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Posts Tagged ‘history of technology

“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.”*…

From the Wright Brothers’ patent filings (source)

… It’s illuminating to point out that all three transformative technologies of the twentieth century – aviation, the automobile, and the digital computer – started off in patent battles and required a voluntary suspension of hostilities (a collective decision to ignore patents) before the technology could truly take hold.

The Wright brothers won every patent case they fought, and it did them absolutely no good. The prospect of a fortune wasn’t what motivated them to build an airplane, but ironically enough they could have made a fortune had they just passed on the litigation. In 1905, the Wrights were five years ahead of any potential competitor, and posessed a priceless body of practical knowledge. Their trade secrets and accumulated experience alone would have made them the leaders in the field, especially if they had teamed up with Curtiss. Instead, they got to watch heavily government-subsidized programs in Europe take the technical lead in airplane design as American aviation stagnated.

If you are someone who believes that the Internet and computer software are a transformative technology on a par with aviation, you may find it interesting to note that there is now a patent cease-fire in effect in the world of software, the occasional high-profile infringement case notwithstanding. The reason for the cease-fire is simple: if companies like IBM, Xerox, and Sun were to begin fully enforcing their patent portfolios, it would mean an apocalypse of litigation for all software developers. Everyone understands that the health and growth of the Internet are contingent on ignoring the patent system as much as possible.

At the same time, more patents are being granted than ever before, for broader claims, and with an almost complete disregard for prior art. Entire companies – and not just legal firms – are basing business models on extracting money from the patent system without actually creating any products. And the boundaries of patent law are expanding. For the first time in history, it’s possible to patent pure mathematical ideas (in the form of software patents), or even biological entities. The SARS virus was patented shortly after being isolated for the first time.

But if the patent system doesn’t even work for the archetypal example – two inventors, working alone, who singlehandedly invent a major new technology – why do we keep it at all? Who really benefits, and who pays?…

Learning from (the unhappy experiences of) the Wright Brothers– Maciej Cegłowski explains why the U.S. patent system is counter-productive: “100 Years of Turbulence.” Eminently worthy of reading in full.

See also, Bruce Perens: “Software Patents vs. Free Software.”

* Bill Gates, Challenges and Strategy Memo, Microsoft, May 16, 1991


As we apply our intellects to intellectual property, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne signed a partnership agreement that established the company that would become Apple Computer, Inc.– a company all about the IP– on January 3, 1977.

Wayne left the partnership eleven days later, relinquishing his ten percent share for $2,300.

Apple in Steve Job’s parents’ home on Crist Drive in Los Altos, California. Although it is widely believed that the company was founded in the house’s garage, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak called it “a bit of a myth”. Jobs and Wozniak did, however, move some operations to the garage when the bedroom became too crowded.


“The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return to us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood”*…

Nokia was dominant in mobile phone sales from 1998 to around 2010. Nokia’s slogan: Connecting people.

It was amazing to connect with people in the late 90s/early 2000s. I don’t think we were lonely exactly. But maybe meeting people was somewhere between an opportunity, something novel, and, yes, a need – suddenly it was possible to find the right person, or the right community.

So, the zeitgeist of the early 2000s.

I ran across a previous zeitgeist in an article about Choose Your Own Adventure books. They appeared and became massively popular at the same time as text adventure computer games, but neither inspired the invention of the other. How? The real answer may lie far deeper in the cultural subconscious … in the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

1980s: you.

2000s: connection.

2020s: ?

Zeitgeists don’t lead and zeitgeists don’t follow.

I think when we spot some kind of macro trend in establishment consumer ads, it’s never going to be about presenting people with something entirely new. To resonate, it has to be familiar – the trajectory that the consumer is already on – but it also has to scratch an itch. The brand wants to be a helpful fellow traveller, if you like.

I wonder what the zeitgeist of the 2020s will be, or is already maybe. What deep human need will be simultaneously a comfort and an aspiration? There should be hints of it in popular culture already. (If I knew how to put my finger on it, I’d be an ad planner.)

If I had to guess then it would be something about belonging.

There was a hint of this in Reddit’s 5 second Super Bowl commercial which went hard on one their communities, r/WallStreetBets, ganging up to bring down hedge funds. Then we’ve got a couple of generations now who grew up with the idea of fandoms, and of course conspiracy theories like QAnon too. If you squint, you can kind of see this in the way Tesla operates: it’s a consumer brand but it’s also a passionate, combative cause.

Belonging to a tribe is about identity and strength, it’s solace and empowerment all at once. And also knowledge, certainty, and trust in an era of complexity, disinfo, and hidden agendas.

Given that backdrop, it’s maybe unsurprising that the trend in software is towards Discord servers and other virtual private neighbourhoods. But how else will this appear? And is it just the beginnings of something else, something bigger?

1980s (you), 2000s (connection). What’s the 2020s zeitgeist?” From Matt Webb (@genmon)

* Marshall McLuhan


As we double down on diversity, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider; he was born on this date in 1015. Better known as “J.C,R.” or “Lick,” he was a prominent figure in the development of computing and computer science. He was especially impactful Considered the “Johnny Appleseed” of computing, he planted many of the seeds of computing in the digital age– escpecially via his idea of a universal computer network to easily transfer and retrieve information which his successors developed into the internet.

Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC‘s Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation‘s Systems Research Center, noted that “most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick’s vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all.”


“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”*…


FL covid


Data visualizations that make no sense...




work from home

More at “WTF Visualizations.”

