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MIT Technology Review

Tuning in to Technology’s Past

Yesterday’s masters have much to teach

January 1, 2005

On a winter’s night in 1894, a 20-year-old Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi invited his mother into his attic workshop. Leading her to a table, he pressed a switch connected to an elaborate apparatus that produced a spark and a snapping sound. Instantly a bell sounded across the room. Marconi had linked the switch to the distant bell, but by sending a wireless signal through the air. The technology was primitive by modern standards but also strangely precocious. More than a century after the first “spark gap” transmitters crackled into life, wireless technology is returning to its roots. The latest ultrawideband wireless devices, which are just starting to appear on the market, have much in common with the very first transmitters. History is repeating itself.

The signals from those early transmitters built by Marconi and his contemporaries sprawled across the electromagnetic spectrum, unlike those from modern radio transmitters, which broadcast on particular frequencies. Today’s cutting-edge ultrawideband radios are now going back to transmitting over a wide range of frequencies simultaneously. They use very low power levels to avoid interference with traditional radio broadcasts: ultrawideband transmissions are invisible to conventional radios, and vice versa.

Like the system Marconi demonstrated to his mother, ultrawideband is initially being put to short-range use in the home. The technology will let you beam video from your camcorder to your television, or zap music files from your PC to your MP3 player. The first ultrawideband-capable consumer electronics products will go on sale in the first half of this year. Analysts believe that ultrawideband will eliminate bewildering tangles of wires and transform the way digital devices connect to each other.

Ultrawideband is not the only technology from the 19th century being dusted off for the 21st. William Grove built the first working fuel cell in 1845; the technology is now being readied to power a new generation of hydrogen vehicles. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have proposed using an update of 1816’s Stirling engine to power future space probes. And what are text messages if not a modern take on the telegram?

Just as soldiers study the history of warfare, today’s innovators could learn a thing or two by studying the history of technology. Internet coinventor Vinton Cerf points out that knowledge of history can make innovators aware of old technologies that might be applicable today. “Leonardo da Vinci had many inventions that really could not be built effectively in the 15th or 16th centuries because of a lack of suitable materials,” he says. “The latest technologies often produce opportunities to reapply earlier ideas more effectively.”

Understanding historical innovations can help in other ways too, says Lucian Hughes, director of research at Accenture’s Palo Alto, CA, laboratory. He uses historical examples to remind his staff that successful inventions often consist of systems rather than individual innovations. Edison, for instance, is remembered for inventing the light bulb, but it was useless on its own: Edison’s real innovation was the entire system of electrical generation, distribution, and lighting. “History provides inspiration through analogy,” concludes Hughes, whose father is Thomas Hughes, a prominent historian of technology.

Thomas Hughes suggests that as well as providing ideas and insights into why technologies succeed and fail, familiarity with the history of technology can also help innovators spot opportunities, in the form of “reverse salients,” which he defines as “components in the system that have fallen behind or are out of phase with the others.” As Edison’s electricity system expanded, for example, it became apparent that it could only supply electricity efficiently within a couple of kilometers of a generator. This reverse salient, identified by other inventors, led to the development of alternating-current distribution. Charting the development of technological systems, and spotting which parts are falling behind, can help innovators decide where to focus their efforts. Handheld devices, for example, are being held back because battery technology has not kept pace with energy demands, so several firms are now developing tiny fuel cells to power them.

Ultrawideband, fuel cells, Stirling engines, and even da Vinci’s proposed flying machines show that sometimes a good idea has to wait until the time is ripe, or until technological changes have transformed a drawback into a benefit. As they attempt to devise the technologies of the future, innovators would be foolish not to keep one eye on the past.