In the “Suckers-R-Us” thread, we wandered off into a discussion about technology. John Walker posed a thought-provoking question: “But what’s the last significant technological breakthrough you saw coming from the U.S.?”
Scratching my head about this, I came up with 3 examples:
(1) fracing for the production of oil and gas;
(2) carbon fiber construction for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner;
(3) SpaceX reusable rocket.
The interesting thing is that, consistent with what John pointed out, these are not really breakthrough technologies – they are extensions of concepts that have been around for years. Oil wells have been treated by fracturing since the 1940s. Carbon fiber dates back to Thomas Edison. Today’s amazing SpaceX reusable rockets are essentially repeating what the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) was doing in the early-mid 1990s. The “breakthrough” lies in implementation rather than in the idea.
It seems that if we look closely at the development of almost any technology, from the steam engine to the cell-phone, it is more analogous to watching the tide slowly come in rather than to watching a tsunami hit the shore. According to “The Idea Factory” by Jon Gertner (ISBN 978-0-14-312279-1), Bell Labs personnel had laid out how to accomplish cellular (mobile) telephony in 1947, but it took decades before the development of other technologies such as the computer chip made it possible to turn the idea into a reality.
Another thing we observe is how quickly technology can spread. Once Boeing had demonstrated that a carbon fiber aircraft was feasible, it did not take long for Airbus to launch the A350.
Our society (or at least our Political Class) is in the grip of a number of Bad Ideas – such as the CovidScam and Climate Change. We should probably add “Intellectual Property” to that list.
For example, consider the development of nuclear science. It happened in the US in the 1940s, but heavily depended on German, Italian, British scientists. Ideas know no boundaries. The key issue is — Where does the capability exist to turn ideas into reality? That place used to be the United States – as shown by the “Brain Drain” NASA attracted in its glory days in the 1960s, sucking in the smartest talent from around the world. But no longer. The places where ideas get turned into reality these days are China, Japan, Korea – witness the flat screen video display or 5G.
The US (and to a large extent the rest of the West) have become too enthralled by “symbolic analysts”, lawyers & bureaucrats who are excellent with words. They love concepts such as “Intellectual Property”, but don’t realize an idea has no value without the men & machines who can actually manufacture the item in question. All symbolic analysts have been able to achieve with their words is to regulate progress out of existence – or at least out of the country.