Today, technologies that last only a little while.
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.
A member of a discussion
group recently raised a fascinating question. He
asked about technologies that live only a short
while, but which seize the public's imagination.
The Pony Express went into service in April 1860
and served until October of the following year.
Riders covered over 1800 miles from St. Joseph to
Sacramento in ten days. It took only 18 months for
that flash-in-the-pan, action-based, derring-do
technology to be overtaken
by the telegraph. But it has riveted our
attention ever since.
Look around, and you'll see that that's a familiar
scenario. The noble Clipper Ship was the Pony
Express of the high seas. In 1843, Chinese teas
emerged as lucrative trade goods. Huge profits were
to be turned by getting tea to New York quickly.
The Clipper Ship was a new kind of vessel. It was
fast, but it could haul only a light cargo. For
twelve years Clipper Ships coined money. Then the
tea boom ended, and so did an epoch of marine
Who among us has visited San Francisco without, at
least once, riding her famed cable cars? In 1873,
San Francisco replaced horses as the power source
for her public buses with a long,
continuously-moving, steam-engine-driven cable. The
system was an immediate popular success. Other
cities copied it. But public electric supply
systems became available a decade later. By 1890
electric trolleys had wiped out cable cars. The San
Francisco system survives, but only as an
drives are another American icon. But such a
rudimentary technology of getting meat to packing
houses couldn't last. After ten years, railroads
and cattle cars arrived
to serve the newly-settled West. And that was that!
The medieval scriptorium, with monks lined up on
rows of copy stands: That's a technology we might
imagine went quietly on for hundreds of years. It
didn't. Scriptoria arose in the late 1100s as a new
high-production scheme for making books. By 1250
commercial scribes saw how profitable that was.
They turned it into a cottage industry and took the
trade away from monasteries.
So what, in our own lifetimes, will be the flash in
the pan that makes tomorrow's romance? We cannot
know, of course. But we can speculate. Maybe it'll
be our space program:
The three-stage chemically-fueled rocket is a
terribly expensive and impractical hurdle. We'll
have to overcome it to make interplanetary travel
routine. I expect we'll have radically better
propulsion systems by the early 21st century. And
our flame-drenched rocket
launches will become yet another romantic icon.
I can imagine 24th-century children being raised on
stories of our first fiery steps away from Earth.
How surprised those children will be when they grow
up to find those old rockets were only a sixty-year
blip in the great space adventure.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds