Today, we trace a revolution in the money we spend.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The 80th-birthday edition of
Forbes magazine shows how the
20th-century technological revolution is written in
our changing economy. It tracks the way we've spent
money from 1917 to 1997.
Perhaps the most telling graph in this thick
magazine is one that compares energy consumption
with our use of RAM computer memory. Our per-capita
energy consumption is about two-and-a-half times as
high as it was 80 years ago. That's a lot, but the
good news is: it leveled off twenty years ago.
RAM memory is another matter. It's been almost
doubling every year, starting 30 years ago, and it
shows no sign of slowing down. Today, the average
person in America owns ten megabytes of RAM. Next
year that average will go to 17 megs.
Another article, titled Steel Versus Silicon, shows
the assets of America's top 100 corporations. Our
top three companies in 1917 were US Steel, Standard
Oil, and Bethlehem Steel.
Today the top companies begin with General
Electric. Coca-Cola is second. US Steel is still
there, but now it's number three. While half the
net worth of top companies was in oil and steel in
1917, only a twelfth of it is there today.
Microsoft is now number four and Intel is fifth.
One seventh of the top companies have made
electronics, office equipment and software during
the last 30 years. But those companies have
changed. Most of the big computer makers from the
'60s are off the list now, and newcomers Microsoft
and Intel are far ahead.
Beverages and tobacco have risen from two percent
of the top companies in 1917 to almost nine percent
today. Coca-Cola and Phillip Morris now rank second
and sixth. We spend less on cars or aerospace than
we once did. As for that huge growth in RAM memory:
it represents neither big bucks nor American
manufacture. What those foreign-made chips do is
accommodate fancier software and faster Web access.
They make us hunger for fancier microprocessors.
Another article tells how the Web is replacing
travel agents, stockbrokers, and bank tellers. The
Web will be our new medium of business commerce.
Like commercial radio, we'll probably end up paying
for Web use by reading all the new commercial
So to see where technology and society are going we
follow the money. America's heart is no longer
being made of steel. It's being reshaped by
information access, and that leaves us nervous.
We're left wondering if we're letting our world
slip into some kind of immateriality. A Compaq
Company ad faces the "Steel Versus Silicon"
article. The text, written over a dreamy sunlit
forest, says, "They say computers make the world a
better place. We kind of like the world the way it
is." It's a computer-maker who feels obliged to
remind us there's still a real world out there --
made not just of steel but of sky and trees as
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds