We have already considered one of the major questions this course requires you to answer. How does technology evolve, and what are the drivers of that evolution? We have considered the idea that technology does not necessarily progress by itself. Perhaps philosophy progresses that way, which may explain the success of the writings of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. We know those gentlemen for their thoughts, but not for their inventions. Technology requires that its inventor give us something to do with a new or improved idea. It requires that there be an application of the idea. In the material I presented in the first week, there was a list of inventors and inventions. Let's consider one of them.
that my link led to states that Thales
of Miletus discovered static electricity around 600 BCE. This
discovery was probably made many times by many individuals, so I am not
claiming that he was the first or only person to make this discovery,
but he is documented as having done it, so let's consider his case. He
noticed that if you rubbed amber with animal fur, it could attract hair
to it. You may have done the same thing with various materials. If he
made this discovery, why don't we learn about him in grade school, and
why did we wait hundreds of years for anyone to do something with
electricity? We had to wait for someone to either recognize that
electricity had a use, or to create a technology that could produce
is mentioned on this web site as well, but scroll down a bit and look
at the entry for Otto von Guerike.
You may not be familiar with von Guerike, but you will be interested in
his inventions. He is probably best known for his invention of a pump
to create a vacuum inside a chamber. It worked best when the chamber
was a sphere, and he famously demonstrated that a sphere, constructed
of two hemispherical sections, could not be pulled apart by two horses
once he created a vacuum inside the object. That was pretty special,
had implied that you couldn't create a vacuum. Von Guerike did, which
led to others inventing uses for a vacuum. It is also interesting to
note that von Guerike used valves in his device that were taken from a
fire extinguisher. He devised a new use for existing technology that
led to his creation of a new technology. He deserves a place in our
discussion for that alone, but he did something else that relates to
the theme for this lesson.
In the instance that relates
to this discussion, von Guerike
thought he was conducting an experiment about gravity, but instead
created a device that used a sphere made of sulphur that had a rather
different property. It glowed in the dark, and sent a spark to his
outstretched hand. It generated static electricity. It only took 22
centuries from Thales to reach that point. Not exactly a quantum leap,
was it? The thing that distinguishes von
Guerike's device for our purposes is that it was a static
electricity generating machine, and that it inspired more
experimentation by others who could create similar machines. (The
device was probably not as large as the period illustration on the
right depicts. Assume it was done with some artistic license.)
The repeatable demonstration still needed a correct theory about why the thing happened, but that was going to be developed once experimenters were interested in the event and they could see it whenever they wanted to do so. There was still not much general interest in electricity until the time of the invention of the Leyden jar by Pieter van Musschenbroek, about a hundred and fifty years later, which led to demonstrations for the King of France, during which electricity was generated and passed through a crowd of dozens of courtiers. Electrically shocking yourself is one thing, but shocking a crowd of your friends is much more entertaining. And that leads to another concept: it must be possible to build the invention, but that invention must also capture the imagination of experimenters or the public to progress to the next stage, becoming something that is marketable. The uses of a more fully developed Leyden jar may be clearer to you if I explain that a Leyden jar is actually an early form of a capacitor, an electrical component that can store and release an electric charge. The concept is used in lots of electric devices, but it may interest you more to know that without capacitors, we would not have touch screens.
Now, does it sound important? How about the concept of wiring several
Leyden jars in a circuit that provided more power than one jar alone?
Benjamin Franklin was the first to use a particular word for that kind
of array of Leyden jars. He called it a battery.
That leads us to a concept that may require some speculation on our part.
What is it about a development that leads us to make something that uses
the science we learned from that development? What must be true about
the situation we are in that leads us to a world changing technology?
I have skipped a few steps, which were quite interesting to the people involved in them. The point I am moving toward is not
that the evolution of a technology is slow, or boring, or unimportant.
Each step forward is important. My point is that there is a difference
between other steps and the one that takes us into a world where the
technology affects most or all of us. The Internet, for example, has
been around since the 1960s. Did it affect many people at that time?
No, not at all. It took the proliferation of personal computers and
access to Internet Service Providers to make the Internet what it has
become, and to make us what we have become. It takes an event that
touches people to make a difference to them. It takes an event that
causes people to have a meaningful interaction with the technology, and
that is the major point of this lesson. A technology may be innovative,
ground breaking, and revolutionary, but if it is important only to a
select few, it does not have the quality we are searching for. It has
to be something that touches most of a market, most of a population, or
most of the world to be the kind of innovation that changes life as we
So, this week we are considering whether a technology has an important
interaction with people. What is it about the evolution
of this technology that changed the lives of the people it touched?
You need to answer those questions for the mid-term project, as well as
the others you have been assigned. What did your technology do that changed
the world for someone?