The Way Things Work

January 30, 2004

By lex

My spare daughter, the Kat, was teaching the Hobbit how to use mapquest on her iBook. With the mission accomplished, the Kat came over to me and mentioned what a “boring” job (boring being the ultimate pejorative, for a 9-year old) it must have been to fill in all those street addresses, all through America.

I mean San Diego, maybe – but in every city?

I smiled and told her that there must have been some sort of database that they tapped into, to get the best driving instructions and how long a trip might take.

But then it occurred to me, I hadn’t a clue how mapquest really worked. It just did.

It is commonly said that we live in an information age. But our access to knowledge is greater now than our ability to assimilate it.

The human animal as it is now known has evolved over the last 130,000 years. Human civilization dates back probably no more than 7,000 years, following hard on the heels of the development of agriculture.

And in that 130,000 years of time, up until sometime perhaps in the late industrial period, everything that could be known, could be known by one reasonably intelligent person. I’m not talking about the vast volumes of literature, although the recognized “renaissance men” of the 18th and 19th century could quote long lines of text from memory, in ancient Greek.

I’m talking technology.

In the early 19th century, as Lewis and Clark started their fabled expedition across the American continent, they went no faster than a horse could walk. And that limit had existed for nearly as long as civilization itself. The speed of a fast horse was the limit of human imagination in the realm of time and distance. It was the pace of life, and it had been for thousands of years. No one had any idea that things would ever be any different.

Not long after came the “iron horse,” and time and space were fundamentally changed. But you could still understand it – the technology, I mean. Wheels and rails and steam engines.



The first steam engine was created by the ancient Greeks, an inventor named Heron . It was no more than a toy to him, but it was the first time that water and fire had been harnessed to create motive force via steam.


Now think about this: Nuclear power plants, including those found aboard US Navy aircraft carriers, use the energy created by the controlled fission of radioactive material to make heat. This heat is used to create steam. Which powers the turbines that drive the engines that give the carrier motive force.

In 2200 years, we’ve managed to find a better way to make steam. That’s all.

But do you understand how? Could you do it yourself?


There was a breaking point that occurred sometime either late in the 1800’s, or early in the 1900’s, no later, certainly, than the 1950’s. No one observed this breaking point, but it existed nonetheless. It was the moment when we had specialized in the understanding of our exploding technological prowess to the point that the reasonably intelligent man could no longer encompass all the world’s technological development within his understanding.

Look around the room you are now in, the things that inhabit your daily life, that you take for granted. Some of these things you could, yourself, create – the glass that cover’s the picture of your children – you could probably do that, given time, although it is likely that quality would suffer. The paper that you printed out for those mapquest directions, you could probably also manage.

But what about the CRT you’re reading this on? Or the computer it’s hooked up to? Perhaps some of you are computer engineers, and could replicate that, given time and resources. Perhaps.

But how many of you hardware engineers could successfully operate the laser being used 15 miles away for scaling away the plaque on a heart patient’s aorta?

How many of you could create the laser? Or the tools that were used to create the laser?

And of those who could do that, who among you could open up the avionics bay of an FA-18, remove one of the circuit boards in the weapons computer, and re-install its replacement?

You are an educated and gifted group of readers, not least because you visit this site 😉 (and because you have access to computers, and the internet).

But imagine that you were transported back in time, pick any time – let’s say 1840 – could you, with the knowledge you have of the technology that enriches our lives, that we don’t even spare a moment to think about, because it’s there in front of you every day, could you, gentle reader, even tell your new friends how to make the tools, that make the tools, that make this technology? The reciprocating engine, fuel injection, light bulbs, missile guidance systems… the imagination wanders.

We specialize because we must. And because we are social animals, we collectively profit from our shared skills and knowledge.

But can you imagine what our grandchildren will think, of how primitive our existence was?


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, History, Lex

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