or was the creation of life just so starkly improbable that it took that long for the cosmic coin to come up heads?

In the case of our evolution it is obviously a combination. It took millions of years for the planet to settle down enough to be suitable for life. It also took a very favorable series of events to make life begin. The idea of a ‘series’ of events is critically important. No great advancement springs out of nothing. What might appear to a historical eye as a giant leap is inevitably simply one more step down a long road.

If you or I were sent back in time five hundred years, to, in my case, the land of the Massachuset tribe, with all our knowledge and experience, what could we build? The computer I type this on, for example, requires photolithographed semiconductors. The machinery to do that photo etching requires precision machining. Precision machining requires advanced and practiced metalurgy. I have no doubt that the simple pursuit of getting high quality steel would consume the rest of my (undoubtedly shortened) life.

Thus the creation of the ENIAC computer by Mauchly and Eckert in 1946 was one notable step down a very long road. Tracing that road backward touches on the vacuum tube in 1910, the capacitor in 1745, even the discovery of copper in 9000 BC. Without any of those steps the ENIAC may have existed, but it certainly wouldn’t have been created in the form we know it, at the time we remember it.

But what does it mean to consider one of those steps removed from history? If Vladmir Zworykin hadn’t invented the Cathode Ray Tube in 1929 would Philo Farnsworth simply have popularized it instead? If Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t patented the telephone in 1876 would we now simply attribute it to Charles Bourseul? In these two cases, at least insofar as we’re saying the items would have been invented eventually, the answer is an almost unequiviocal yes. The history is clear that with these, as with so many other inventions, many feet were poised to take the final steps once the way became clear. Who crossed the finish line first would often, in truth, be determined by politics or public opinion, not any sort of allegiance to the clock.

In fact, it is almost always the people who become notable for an idea who become forever associated with inventing it. Christopher Colombus was not the first European to sail to the New World. Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line. Most remember that MySpace came before Facebook, but how many remember Friendster? How long will it be until elementary school students are being taught that Facebook invented social networking. How long will it be until Mark Zuckerberg invented the internet?

Part of the problem is the granularity of history. The average student with a high school education may have spent the equivilant of about a second of education on each month of the last five thousand years. If daily newspapers are any guide, in any of those months, thousands of notable things occured. In truth, it’s possible to read many full books on virtually every paragraph contained in a World History textbook. And the writers of those books will tell you they struggled mightally to summarize their subject into a single tome.

Quick, what did Charlemegne do? If you can answer, “he ruled Europe and laid a lot of the foundations for modern Britian and France”, you are better educated than most. When you start to look at it with that coarse granularity, calling Zuck the inventer of the internet might be as accurate as you can hope. There may just be too much history to get it right all the time.

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