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More than just engineering?

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 01/22/01            

I happened the other day across a very interesting TV program about life in the U.S. in 1900. During this PBS show, one of the commentators relayed a variation on the often quoted notion from a U.S. Patent Office director who said, in essence, that everything which could be invented had been.

It got me thinking and wondering if there actually has been something new in the technology world since 1900.

The description and transcript of the show, part of the often very good "American Experience" series, was titled "America 1900" and is online. It was advertised as being a "picture of what life was like in the United States at the turn of the century."

It covered a range of topics from the weather to politics. While it was interesting, the part that got me thinking was the following quote:

"The turn of the century, particularly in America, represented a period that will some day be compared to the Renaissance. Within a period of very short time, 15 to 20 years, most of the breakthroughs in technology occurred that now influence our lives so heavily. Everything since then has been engineering. . . . The telephone. ‘Hello? I'm talking to Chicago.' A miracle. But we take it for granted. You break through and record sound. It's gotten better, but everything since is simply engineering."

There is a reasonable argument that this is true for the examples the show examined. The automobile, the road system, airplanes, rockets, telephones and maybe even television all could be said to be "just" additional engineering on prototypes that existed around the turn of the last century. But there is at least one thing, and maybe two, that have been more than just engineering extensions to circa-1900 technology to get us to where we are today.

The maybe case is computers. Programmable computers of a sort did exist in 1900, but they were used for things like weaving cloth - not mathematical calculations. But I could be argued into either opinion on this.

The technology where I do not see any 1900-era roots is data networking, in particular computers talking to each other over data networks. Data networking is reshaping our lives at least as much as the automobile and airplane have done, and it's impossible to reliably predict what its future impact will be.

In a hundred years, on the holographic show "America 2000," will the same sort of statement about inventions be made? Is there something that will be more than "just engineering" advances over what we have now that will be around in 2100?

Or, modulo some tweaking, do we know what our future is? I believe there is more to invent.

Disclaimer: Harvard, which sees centuries as others see decades, has watched many pundits proclaim the end of thinking on many topics, but has not expressed a belief on this topic. I have.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at

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