CS 481 - Trends in Computer Science

Week 3: Some history, some humanity, and some assignments


This week we begin with a question and some history, discuss some thoughts about human interactions with technology, and make some observations that relate to the first major project for the class. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Evolution of technology
  2. Technology and human interaction
  3. Project requirements
  4. First project relevance

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.

Bust of ThalesThe list 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 it..

Thales 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, since Aristotle 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.

von Guerike's sphereIn 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.)

Leyden jar componentsThe 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?
Did Thales change the world by discovering static electricity? No, but he made it possible to consider a strange new force.
Did von Guerike change the world? No, but he made a device that could generate the still new force.
Did van Musschenbroek change the world? Well, he may have for the members of the French court who were shocked in the experiments, but not for people in general.
The world changing event took another hundred and more years for the development of a means to deliver electricity to homes and other locations, and the development of devices that would run on electricity. Those were world changing events because they involved the general public, and made them consumers of both electrical power and the devices that ran on it. That takes us to the time of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nicola Tesla.

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 know it.

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?