The rocky road of technological development

By Jim Thompson
HCP Columnist

The Luddites were famous for destroying steam looms in the period 1811-16 in England. Their destructive actions were motivated by their fear of losing their jobs. If steam facilitated the production of fabrics, they would lose some of their jobs, hence their source of livelihood.

Today, we laugh at them. But we are no different.

I’m the leader among the Luddites when it comes to some of the green energy ideas floating around (even though I have solar panels on our house). My daughter, a senior engineer/scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, is the leader among proponents of new methods.

However, if we look at the development of technology, especially in the short 200 years since the days of the Luddites, we find that progress is not a simple path. For example, I doubt that Edward Lee McClain, benefactor of the fabulous Greenfield High School, warmly welcomed the automobile. He had made his fortune with a cleverly designed horse collar. The automobile was not his friend, nor that of his employees.

I dare say it took 100 years to develop the fully refined gasoline-powered automobile we see today. It was private industry collaboration, buyer acceptance (and in some cases rejection), competitive pressures, and even government intervention that brought the automobile to the state of development we know today. today.

For example, in my personal livery now, my 2019 Honda HRV looks light years more advanced than my 1964 Corvair Monza convertible. Yet those vehicles are only 55 years apart. The Corvair seems more closely related to the Ford Model A than the Honda HRV.

Another example: the kerosene lamp. Traditional modern societies consider it an antiquity. Just 170 years ago, it was a revolutionary device powered by a revolutionary new substance – a product of petroleum extraction, not whale oil. In fact, when Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was tried for monopolistic practices in the early 1900s, it was for its blocking of kerosene for lighting. Gasoline was hardly used because the automobile was so new. There was no way, at the time of this lawsuit, that anyone could see the future of gasoline – the United States had virtually no paved highways.

When we look at today’s wind turbines, solar panels and the like, we are looking at the earliest attempts to develop these “green” energy sources. In 50 or 100 years, these technologies will be completely different. Contemporaries of these days to come will scoff at the efforts now being made to blanket Highland County in solar panels. Today’s solar panels will be as obsolete as my Corvair. And farmland in Highland County will be returned to agricultural uses.

Today’s electric automobiles will suffer the same fate. Future developments will likely make today’s efforts just as laughable and primitive.

It is the crucible of critique, competitiveness and practicality that drives the acceptance of technology.

So we will continue to rant, rave and accept new technologies. Lucubrations and delusions are part of the process of perfection. Who knows how long today’s emerging technologies will take to perfect? I suspect it will take less time than in the past, but clearly they are not in their final form today.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He can be reached at jthompson@taii.com.