Technological Breakthroughs

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.

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16 thoughts on “Technological Breakthroughs”

  1. The vast majority of inventions happen because smaller elements of technology become available, materials have been improved, manufacturing processes and improved accuracy, etc… have enabled the new invention. Very often several inventors are fighting over getting patents on it. Should that not indicate it was actually obvious to those “skilled in the art” and not deserving of a patent?

    The justification for the patent system is that if inventors did not have patent protection (i.e. a monopoly on their invention) they would not invent anything. The way I see it, as an engineer/inventor/business owner, inventing is either in your blood or not, and if it is, your are going to invent things just like an artist is going to create art and mountain climbers are going to climb mountains.

    The patent system means consistently more money for lawyers, with an occasional inventor hitting the jackpot with about the same probability as winning the powerball. The “symbolic analysts” also needs to include business owners who are more parasitic than productive, in that they make their money by buying other businesses, reducing competition and increasing the cost of things without adding any value. I would not be so kind as to say they don’t realize that, rather that they are psychopaths (I think sociopath is just a euphemism).

    I worked at Seagate (the disc drive company) for 11 years, and all the hard drive companies had vast patent arsenals that were as useful as the ICBMs the USA and USSR aimed at each other during the cold war. A form of MAD. You had to have enough patents so if you were charged with infringement, you could counter sue the attacking party. A huge waste of resources, but forced on everyone by the patent system. The world would be a better place for everyone except the parasites if the patent system were abolished. The government is not capable or even willing to operate it as it should be, because issuing patents is a cash cow for the government.

    As Ringo Starr said, “Everything the government touches turns to crap”

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  2. Two big factors are: the left’s destruction of education in the US; and the US toleration of nearly every other country in the world engaging in mercantilist pillaging of US industry.

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  3. As Mark Steyn has written, a man from 1850 transported to 1950 would be utterly amazed at the world around him, but a man from 1950 transported to 2050 would ask where his flying car is? Humanity seems to have maxed out its innovative capability.

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  4. It’s difficult to identify what are ultimately regarded as “technological breakthroughs” when you’re looking at them from too close-up.  For example, few people thought the integrated circuit would be as consequential as it proved to be, not just when it was invented in 1958 and 1959, but even in the mid 1960s, when the first quantity-produced integrated circuits were seen as expensive curiosities useful only in aerospace applications where weight and volume considerations justified the cost.  Further, integrated circuits were (correctly) seen as an incremental improvement on fabricating one transistor on a chip of semiconductor, and only far-out visionaries spouted nonsense such as “if you can make two transistors at a time, why not a billion?”

    Trying to identify contemporary technological breakthroughs is similarly difficult, and in a globalised scientific and technological community, attempting to localise them to one particular railroad era continental-scale empire is harder still.  Then there’s the breakthroughs whose immediate consequences prove less than expected (although they may cast a long shadow in the future).  For example, consider genome sequencing, in particular the human genome, and the ability to rapidly and inexpensively sequence genomes, which has been increasing more rapidly than Moore’s law for two decades.  And yet, the revolutionary consequences so many (including I) envisioned when the Human Genome Project was launched in the 1980s have yet to be realised.

    Among recent technological innovations, two I’d keep an eye on are CRISPR gene editing (U.S. and French/German according to the Nobel Prize, plus Lithuanian based upon the Kavli Prize) and blockchain technology (only Satoshi knows, and he/she/it/them isn’t/aren’t talking).

    But what is important is that technological development is a feedback loop between innovation, product design and fabrication, and application and experience from customers.  The more tightly coupled this is, the faster and better the process works.  That’s why Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works put the engineering staff right next to the factory floor, and why so much of the innovation in composite aircraft construction which Boeing and Airbus eventually commercialised was done by Scaled Composites, where design, fabrication, and testing was done all in the same shop with continuous feedback and involvement of the customer.

    It is a fantasy to imagine that the U.S. or any other country will become an “idea factory”, generating intellectual property which will be manufactured by the toiling masses in Asia or elsewhere, all supported by ever-more-innovative financial instruments conceived by physicists manqués.  No, the innovation migrates to where the products are built and used, and that’s what we’re seeing today.  As David P. Goldman (“Spengler” from Asia Times) notes in You Will Be Assimilated,  “China now graduates more scientists and engineers than the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea combined, and six times as many as the United States alone.”

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  5. John Walker:
    But what is important is that technological development is a feedback loop between innovation, product design and fabrication, and application and experience from customers.

    I’ll take this quote from one of the most nutrient-dense comments in the history of Ratburger.

    Two historical US legal hindrances breaking the loop are: union rules separating engineering from manufacturing; and franchise laws separating engineering and manufacturing from the customer (particularly in the auto industry).

    For an anecdote on union rules, in college, I did an internship at a defense contractor. I principally was assigned to the resident engineering staff at a manufacturing facility revising engineering drawings. We were isolated in a small building. Almost the entire manufacturing facility was off-limits to engineers as were unionized sections of the engineering facilities.

    During the two-week summer shutdown of the manufacturing facility, I served as an assistant to an expediter. Through an informal arrangement this guy was allowed to bypass union rules and transport small urgent things (in his own car) between facilities (so that people did not have to wait days for a union trucker to get a couple of screws or a switch from one facility to another).

