Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 734:
NEW TECHNOLOGIES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 734.

Today, you must choose a new technology. 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 October 1992 Discover Magazine lists 7 Technology Awards and 28 runners-up. They pose a question for you to answer. Which of these brand new technologies will you actually use? Which will you ignore? By the time this episode reaches reruns I might know what you've decided. Let's look at some of the ideas.

AT&T offers the first commercial videophone. That one worries me. Videophones have been the stuff of science fiction since Buck Rogers. And I wonder, do you really want to be on camera when you use the phone?

Besides, the picture's small. We'll need a lot more detail before we see the subtle cues that complete a face-to-face conversation. I'll bet this is slow to catch on. Try another:

Chemists at the Hoechst Celanese Company have a new process for recycling plastic bottles. Of course we've been recycling plastic bottles for a long time. We've been grinding them up to make mattress fillers and the like. We give the recycled plastic one more use. Then it winds up in landfills after all.

So far, we haven't been able to clean these polyesters enough to recast them. Now we can reduce old bottles to the pure raw material they were first made from. Nature cannot recycle these plastics. We can keep recycling them forever.

But will we take the problem seriously enough to use recycling programs? If we don't -- if we keep putting plastic in the trash -- this slick new process will do us no good at all.

There's more. Goodyear has a new tire with a large circumferential groove that divides the tread into two sections. The groove prevents hydroplaning on wet roads. Conventional tires can slip over wet pavement like surfboards. This tire funnels water into the groove and spits it out the back.

The Bellcore Company gets an award for inventing a foolproof way to stamp the time on a computer document. You don't leave handwriting or fingerprints on a computer file. What you do leave is the time you close it. The date on a file can have as much legal significance as its authorship. Now you can't fake it. This could be the most used invention of them all.

So we reflect on these 35 new inventions. Each one has made it past the idea stage, past the patent stage, past the development stage, all the way into production. For each product there are a hundred more ideas lying on the cutting room floor.

Will one or three or six of these become a part of our fabric as a people? That's your decision. In the long run, that's something only you will tell me.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. Discover, October 1992, pp. 37-54, (no authors are listed.)


THE AWARDS
WINNERS
RUNNERS UP

Goodyear: New Tire GM: Ultralite car Honda Civic: VTEC-E Engine Noise Cancelation Tech.: Car Muffler Volvo: Side Impact Proctection
TRW: Compton Gamma Ray Observatory Allied-Signal: Wind Shear Detection Device Logicon: Air Traff. Contr. Training System McDonnell Douglas: NOTAR Helicopter Stanford Univ.: Swift Sailplane
Compression Labs: Videophone Apple Computer: Macintosh PowerBook computers HP: Palmtop PC Momenta: Notebook Computer Sony: Data Discman Book Player.
Bellcore: Time Stamping System ARC: Astronomy Software CAChe Scientific: Computeraided Chemistry Group Tech.: Document Conference Software Ind. Light & Magic: Cinematic Effects
Hoechst Celanese: Plastic Recycling Alpha: Environmental Oil Spill Cleanup System Mazda: Hydrogen Powered Vehicle Mobil Oil: Biodegradable Hydraulic Oil N.Y. Zoological Soc.: Bird Egg Incubator
Phillip Consumer Electronics: CD-Interactive TV Eastman Kodak: Digital Camera System JPL: 3-D videos of Remote Sensing Data Nikon: Underwater 35mm Camera System Optical Shields: Varilite Vision Panels
Sony: Recordable Portable Compact Disc Inf. Stor. Devices: Dir. Analog Stor. Chip Madrigal Audio Labs: CD Library system Magnovox: Satellite Telephone MIT Media Lab: Musical Hyperinstruments



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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