The golden tip of the transcontinental railroad was driven in Promontory, Utah, in the spring of 1869. My great-grandmother immigrated to Utah from Switzerland in the fall of 1866. “We were among the first Saints (Mormons) to travel comfortably in automobiles across the prairie.” A few years earlier, she would have had to walk all the way from Saint Louis. She then traveled to central Utah by bullock cart and moved with her sister into a one-room dugout in Mount Pleasant.
When my mother emigrated from Germany to Utah with her parents and 4 younger siblings in May 1913, they traveled by train to Bremerhaven, took a tramp steamer to Galveston, Texas (see Figure 1), and took a train from Galveston to Salt Lake City
In Figure 2, see how the doctor’s son (my father Arthur Hasler) was courting the baker’s daughter (my mother Hanne Prusse) in the baker’s (my grandfather’s) red Packard car in 1930. The first cars appeared before the turn of the century, but Henry Ford’s New Mass Production Technology in 1922 brought costs down where it quickly took over horse and cart transportation.
When my great-grandmother (1866) and grandparents (1913) and my newlywed parents (1932) immigrated, train travel was the dominant method of long-distance overland travel. The automobile did not take over much long-distance travel in the US until the 1950s with the expansion of the interstate highway system, and airplanes only in the 1970s with the mass introduction of jet aircraft.
My father Arthur flew across the Atlantic as a US Army officer and landed in London on Victory Day in Europe in 1945 to take part in the US Strategic Bombing Survey. See Figure 4 for the type of aircraft he was flying in. Crews still crossed the Atlantic by ship. He drove south on Hitler’s autobahn to Austria, where he met future Nobel laureate Professor Karl von Frisch. 10 years later in 1955 my father moved our family – all 8 of us – from Madison, Wisconsin to Munich, Germany for a year while my father was working at von Frisch. We drove east from Madison to New York City in our Nash Ambassador, partly on the first section of the USA’s restricted-access freeway: the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We crossed the Atlantic by ship on the SS Flandre (see Figure 5).
When my soon-to-be wife, Mary, traveled to Europe in 1962, she crossed the Atlantic in a four-engine piston aircraft similar to those my father flew in 1945. Transatlantic flights were now cheaper than sea crossings and took 1 day instead of 6.
When I went to Paris for 6 months in 1975 with my wife and two young children, we traveled by jet. In the 80’s I could literally fly around the world, with many stopovers on a NASA mission flying in a Pan Am four-engine 747 jumbo jet. When my wife, daughter, two granddaughters and I flew to Sydney, Australia in 2015, we flew 15 hours non-stop from LA across the Pacific Ocean on a twin-engine Boeing 777 jet. Almost all airliners these days are twins. We also did one of our Pacific crossings in a Qantas Airbus 380 as shown in Figure 6.
Computers & Internet
When I enrolled in mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1958, we all had to buy an H&I slide rule that would multiply trigonometric functions to two decimal places, divide, and perform trigonometric functions. Mechanical Monroe calculators that did only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division were available, but far too expensive and bulky for undergraduate engineering students. When I was in grad school in 1963, we had the first Hewlett-Packard digital calculator, about the size of a large microwave oven. It would also do simple programming.
One of the main reasons I was hired to work at NASA in 1975 was to develop applications for their new $5 million AOIPS system, shown in Figure 7. AOIPS was 100% digital and could show a 640×480 resolution black and white film loop of 5 frames or a color image. Compare that to what I can do on my iPhone today. During my freshman year at NASA in 1975, I also had an $800 HP programmable calculator. My department at NASA had Digital Equipment Company (DEC) minicomputers, two of which were just learning to talk to each other. I could email with others on remote terminals, but the Internet and global communications and the Web were yet to come. In 1990, when the Internet and Internet browsing were in their infancy, I led a NASA effort to use the Internet to disseminate earth science. One of the projects we funded was to investigate how to make money off the internet (LOL). Back then, Google didn’t exist, so the only way anyone could find out your URL from a publication like a newspaper or news magazine was to find your website.
Commercial giants brought down by technological change
Everyone knows the story of Kodak, the king of film and photography. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but didn’t really follow through with the invention. I remember scanning my Kodachrome film slides and storing the digitized versions on Kodak CDs, but Kodak never made high quality cameras like Nikon and Cannon, so they limited themselves to making very expensive digital backs for Nikon cameras. Bottom line: Kodak didn’t move quickly enough in the transition from film to digital and soon declared bankruptcy.
If you’re old enough, remember when Nokia clamshells were king and no serious businessman or politician would be caught without a Blackberry phone. I switched from a clamshell to a digital phone when I realized that my clamshell address book was limited to 100 entries. I remember driving the back roads of New Zealand’s South Island while talking on my rented cell phone to a technology provider driving the Washington, DC, Beltway. That would be self-evident now, but at the time I was amazed! All flip phones and Blackberry phones were instantly obsolete when Apple released the iPhone in 2007, which combined a phone with an iPod music player, camera, movie camera/player and powerful computer. Cellular technology soon became so dominant that I gave up my landline phones.
Currently, photos taken with iPhones are so good that point-and-shoot camera sales have plummeted and only high-end digital cameras with large zoom lenses have survived. Sales of consumer film cameras were also severely reduced. When I was at NASA, all computers had CRT monitors. A 50-inch 2K plasma HDTV that would show my HDTV movies cost $8,000 when I retired from NASA in 2005. I now own three 50-inch 4K TVs that we use to watch movies in Wisconsin, Northern Utah and St. George, Utah. The quality is beyond my dreams and I’m not even using the latest OLED technology. Each of my 50-inch 4K TVs is $250 at Walmart. The monitor technology revolution was so overwhelming that computer and television CRTs were placed on the curb where no one bothered to pick them up.
In the past, Hollywood movies were distributed on huge rolls of film that had to be transported to theaters and carefully monitored in case a film broke and had to be re-threaded through the projector. Now the entire library of current films is downloaded digitally to each cinema via satellite and the cinema purchases a key (password) for the films it wishes to show. The cost of converting every theater to digital was enormous, but the savings for the film industry, not having to print and ship huge rolls of film, were even greater. The film industry bought each theater new digital projectors and computer systems, which then paid for themselves over time as new films were released. No films are currently being released in film form.
Figure 8 shows the adoption of many technologies over the past 105 years. Taking the period from 30% to 90% gives roughly for each technology: from horse-drawn carriage to automobile – 70 years, from telegraph and letter-writing to telephone – 60 years, from ice box to refrigerator – 10 years, new technology microwave oven – 25 years, air conditioning – 15 years, color TV – 15 years and more recently the mobile phone < 10 years. In any case, within a relatively few years after a tipping point was reached, the new or superior technology became widespread or replaced the inferior technology. I expect the same rapid adoption for battery electric vehicles.
Your comments, corrections and stories are welcome in the comments section. Be sure to read Part II on the spread of battery electric vehicles.
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