    One day, we were dropping something off at a union prototyping workshop in an engineering facility. The workers were puzzled as to why a part did not fit securely in a prototype test fixture. I looked at it and instantly realized that two  dimensions were reversed (e.g., the rise v. run of a stair). I looked at the fixture blueprint and confirmed that those two dimensions were reversed on the print. The engineers and draftsmen were less than 100 yards away…

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  6. The single greatest technological breakthrough of the past decade is growing trees with ester lignin.

    Trees can be up to some 30 wt-% lignin.  Cellulose is the useful white stuff, albeit not very survivable in the real world  Lignin is a brownish condensed aliphatic-aromatic network with all sorts of toxic, photosensitizing, and structural wonders.  Getting it out of wood to make white paper and such is an expensive, polluting, stinking slow mess that degrades the cellulose by chopping its molecular weight.  Drive downwind of a paper mill.

    Said ester lignin conifer grew like any other tree.  Fell it, grind it, pulp it, add some lye or ammonia to the slop.  The lignin saponifies or ammonolyzes, freeing clean virgin cellulose from what is now a chemical feedstock.  The entirety of Western civilization, toilet paper to copier feed (albeit much the same after use), would be liberated.

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2019.00912/full
    … DOI:10.3389/fpls.2019.00912
    … With pictures!

    Enviro-whiners descended upon the future with remedial evolution, ending monoculture Franken-trees.  Just try reading the thing!  Every paragraph is racial hegemony eructated from Belgies.

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  7. ctlaw:  “Two historical US legal hindrances breaking the loop are: union rules … and franchise laws.

    That is consistent with multiple analyses of the collapse of many prior civilizations.  Mancur Olson and Joseph Tainter have each laid out the case well in their books.  A small group of people (let’s call them a “guild”) put in place rules which protect their current advantages — at a cost to the rest of society.  Eventually, enough of these impediments boost overhead to the point where a society becomes unsustainable — and collapse is then inevitable.

    The vast expansion of government in the 20th Century has accelerated this apparently inevitable process.  The “symbolic analysts” in politics, bureaucracy, law, finance have prospered at the expense of society as a whole.  Unsustainable!, as the Usual Suspects would say.

    One random small example of how “symbolic analysts” have made life worse — as told to me some years ago by an unhappy electronics engineer.  A medical doctor had noticed an issue which is not discussed in polite company — one of the main causes of old people being shunted off to expensive care homes is incontinence.  Many families simply can’t look after granny due to the difficulties of dealing with incontinence.

    The doctor and the engineer devised a small electronic device which in the prototype attached to the elderly person’s ankle.  It gently stimulated a nerve which kept the sphincter muscles closed.  When the elderly person went to the toilet, she simply had to touch the device to allow nature to take its course.

    A cheap electronic device versus expensive, often-demeaning care home.  Keep granny with the family, with obvious benefits for grandchildren and working mothers.  But the idea went nowhere.  The bureaucratic hurdles preventing implementation were too high.

    I wonder how many other beneficial potential technological advances have been killed by our self-enriching Political Class of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers?

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  8. John Walker:
    patron demon of killer stairs.

    Note how they only addressed descending the stairs when doing a simulation of the long run/going of shallow stairs of the wealthy v. steeper stairs for others. My stair falls have been nearly entirely limited to falling when ascending fancy shallow stairs.

    These people clearly knew what they were doing because they then discussed the problems of ascending when a small rise stair intervenes.

    If there was a sudden sunblock shortage, these are the people who would spin a headline “… Persons of Color Hardest Hit”.

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  9. @John Walker

    But what is important is that technological development is a feedback loop between innovation, product design and fabrication, and application and experience from customers.  The more tightly coupled this is, the faster and better the process works.

    The second company I worked for was a US branch of a British control system company.  When It came time to expand, I was a (junior) member of the team to define requirements.  My immediate boss – PhD in Electronics from Cambridge – had one fixed rule:  no direct path from R&D to manufacturing.  I thought that was nuts, but lost the fight.  It seemed to me that a controls company of all places should understand the importance of keeping feedback loops short.

    I spent a lot of time sneaking over to manufacturing.

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  10. James Watt was a celebrated hero for respecting thermodynamics in revising the Newcomen steam engine.  Who celebrated the guy who invented piston rings?  Consider literal ball ammo versus the self-fitting Minié ball (and its rings!).

    Sometimes progress is about removing things, material and oversight.

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  11. Joe Conservative:
    Trade secrets —- aka know how is critical and needs to return to US!

    Very difficult to enforce, at least at the level of detail employees can keep in their heads. Thus, patents are critical in a world where employees can move from company to company.

    CA has tough limits on noncompete agreements. Thus, Tesla’s competitors are full of ex-Tesla employees using knowledge gained at Tesla. Tesla generally can’t stop that. Ex- employees are free to use generalized knowledge gained at the former employer and it is hard to prove when they used specific trade secret knowledge.

    However, Tesla does a very good job of monitoring employee computer use to check for bulk downloads before an employee departs for a competitor. Limits on noncompete agreements don’t allow departing employees to do that.

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