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Techological development

It is often said that technology is developing far more rapidly than would have predicted at such-and-such a time. But there is another point of view.

And it is still being claimed that we live in a period of exceptionally rapid technical progress and one in which the time elapsing between invention and application tends to get shorter whereas it seems to be true that ours is really an epoch of comparative technological sluggishness when there are not very many authentically new things about and even these, for many different reasons, are being developed rather slowly. (How much longer, for example, will we have to wait for efficient battery-operated motorcars which will enable the pounding, smelly reciprocating engine to be thrown on the scrap-heap; or the typewriter which will type as one dictates, which will release hundreds of young women for other more interesting tasks; or audio-visual cassettes which will enable us to break away from the tyranny and the interminable boredom of modern television; or a cure for the common cold; or much cheaper and efficient ways of digging tunnels so that the surface of the earth could reoccupied by people instead of being overrun by machines; or really substantial cuts in costs of desalination rendering it possible to turn deserts into gardens. This list could easily extended.)

John Jewkes, Government and Technology, Third Wincott Memorial Lecture, 31st October 1972.

Well we have audio-visual cassettes now, and instead of typewriters that do not take dictation we have computers that still (in spite of the endless “computer that understands the human voice” inventions reported regularly since the 1960’s) have problems taking dictation. As for such things as cheap desalination (promised in California as long ago as 1956) we are still waiting – I would also mention nuclear fusion (we have been promised that since the early 1950’s).

The oft voiced claim that ours is the age of the most rapid technological development can certainly be contested.

15 comments to Techological development

  • Umm, ok. There’s the personal computer, the cell phone, the internet, vastly superior lithography techniques, vastly improved materials science, cures for various kinds of cancers, the eradication of small pox, more fuel efficient cars, improvements in the treatment of heart disease, organ transplants of various kinds, anti-retroviral drugs, effective allergy drugs with no drowsiness, a better understanding of diet and health, improved methods of agriculture, advances in food processing, supercomputers which can simulate a protein folding in a ribosome, the sequencing of the human genome, the sequencing of dozens of species’ genomes, and whatever else I’m not noticing. These were all created since that was written, and they were just what’s off the top of my head. Any of these might be life or society changing.

    From (say) 500 CE to 1400 CE how many technologies were developed in the western world of any importance?

    P.S. The calls for “a cure for the common cold” are sort of silly. “The” common cold is actually a wide array of viruses, many of which would be covered by getting a flu vaccination. New strains of influenza are springing up all the time, all over the world.

  • Lucas: 500 CE to 1400 CE

    What is CE?

  • Jacob

    Claiming that A, B or C hasn’t happened despite the predictions only proves that the predictions were wrong – which isn’t big news.
    Technology does advance at breakneck pace, as Lucas mentioned, but in unpredictable directions.

  • Say what you like, I think the real age of breakneck technological change was the nineteenth century.

    The difference between horse-drawn carriage and steam engine was more qualititative than the difference between a steam engine and some merely faster means of transport.

    As for the difference between any previous means of sending a message and the electric telegraph – no further improvement in communication short of a faster than light videophone from the pages of science fiction will ever equal that change.

    Other transformations:

    Photography… the dream of ages, to really see the past.

    From muzzle-loader to Mauser and Maxim,

    Non-anaesthetic, septic surgery to fully asceptic, painless surgery.

    The improvements in sanitation and public health tipped Western society right out of the “have loads of kids so some at least survive” model.

    In science, the theories of evolution, and electromagnetism and, uh, like, most of chemistry…

    And there was controlled flight by the end of the century.

  • David Gillies

    CE: Christian Era. Equivalent to AD.

    In terms of raw knowledge, science and technology is exponentially growing. Just look at the volume of research journals now as against fifty years ago.

    The 19th C. saw a large number of technological advances because that was the era in which we practically simultaneously got a handle on a seemingly very disparate array of technologies: metallurgy, electromagnetism, the germ theory atc. Then quantum mechanics ushered in a whole new class of technologies that would be impossible to explain to a Victorian scientist. Our next huge leaps are going to come from nanotechnology and bioengineering.

    We see technological change in hindsight. Having been in academia I can testify to the astonishing rapidity with which lab-scale experiments become commercial reality. I did some work in 1994-1997 on wireless LAN technologies. The technical challenges were formidable, yet we are now on the 3rd generation (802.11g) of such devices. Technology is so incremental that change is hidden. Ever heard of Cary Mullis? He invented the Polymerase Chain Reaction method of DNA amplification as recently as 1985 (and got a Nobel) but he’s hardly a household name. Yet in time his technique will prove to be among the most staggering breakthroughs of the last 500 years. The Human Genome Project would have been insuperably hard without it. We”ll look back at 1985 and say that was a huge leap, but at the time hardly anyone outside the field saw it for what it was. Who knows what great leap has been made this week?

    And don’t forget the little factoid we were told when I started my Physics degree in 1989: of all the scientists that have ever lived, 98% of them are still alive.

