It probably seems strange to younger people but, when I was born, motor vehicles and aircraft were comparatively new fangled. The first ever powered flight of a heavier than air craft took place a dozen years before my mother was born. Telephones, radios and gramophones were also in their infancy. Outside of large towns and cities, many homes were still without electricity.
In the decade before my birth men split the atom, thereby creating the possibility of unleashing an endless supply of cheap energy – one of many predictions that fell well wide of the mark. The same technology also offered the possibility of terrible destruction, a fact used to devastating effect, when I was just 3 years old, to end a brutal war in the far east. Throughout my childhood and teenage years Britain, the USA, France and Russia regularly carried out tests of increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. There was a popular myth at the time that this was a cause of some unusually wet summers.
Meanwhile someone had invented the jet engine which held out the promise of fast, safe air travel, a prediction which has certainly come true. Although at first it looked as if the idea was doomed.
Examples of the first jet airliner, the De Haviland Comet, began crashing in mysterious circumstances. The engineers who investigated these crashes discovered a phenomenon they called meetal fatigue. This is a process by which constant vibrations weaken metal until it fractures catastrophically. There is a very low tech way of demonstrating this: take a paper clip and bend it backwards and forwards. You will soon see the metal surface change, the wire from which it is made thins and, eventually, breaks. That is what happens to the metal in the wings of an aeroplane, in the engine mounts or in the brackets securing everything inside the aircraft – seats, baggage racks, you name it. Aircraft manufacturers test all of those components to destruction in order to determine their safe life. Design details might be changed depending on the results of such tests. Vulnerable components are monitored, either continuously by electronic means or visually by regular inspections.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There were many other important technological developments during my childhood and youth. By the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when I was 11, many British homes had televisions – that event boosted sales for the manufacturers, supliers and installers of such devices. Soon after, transistors replaced valves in radios, making them smaller.
Everywhere records were being broken: speed, distance and duration on land, on the sea, and in the air. All thanks to what were, then, the latest technological developments. By the time I was 15 a man had orbited the earth in space. By the time I was working, the British Prime Minister of the day was talking about ‘the white heat of technology’. I was 27 when Buzz Aldrin and co set foot on the moon.
In parallel with all these mechanical and electrical advances, medicine too was discovering new ways to diagnose, cure and/or prevent diseases. Vaccines for previously fatal conditions which were also highly infectious such as diphtheria, smallpox, polio and tuberculosis rendered such diseases rare or non-existant. About the time of that moon landing, a surgeon in South Africa carried out the first successful heart transplant. Now such operations, involving many other organs and, even, limbs, not just hearts, are common place, limited only by the availability of compatable donors.
Today it is not aways necessary for a surgeon to open you up in order to carry out his work. For many problems he can do it using a miniature camera and a tiny grapple, each on the end of a wire inserted through a small hole. The creation of such devices is the result of technological advances that would have been inconceivable a couple of decades ago.
My first job was with a manufacturer of aircraft components – that’s where I first learned that stuff about metal fatigue. My next job, in the mid-1960s, was with a company that manufactured and installed air conditioning for computer rooms. Given the computing power of a 21st century hand-held smart phone it probably sounds odd to think that a mere fifty years ago computers occupied a whole room. They mostly still operated using valves. Data was stored on magnetic tape. Between the valves and the tape drives a great deal of heat was generated. That heat had to be extracted from the room, creating a market for refrigeration specialists like the firm I worked for.
Throughout the 1970s I worked on projects in all manner of manufacturing situation where the aim was to reduce the amount of human involvement by using technology to measure, adjust, and check all aspects of the quality of whatever product was being created. By the 1980s it became obvious to many people that such technology, whilst enabling manufaturers to make more of whatever it was they made at a lower cost than ever, was destroying more jobs than it created.
Now technology began to be developed in order to enable people to fill their increased leisure hours. Colour televisions had begun to appear in the late 1960s. Soon the number of channels available to viw increased, along with the number of hours over which programmes were transmitted. More technology enabled wider, flatter screens. Boxes were made available that you could connect to your TV set and, by manipulating a joy stick, you could make a white blob bounce from one side of the screen to another in a primitive form of tennis. Soon, slightly more complex versions of this game, and others, began to appear in pubs and arcades. Improved boxes for home use were offered whereby you could race virtual vehicles on your TV screen.
The technology for recording and playing back audio and video moved from vinyl disc to wide tape, then narrow tape, then back to disc – this time a coated plastic disc that could be read by a beam of concentrated light called a laser. And soon, that, too, became obsolete, replaced by tiny chips of silicon. Suddenly it is all way beyond my ability to understand.
The technology of communication has made similarly inconceivable advances. Once upon a time you had to have an aerial mounted on the chimney of your house to receive a television signal. Now you can watch movies on your mobile phone. Once, you had to dial a number in order to talk to someone on the phone. Now you just have to touch their name on the screen of your mobile. With some services you can see them as you speak to them. You used to have to wait days for a letter to be delivered. Now you can send it from your computer – or phone – to your friend’s device instantly. At least, you can when it works! Even the most up to date technology frequently fails to live up to its promise.
There are advances which we all welcome with open arms; and then there are the ones which some people find worrying. And I’m not only talking about weapons that enable the delivery of bombs and missiles by remote control so that the operator never sees the person he’s killing. Or the medicine developed in the early 1960s to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women that it turned out could damage foetuses, so that children were born with missing, or partially formed, limbs.
Technology has been used throughout the ages to increase food production through the evolution of stronger, more disease resistant strains, and through the creation of chemicals toxic to pests.
The excess use of these often produces unexpected and undesirable consequences. Who remembers something called DDT? An insecticide banned decades ago because of its harmful effects. Or ‘Agent Orange’, used to defoliate jungles in order to limit the ability of an enemy to hide. That, or variants of it, is still used as weed-killer today. Good technolgy or bad? The same goes for the use of hormones and antibiotics to maintain animal health and alter the ratio of muscle to fat in meat produced to meet human dietary needs and preferences. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics causes the evolution of resistant strains which limit our ability to successfully treat diseases. What if such things enter the food chain, directly through food produced using such substances, or indirectly through polution of the water supply. And then there’s the vexed issue of genetically modified crops and animals.
Where next? We already have glasses (or goggles) through which you can experience 3D movies in surround sound with zero distraction. We have vehicles that can detect and react to a hazard faster than the driver. Ground and airborn delivery vehicles that can navigate from the store to you without a driver. The former CEO of Barclays was on TV recently explaining how it is possible that within twenty years banks will have been superceded by new businesses based on something called ‘Fintech’. Which I gather is a way of describing the kind of internet based service that enables me to use some of my savings to make person to person loans to small businesses, or to allow writers, artists and musicians to raise funding for creative projects.
That’s only a small part of what the internet can do. It enables people to make their ideas, good and bad, known to other like minded individuals the world over. It enables anyone to see, free of charge, the kind of extreme pornography that was once only available in the darkest, seediest corners of our cities and then only at a high price.
If there is a need – and a possibility to make money from sales – then it is inevitable someone will find a way of developing a device, a substance or a piece of software to meet that need.
Technology can heal or kill, educate or subvert minds, save lives or destroy them. In the final analysis it is up to us, the users, to support and encourage those who use their ingenuity to come up with beneficial uses, whilst doing everything in our power to restrain those with evil intent.
Previous articles by Frank:
(Note: I am not the only author with this name so only the books shown here are mine!)