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From Trains to Transistors

Industrial revolutions

Whilst discussing Victorian and nineteenth-century technology, we inevitably think in terms of the Industrial Revolution, and associate it with the major factories, masses of workers, and the big impressive innovations, improvements in manufacturing, and mass production. The outputs from the new technologies included railway transport, steam- powered ships, and steel bridges. Smaller-scale items of bicycles, and flying machines followed, as did motor cars, tanks, and more powerful weapons of war. These were obviously visible and tangible, and we had some understanding of how they were made, and if necessary could attempt repairs and improvements. The details of the materials being used were not that critical. Even for steel, most people realized it contained iron and some carbon, but they probably had no idea of the other additives needed for particular types of steel. This was probably also true for most of the nineteenth-century steel makers. Similarly, brass was made from copper and zinc, but the actual composition and manufacture would not be common knowledge.

This pattern—of using products that were not too sensitive to composition, and could be handled and repaired by the general public— dominated our views on technology. We then have subconsciously assumed that all later advances were in some way derivative products. Instead, we need to rethink—to realize that from the latter part of the twentieth century, there were new and completely different types of industrial revolution. Some, such as advances in metallurgy and chemistry, were just highly refined versions of the initial developments, and these generated exotic metals and materials needed for jet engines, improved chemistry for plastics, and the like. By contrast, the materials of semiconductor electronics and optical fibre communication have required a completely different approach to their development, and one that is alien to the way we consciously function.

The difference is that in this electronic, computer, and communication revolution, we need to make incredible efforts to define the purity of the products, and add into them very precise quantities of carefully chosen elements. Approximations are not allowed, and alternative additives (as may be used in steel manufacture) are totally excluded. The perspective we need is to consider purity control down to parts per billion (one error in a thousand million atoms), and then add into this, in precise regions, new chemical elements at levels that may be as small as parts per million. This level of stringency is outside our daily experience. Indeed, the changes in composition would have been impossible to detect prior to the last half-century.

Some modern electronic devices require such precise control with as many as 60 different elements in various locations. In fact, 60 elements were more than had been discovered and identified in the first Industrial Revolution.

Since I am considering the very unusual challenge of looking at the negative side of technological progress, then this should also include the loss of pleasure and enjoyment as a result of technology. The hugely impressive steam trains, mechanized farm equipment, and fairground rides from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have gone into decay, but they are exciting and, given enough effort, they can be repaired and restored. Consequently, there are hundreds of people who have devoted their time to these activities. The results are theme parks, regenerated steam railway lines, and major destinations for family outings and pleasure. If I try to predict the future and wonder if there will ever be a generation that will attempt to make obsolete computers, so people can play pointless primitive computer games, then I strongly suspect that the answer is no. It certainly could not offer the familyouting-type appeal of the restored steam train journeys.

My aim in this chapter is to try to readjust our thinking to realize that tiny quantities of material can have a major effect on performance and survival of large-scale materials and our environment. The evidence is of course present in every usage of modern electronics or optical fibre communication, but mostly we fail to consider how these items function. Once we accept that tiny quantities of material can dominate the performance of larger systems, it sheds new light on not just modern technology, but also many aspects of the materials we use and our sensitivity to the environment around us. This in turn will focus attention on why we should protect our environment.

I do not intend to discuss the science of the electronics, but I will look again at the role of carbon dioxide and climate. To offer familiar biological examples of sensitivity to such tiny traces of material is easy, and we can relate to them because we already recognize their effects. For example, one can be bitten by a mosquito, develop malaria, and die. The actual weight of poisonous material from the bite may be well under one millionth the weight of the person. Even greater sensitivity is shown in catching a cold from germs floating in the air.

Very positively, we respond to pheromones in sexual attraction, which are highly effective, even when their concentration in the air is as low as parts per thousand million. If the pheromones are successful, then during the next phase of their function, reproduction, we could perhaps add some scientific contemplation. Recognizing that the sperm that fertilizes an egg is far, far smaller than one billionth of the final product, and that it contains more information than we currently can package in an entire library, should give us some scale of the very modest progress that we have made in information technology, and the limitations of our achievements. A sense of humility might encourage us to look at the outcomes of overly enthusiastic acceptance of new technological ideas.

 
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