  • cydonia


    CE = Common Era
    BCE = Before the Common Era

    From a Google search:

    “For those not used to BCE and CE, they’re the same as BC and AD, except that AD properly goes before the year. AD stands for Anno Domini (Year of the Lord), which sticks in the craw of many people who know Latin but aren’t Christians. Besides, while the proper year for Jesus’ birth isn’t known with certainty, it is known that 1 CE (AD 1) is not it. Thus, a sense of historical accuracy provides another reason to abandon BC/AD in favour of BCE/CE.”


  • cydonia

    To be fair to the fusion folk, the technical progress has been amazing. I don’ have the figures at my fingertips but I recall reading that we have gone from being short of break-even by a factor of billion (or something like that) to being short by a factor of about 4, which isn’t far short of the rate of progress for microprocessors.

    I suspect the real problem for fusion is that no private company will touch it, after seeing what the Greens did to the fission industry.

  • “AD stands for Anno Domini (Year of the Lord), which sticks in the craw of many people who know Latin but aren’t Christians.”

    That’s a feature, not a bug.

  • I have written a relatively lengthy response here. Basically I agree with Natalie that the 19th century and perhaps the first few decades of the 20th was the greatest era of technological advance we have seen. The second half of the 20th century was something of a lull, due to the fact that many technologies had got so complex that human brains and analogue computers couldn’t really advance them further. However, the invention of the computer in general and the personal computer in particular changed the rules, but it is only in the very last few years that this has started to filter through in a big way.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    Technologies developed in the Middle Ages:
    Gunpowder. Rotating crops. Horse collars. Clocks. Waterwheels. Tacking against the wind. Cast iron. Brass. Knitting. Hay.

    BTW, what’s the Latin abbreviation for “Year of Their Lord”?

  • Yes, and at the end of the middle ages, peasants had a slightly better existence than they did at the start. It was still pretty damn bleak. Though advances in agriculture did allow an increase in the population, the value of human labor was actually decreased (a situation which was improved somewhat by the outbreaks of the black plague in the 14th century). That has changed since the industrial revolution, when the value of labor increased rapidly as people became much more productive. This lead to massive improvements in quality of life, driven in large part by technological innovations.

  • Why ‘common era’? As it is Christ’s putative birth date which is used as the reference point even for users of ‘CE’, there seems little point in airbrushing any reference to Christ out. As I have never even seen CE used before, I will be sticking with the traditional terms.


    Natalie: to take that a stage further, the largest leap in battlefield lethality in history was widespread adoption of the rifled musket (see Dupuy, Numbers, Prediction & War). He shows how not even using tactical nuclear weapons would cause a more dramatic jump in lethality than that which occured in the 19th Century.

  • David Crookes

    Natalie comments “As for the difference between any previous means of sending a message and the electric telegraph – no further improvement in communication short of a faster than light videophone from the pages of science fiction will ever equal that change.”

    Prior to the invention of electric telegraph, it was easy to send a 1 bit message at the speed of light, signalling with a flame or torch. This highlights the point that it is not the speed of signalling that matters but the bandwidth. So to determine the size of technical progress when comparing communications advances we need to look at the size of bandwidth increase. However, even this may not be enough. Scientists can announce the fastest known switch yet the economic cost of that switch can detract from the improvement in speed. One very expensive switch is useless compared to 1000, twice as slow but half the cost. So overall we need to add in cost to the equation, for example , in communications advances we would have some measure of cost per bit per second. Only then can we really judge how great the progress at various points in time have been

  • David: Prior to the invention of electric telegraph, it was easy to send a 1 bit message at the speed of light, signalling with a flame or torch. This highlights the point that it is not the speed of signalling that matters but the bandwidth.

    I think this rather misses the point that a heliograph or torch is line-on-sight communications system. Even relay towers had practicle limits imposed by geography and, most significently, weather. The telegraph is what brought us into the era of true global (near) real time communications. That was the true revolution and everything after was just an incremental improvement.

  • Dale Amon

    I believe most of you are stuck in the “bashing-macroscopic-bits-off-the-edges” technology view. The technological changes occuring now have passed outside of the range of direct human sensing and we are rapidly moving into the realm of “magic” ala AC Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic”.

    The speed of change from the inside is astounding and accelerating. At the start of my career, a product development cycle in electronics was about 24 months. It’s now more like 6 months and falling. The items we spent 2 years, millions of dollars and teams of engineers can now be emulated on your workstation at home by one smart teenager in a couple months.

    The thrust of this whole discussion is about as counter to the reality I have lived through in the heart of the revolution as it would be if someone earnestly told me “No one ever walked on the moon”. I’d laugh, because I know Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmidt, not to mention dozens of people who worked on Apollo.

    Contrary to this article, we are rapidly accelerating towards what is variously called “the singularity” or “the wall”, the point at which the rate of change and the product cycles reach time scales that are faster than current human abilities to follow.

    The technology of today is in the very small, but the capabilities it creates are very soon going to extend to “the ability to build any structure allowed by natural law”.

    The growth rates are simply astounding and awe inspiring already. I have *watched* the rates speed up; I have been aware and expecting this since the seventies and even more directly monitoring since I peer reviewed “Engines of Creation” in the early 80’s before publication.

    The circuits in your mobile phone, if built in 1950, would require the volume of the Washington Monument.

    ‘Nuff said?