* Mark Twain


As we celebrate clarity, we might spare a thought for the mathematician, biologist, historian of science, literary critic, poet, and inventor Jacob Bronowski; he died on this date in 1974.  Bronowski is probably best remembered as the writer (and host) of the epochal 1973 BBC television documentary series (and accompanying book), The Ascent of Man (the title of which was a play on the title of Darwin’s second book on evolution, The Descent of Man)… the thirteen-part series, a survey of the history of science–  from rock tools to relativity– and its place in civilizations, is still an extraordinary treat.  It’s available at libraries, on DVD, or (occasionally) on streaming services.




“Earth laughs in flowers”*…


The promise of gold, oil and king crab has lured fortune seekers to Alaska for decades. But Alaska’s newest profit-making industry stems from a most unusual source: flowers. Specifically, peonies — the kind that people will delay weddings over.

To date, over 100,000 roots have been planted in the state, and because peonies take years to mature, the industry is poised for steep growth. The projected harvest in 2017 is over 1 million stems, which could bring in somewhere between $4 to $5 million in sales. Still, this is a drop in the bucket compared to worldwide peony sales — Holland alone can sell over 30 million stems in a single month. But the northernmost state in the U.S. has one advantage over all other markets.

Alaska, it turns out, is one of the few places on Earth where peonies bloom in July…

A blooming bonanza, or another Tulip Mania in the making?  Find out at “From Fish to Flowers– Is Peony Farming Alaska’s Next Gold Rush?

* Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Hamatreya


As we take our pick, we might send pleasantly-cool birthday greetings to John Gorrie; he was born on this date in 1803.  As a young physician, Gorrie found himself in Apalachicola, Florida, where he cared for folks suffering from malaria.  Noting that people in colder climes rarely got the disease, he (illogically, but correctly) concluded that ice– more generally, cold– would help treat his patients’ fever.  He first suspended ice in basins above his patients to cool the air around them.  Later, he built a small steam engine to drive a piston in a cylinder immersed in brine.  The piston first compressed the air, and then on the second stroke, when the air expanded, it drew heat from the brine.  The chilled brine was used to cool air or make ice.  He was granted the first U.S. Patent for mechanical refrigeration (No. 8080) on  May 1851.  Dr. Gorrie’s statue stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.



Written by LW

October 3, 2014 at 1:01 am

“If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners”*…


Edward R. Murrow


There’s no denying that newspapers are in jeopardy; emerging electronic media have eaten away at both their audiences and their advertising revenue.  But lest we count them altogether out, we might remind ourselves that folks have been predicting their demise for decades.

From the March 1922 issue of Radio News magazine:

Seated comfortably in the club car of the Twenty-first Century Flyer — fast airplane service between London and New York — the president of the Ultra National Bank removes a small rubber disk from his vest pocket and places it over his ear. A moment hence, he will receive by radiophone the financial news of the world. Simultaneously, millions of other people all over the globe will receive the message. At designated hours, news of a general character will also be received.

The broadcasting of news by radiophone had long displaced the daily newspaper, and…

Don’t scoff! The day may be nearer than you suspect. In Hungary, a wire “telephone newspaper” has been successfully conducted for more than 25 years. For nearly a year, financial news direct from the Amsterdam Bourse has been broadcasted by radiophone to 200 banks and brokerage firms in Holland. And within a few months the German Government has installed near Berlin a wireless telephone station for the broadcasting of general news on a regular daily schedule throughout the entire country.

More on the premature reports of the death of the newspaper at “1922: Radio Will Kill the Newspaper Star.” (See also “The Newspaper of Tomorrow: 11 Predictions from Yesteryear.”

* Johnny Carson


As we strap on our jet-packs, we might recall that it was on this date two years earlier, in 1920, that Scientific American got a forecast powerfully right; in an issue cover-dated the following day, it made then-bold prediction that radio would be come an important medium for delivering music.

It has been well known for some years that by placing a form of telephone transmitter in a concert hall or at any point where music is being played the sound may be carried over telephone wires to an ordinary telephone receiver at a distant point, thus enabling those several miles away to listen to the music. Such systems have been in use in London between a number of the theaters and hotels for many years, but it is only recently that a method of transmitting music by radio has been found possible.

It has now been discovered that music can be transmitted by wireless in the same manner as speech or code signals and as a result of research work on radio telephony at the Bureau of Standards it has been proven that music sent by this means does not lose its quality. It is, therefore, obvious that music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air through an ordinary radio transmitting set and received at any other place, even though hundreds of miles away. The music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus. The result is perhaps not so very different from that secured by means of the ordinary telephone apparatus above mentioned, but the system is far simpler and does not require the use of any intermediate circuit. The entire feasibility of centralized concerts has been demonstrated and in fact such concerts are now being sent out by a number of persons and institutions. Experimental concerts are at present being conducted every Friday evening from 8:30 to 11:00 by the Radio Laboratory of the Bureau of Standards. The wave length used is 500 meters. This music can be heard by any one in the territory near the District of Columbia having a simple amateur receiving outfit. The possibilities of such centralized radio concerts are great and extremely interesting. One simple means of producing music for radio transmission is to play a phonograph into the radio transmitter. An interesting improvement upon this method is being utilized in the experiments at the Bureau. The carbon microphone, which is the mouthpiece of an ordinary telephone, is mounted on the phonograph in place of the usual vibrating diaphragm. As a result the phonograph record produces direct variations of electric current in the telephone apparatus instead of producing sound; thus while the music is not audible at the place where the phonograph record is being played, it is distinctly heard at the different receiving stations.






Written by LW

October 1, 2014 at 1:01 am

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