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Talking Fast

- By Henry Petroski   

At a workshop on the future of engineering, which I recently attended, I was asked to give a "short 10-minute presentation describing how technology has influenced society in past civilizations." That's like being allocated a single magazine page for the same vast subject. So I decided to draft my talk in the form of this column, in the space of which I will repeat a couple of anecdotes, recall a few case studies, state some generalizations, and offer some caveats about predictions—all in 800 words.

One revealing story that has been making its way around the Internet of late has to do with the origins and effects of the seemingly arbitrary 4-foot, 8-1/2 inch standard railway gauge. It is believed to have followed from the width between wagon ruts in roads used by Roman chariots, whose width in turn was linked to that taken up by the war horses that pulled them. If wagons of all kinds did not follow the chariots' ruts, their wheels would be destroyed. So the ruts became deeper, and by the time the horse-drawn railroad came along, the standard gauge was inherent in the tools and templates of the wainwrights. Locomotives did not lead but followed the standard. A more rational broad gauge introduced by Isambard Kingdom Brunel on his Great Western Railway had to be converted to the standard to remain competitive. Even today, the size of the space shuttle's solid booster rockets is tied to the standard gauge, since the segments had to be transported by rail.

Precursors of the steam engine date from ancient times, when they were used for amusement and ceremony. In the early 18th century, Thomas Newcomen developed a reciprocating steam engine to pump water out of mines. Later in the century, James Watt improved the machine's efficiency and broadened its applicability by converting the reciprocal to rotary motion, which proved ideal for giving locomotion to boats and ships. The development of the steamboat made ocean travel more predictable than the winds, and scheduled passages became possible. Factories powered by stationary steam engines could be located away from sources of water and wind power, and so industrial settlement patterns were affected.

The exploitation of petroleum resources in the late 18th century eventually encouraged the development of the internal-combustion engine. Automobiles were seen as a solution to the environmental pollution problems of crowded cities, which had become overrun with horses and their by-products. A century later, the automobile itself had become the environmental culprit. Much of the history of technology is a history of successions, with a new era beginning with great promise and a mature one falling out of favor as its always-present flaws become magnified.

Historical analysis benefits from 20/20 hindsight. Only a half century ago IBM's Thomas Watson predicted that the worldwide market for the new digital computers was maybe five or six units. Few, if any, of my fellow engineering students in the early 1960s, when we were still solving problems with the slide rule, foresaw its virtual overnight and total replacement in the classroom and the design office just a decade hence by the handheld electronic calculator. Nor did we foresee the introduction of, only 20 years after our graduation, the personal computer. We certainly did not foresee the Internet launched just a decade after that.

Society does not embrace all technologies the way it has the computer. A facsimile transmission technology was in place in the mid-19th century, and photographs could be sent by wire in the early 20th. By 1940, newspapers were being sent over telephone lines, but the telephone company chose not to pursue fax technology. It was only with deregulation, the introduction of international standards, and a cultural motivation that in the 1970s the Japanese resolved to develop a digital technology that enabled the electronic facsimile transmission of their language's phonetic symbols and ideographic characters, which were not easily coded for transmission otherwise.

Social and cultural forces have as much to do with the future of technology as do advances in engineering, and predictions based on purely technical possibilities are risky indeed. Who would have predicted in the 1960s that supersonic passenger transport would essentially be limited to travel among three cities in the world? Who would have guessed, when nuclear power was expected to be "too cheap to meter," that today only 20 percent of America's electric power is nuclear generated, even in an environment polluted by fossil fuels whose supplies are threatened by political and economic forces largely beyond our control?

Perhaps 10 minutes is enough to make the case that technology and society influence each other. But which of those influences will prevail in any single situation may be as hard to predict as a roll of the dice.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of "Remaking the World" and other books on engineering, design, and society.

This column was prepared to be read at the Engineer of 2020 Visioning and Scenario—Development Workshop held at the J. Eric Woods Jonsson Center of the National Academies on September 3, 2002.