A back catalogue of ideas

When we look in to the works of some of our great inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla or even authors like Isaac Asimov, you have to ask “have we thought of everything we will ever need?”

This particular train of thought was sparked as I read a BBC article about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. This machine’s memory would be equivalent to around 675bytes, or just over half that of Sinclair’s ZX81, released in 1981. A later proposal by Babbage called for 20KB of storage. The machine’s clock speed would work out at around 7Hz, compared to the ZX81′s 3.2MHz – and this was all designed circa 1835. The fastest computers of today deliver 10-petaflops of computational performance per second – so time moves on but I have to ask if all of our ideas been realised?

Assuming not raises another question – where is the “back catalogue” of ideas that we’ve not been able to deliver on yet? And are we just waiting for the materials science to catch up? Every day I read something new is appearing, usually though it’s smaller, faster, cheaper rather than brand new and in achieving these attributes becomes more consumable and available to a wider population. The humble mobile phone is one example – with wireless telephony invented by a Kentucky Farmer called Nathan B Stubblefield as long ago as 1907!

Another example comes to mind that of wireless power, Nikola Tesla demonstrated this circa 1896 and only now is it close to reality with technology demonstrators that we would recognise with contact changing mats and wireless monitors.

So as material science brings many of these crazy ideas in to the realm of possibility it would be great to see companies returning to the dusty archives in patent offices (or company intellectual property offices) and reviewing what they have, to see if it old ideas are now possible. On the flip side we have to avoid squabbles over patents (the “Nortel patent wars” are just one example) – it’s much more preferable that something tangible is realised rather than arguing in a court of law.

Really it’s not just about the way we will do things but how we already do things today. Just because we worked out how to crack a nut with a sledge hammer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go back and examine the original “nut cracker” invention to see if the material science allows us to accomplish the task more effectively and to greater benefit to society.

I’ll leave you with two questions:

  1. Which is the greatest invention that we’ve realised so far: the wheel; paper and the written word; the Internet; or something else?
  2. What idea that you have heard of is still to be realised in our World today? (“Beam me up Scotty”)

4 thoughts on “A back catalogue of ideas

  1. I always cite the written word as the greatest invention of human history. An absolute paradigm shift in how we see the world. Perhaps the concepts of democracy or human rights might be up there two as world changing ideas go.

    The Space Elevator is pretty hard to beat as un-realised ideas go.

    I wouldn’t worry that we’ve thought of everything we’ll ever think of. We can only think of ideas which make sense within our own world-view but that world-view can change massively as we discover more about the universe and more about ourselves. When that happens new ideas that couldn’t have been thought of before become imaginable. We’ll run out of people before we run out of ideas.

  2. Folks,

    I’ll take the bait:

    I have no doubt it was the harnessing of electricity, probably the electric motor, although the boundary between invention and discovery becomes pretty blurred in this area. The following extract from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity highlights the time and issues I’m talking about.

    “The recognition of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, is due to Hans Christian Orsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819-1820; Michael Faraday invented theelectric motor in 1821, and Georg Ohm mathematically analysed the electrical circuit in 1827. Electricity and magnetism (and light) were definitively linked by James Clerk Maxwell, in particular in his “On Physical Lines of Force” in 1861 and 1862.”

    With respect to the second question:

    For this I would point to “Box” from the TV series “Star Cops”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Cops. The iPhone Siri is the closest we have come, and it is actually getting very close when it works – Box always worked, even from the moon, not just on WiFi in the USA.

    Dave Snelling, Fujitsu Labs Europe.

  3. Thanks for taking the bait! All great input and highlights a simple seeming question can lead to a world of complexity.

    In terms of the TV series reference the biggest impact on me was the Tomorrow People children’s TV programme in the 1970s; I really wanted their teleport belts (along with their other special powers!).

  4. Definitely the written word as the greatest invention; without it all you had was personal memory and face-to-face communication to store and pass on knowledge.
    As for things still to be realised, I have to turn mostly to Star Trek!
    - Matter transportation;
    - Warp drive (or more generally anything that isn’t an action-reaction drive);
    - Force fields.
    Of all of these, if I had to place a bet, I would say matter transportation (on anything like a real-world scale) will be the hardest and last to come about, if ever. It’s going to make customs and passport control a real big problem.

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