Today, we talk about computers and railroad tracks.
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.
I find myself drawn into
more and more arguments about computer systems
these days. For example, it's hard for IBM and
Macintosh owners to trade files -- to communicate
through their computers. That's because computers
have different operating systems. Choosing one over
another comes perilously close to choosing among
friends in the workplace.
Author Michael Gianturco tells about a problem like
that in England 150 years ago. A lot of railroad
track was already in place when the first steam
locomotives came along. 18th-century English miners
used horse-drawn trains to move coal out of mines.
Tradesmen used them to shuttle goods between
So the first steam locomotives rode on track that
was already in place. Tyneside Colliery tracks were
most common. They were 4 feet, 8½ inches
wide. Then Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the Great
Western Railway system in 1836, and he laid his
tracks seven feet
Rolling stock would get bigger, Brunel said. Future
trains would do better on wider tracks. It was a
good point, but he had an ulterior motive. He meant
to make people choose between his superior trains
and the competition.
What actually happened was that both the Great
Western line and the other lines kept right on
growing. Travelers had to keep changing trains
because tracks didn't match. By the end of the 19th
century, the English were fed up. They legislated
the narrower track into a legal standard. In the
end, the Great Western had to convert all its
Those problems dogged America as well. The fact
that Yankee and Confederate track didn't match
affected the outcome of the Civil War. Today, all
America uses the old Tyneside Colliery gage. It may
not not be optimal, but it's one we all agree on.
And that's what's really important.
Now the computer industry faces the same problems.
We're being divided not only by operating systems,
but by computer networks as well. Enormous
investments ride on systems that can't yet serve us
fully because they can't talk to each other.
Problems like this have grown worse since
technology began accelerating in the early 19th
century. We've decided between AC and DC, between
dirigibles and airplanes, and among typewriter
keyboard designs -- all in the heat of the
marketplace -- before the facts were in. We can't
avoid making decisions that way when technology is
vital and active. But we'll surely make wiser
choices when we understand what a volatile force
the marketplace is in a fast-moving technology.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds