Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Been to Utopia and Dystopia, and I prefer…

Judging from recent literature, the future looks bleak. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Delirium, Matched, Legend, and others paint visions of worlds much worse than our own.

Without question, these books sell well. Some have become movies. We readers have a fascination with dismal futures, possibly because:

  • They make our own present seem better by comparison;
  • We like to imagine the end result of current downward trends;
  • The character’s stakes are high, the conflicts larger than life;
  • We identify with being a victim of society;
  • It’s inspiring to read about characters making the best of things in the worst of places; or
  • Millennials, raised in the shadow of 9-11, actually believe their future will be worse than their present.

city-654849_960_720From the writer’s point of view, dystopias have this advantage—at least one of the book’s conflicts is baked in from the start. There will be some sort of man vs. society conflict going on. Whatever other conflicts are present, you’ll find a struggle between the individual and the state. By contrast, in utopias, conflict is harder to come by.

For this post, I’ll define utopian literature to refer to fiction set in a future world that’s better and more technologically advanced than our own, but is not necessarily a perfect world. Dystopian literature is fiction set in a future world worse than our own (with either more advanced or less advanced technology), it’s but not necessarily a completely hellish world.

spaceship-499131_960_720Utopian literature doesn’t seem to be selling as well as its dystopian opposite. Such books once rocketed off shelves. Almost all science fiction written in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s assumed society and technology would advance and life in general would improve.

Such utopian books didn’t portray perfect futures. The characters suffered from problems and challenges as dire as those in any novel. After all, if someone traveled to our present from almost any period in the past, they’d view our modern era as utopian, thanks to our long life spans, medical advancements, reasonably plentiful food, and readily available technology. We look around us and see no end of problems, but in the eyes of our ancestors, we all inhabit Utopia.

Does the prevailing literary mood reflect society’s predominant attitude toward technology? In the 1940-1970 period, could it be that the Space Race, combined with the baby boom (which produced a huge number of youthful readers), result in a yearning for optimistic literature?

Might it be that today’s readers no longer hold a positive view of technology? Has the rise of terrorism, increasing surveillance, climate change, cybercrime, and a fear of artificial intelligence biased the current book-buying public against science?

Possibly, but Baby Boomers had “bad” technology, too—namely, the Bomb. And Millennials have plenty to be optimistic about, such as driverless cars, household robots, 3D printing, hyperloops, missions to Mars, etc.

If each generation knew both good and bad technology, then why would they hold such different attitudes toward it? Or is it something besides a prevailing view of science?

Could it be all due to the Boomers alone? Maybe that “pig in a python” generation is, all by itself, influencing literature as its population ages. That is, when Boomers were young and optimistic, they preferred Utopia, but as they became older, sadder, and wiser, they pulled up stakes and moved to Dystopia.

Hieroglyph coverWhatever the reason for the current literary preference, some evidence indicates the reaction against dystopia and back toward utopia has begun. In 2011, author Neal Stephenson helped found Project Hieroglyph which seeks fiction and nonfiction depicting a positive future. The published anthology, Hieroglyph, is on my list of books to read.

I prefer utopian fiction. Being a techno-optimist, I prefer to think the future will be better than the present, and reading such books keeps me in that mindset. However, I’m not Pollyannaish; I know society could well backslide, much as the thousand year Dark Ages followed the Roman Empire. Further, I know readers of dystopian books don’t necessarily believe the future of the real world will be dismal.

Let me know your position on this spectrum. Do you read solely utopian, or solely dystopian books? Or perhaps you don’t care, so long as the book is good. Your comment may influence the type of fiction to be written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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9 Things the World Loses With E-Books

Most weeks I blog about writing, but this time the topic is more about reading, specifically the technology of reading.

As you can tell from my fiction, I write quite a bit about people coping with new technology. I’m fascinated by the process of one technology supplanting another. The process forms a repeating pattern, whether you’re discussing the transition from sailing ships to steamships, from horse to car, or from dirigibles to airplanes.

ebooks vs books 002When society is in the midst of such a technology transition, as we are now moving from traditional paper books toward electronic books, or ebooks, debate often rages about which technology is ‘better.’ Some people embrace the new, others cling to the old.

Those who cleave to more traditional technology often use arguments based on ‘romantic’ ideas, things like aesthetics and the lifestyle that will be lost. In other words, the world has formed itself around the old technology, and layered infrastructure and culture around it. When traditionalists envision a new technology supplanting the old, they associate the old tech with its accompanying milieu, and bemoan the loss of all of it.

I’ll not wade into the argument about whether print books are better than ebooks.   For one thing, most of my published books are available only in ebook form. For another, the marketplace will decide the real answer no matter what I say.

Besides, no new technology ever completely stamps out an old one. People still use sailboats, ride horses, and fly in balloons, as part of nostalgic connections with the past.

Let me play the crotchety old traditionalist today, and tell you young whippersnappers all the things you lose with ebooks.

  1. What’ll you do when the power fails and your battery runs out? Can’t recharge your e-reader then, can ya? I’ll still be reading my print book by the light of a flashlight or candle.
  1. Can’t really lend or sell your ebook to a friend. Oh, you could loan ‘em your reader, but then you can’t read until your friend gives it back.
  1. You can’t impress anyone with your ebook. You can’t hold it prominently while waiting for a bus or walking in a school hallway, letting everyone know what you’re reading (or what you want them to think you’re reading).
  1. You can’t dazzle anyone with your whole library. Think o’ them commercials for lawyers, or politicians on the talking head shows. They always have a bookshelf behind them, lined with important-looking books. Think of all those books stored in an e-reader, and that e-reader sitting alone on the bookshelf. Not quite the same impact, is it?
  1. Try putting your e-reader on your coffee-table. ‘Nuff said.
  1. Got little kids? Oh, they’ll be real enthused about reading when you snuggle up with your e-reader. My grandkids much prefer the real books with pictures and pages that turn. They love those pop-up books, too.
  1. Looks like some bit or byte got out of place and your ebook froze up. Too bad. I’m still readin’ right along with my print book, with no circuit cards or software glitches in sight.
  1. Every book is different, and deserves to be different, and separate from other books. Your ebook reader jams ‘em all together so they all seem the same. Print books have different sizes, shapes, colors, fonts, paper thicknesses, and smells. All that stuff combines with the content to form the overall experience of the book.
  1. Are you a collector? Not only is it tough to impress folks with your ebook collection, but it’s not like the collection’s value will go up with time, like first edition print books do.

There have been some really good blog posts written on this subject by others, notably here, here, and here.  To repeat, I believe the marketplace will sort out whether ebooks truly replace print books, but no matter what, print books will never truly vanish. A lover of ebooks and traditional books alike, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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A Trip to the Idea Store

At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have.  Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them.  I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them.  Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.

Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from.  For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me.  You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you.  I think I can at least give you the store’s address.

First, let’s clarify.  An idea is not a story.  An idea is not even a plot.  The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.”  The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.”  Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great.  The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more.  So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique.  Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.

I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’  The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine.  For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain.  For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.

The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it.  It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?”  Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways.  “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”

Here are a couple of examples from my own writing.  For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship.  The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys.  What if—?  For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era.  I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally.  Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology.  What if—?

Story ideas need not involve technology, of course.  Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre.  The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.  You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.

This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving.  Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive.  They were all twists on the basic seed technology.  How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry?  Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc.  The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons.  The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.

Back to story ideas.  In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity.  In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist.  Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea.  That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought.  Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea.  That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot.  I suggest writing from your best ideas first.

Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 20, 2011Permalink