All things considered, human culture has adapted with remarkable swiftness to vast technological change in a short period of time. I still think that the single most remarkable fact of human history from a technological standpoint is that there were only 65 years, seven months, and four days between the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk and human beings first walking on the moon. It's not that humankind got that far, which is astounding enough. It's that we did it in such a short span of time...well within a single human lifetime.
Speaking of changes in a single human lifetime, my great-aunt Frances "Dicky" Schirmer, who died a handful of years ago aged 101 years and 10 months, was alive when the first "remote" electric light switch was installed in her parents' summer home in Michigan. Electricity was still exotic then and the infrastructure for it sparse, and small groups of local children would shyly come to the door and ask to see it. They had seen electric light bulbs before, but they'd never seen one there you could push a button on the wall by the door and have the light way up on the ceiling turn on and off. That "remote control" aspect of it was magic to them, and they'd stand in line taking turns switching the light on and off. That was in about 1915. Dicky lived to see the World Wide Web—which I thought was magic the first time I experienced it!
Friend o' TOP Mike Plews, a television news cameraman in Nebraska, sent me this by email:
"While loading up a news unit this morning," Mike writes, "I got into a nostalgic mood. I’m just about the last working TV news photographer in the Omaha market who shot film. If you look at the attached picture you can see my career pretty much bookended by technology.
"The 400-foot reel of film is a standard load on my old CP16 camera. It could shoot 11 minutes of film at one time. In 1974, a 400-foot load cost $40 and another $5 or so to process it if you had your own ME4 line (we did, and running it was my first TV job).
"The 32GB card on the end of my finger can shoot 120 minutes of XDCAM 35Mbps 1080i as many times as you like, and costs less in 2016 money."
My son Xander and his girlfriend Abby are visiting from Wisconsin. Yesterday we paid a repeat visit to the Corning Museum of Glass (second time for them, fifth time for me), and thanks to Abby's interest we attended the Optical Fiber Demo for the first time. I wasn't expecting much, but it absolutely blew my mind. On the wall is a cross-section of a huge copper cable more than six feet in diameter, made up of hundreds of smaller bundles of wire (it's not a model, either—it's a section of a real cable). With appropriate technology on both ends, a cable like that would be capable of transmitting 50 million telephone calls. The presenter then held up a tiny strand of optical fiber cable twice the thickness of a human hair, saying that it could transmit one billion telephone calls simultaneously, in both directions. Twenty times as much data.
I remember as a schoolkid learning that optical fiber information transfer existed, as well as the reasons why it wasn't practical yet. I recall learning that "they" were working on improving the transmission of glass to make it practical for real-world applications. "They" turned out to be Robert D. Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter C. Schultz, the three Corning scientists who first breached the critical attenuation limit of 20 dB/km in 1970 with a borosilicate glass using titanium as a dopant—effectively opening the door to the era of modern optical fiber communications. I remember hearing the news; I was 13.
We all rely on optical fiber technology every day now—these words are coming to you thanks in part to optical fibers—but we will see tremendous advancements in this field within the next decade or two, as the final shackles are removed from the potential of the technology.
And just what are those limits? Well, it turns out that Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz are all still alive, and all three of them live in the hills that surround Corning—and one day, our presenter for the Optical Fiber Demo, whose name is Vince Desparrois, found none other than Donald Keck sitting in the audience for his talk at the Museum. Vince said he could barely stop his heart from pounding (there's no celebrity like a celebrity in your own field)—but once he'd gotten through his presentation, the normal situation was reversed and he had some questions for a member of the audience instead of the other way around. One thing he asked Donald Keck was what the theoretical limits are for the amount of information that can be transferred through a single optical fiber cable. Dr. Keck replied that given the requisite hardware at both ends—which we're nowhere close to having—the limit is about four zettabytes (ZB) per second.
And what is a zettabyte? Well, the entire amount of information on the Internet right now is estimated to be about 1.3 ZB.
And if that doesn't blow your mind....
(Thanks to Mike Plews, Vince Desparrois, and CMoG)
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Featured Comments from:
"Ahh! The unadulterated exhilaration of discovery before you do the first controls.... 'Whopee!!' But in this case the exhilaration withstood the control experiments.
"Here is Donald Keck's lab book from August 7, 1970 on display at the Smithsonian Institution. A recently-minted Ph.D. in physics, he had been hired by Richard Maurer at Corning to work on glass waveguides for possible use in communications. At that time glass had an attenuation of about 1,000 db/km. On August 7 Keck measured the attenuation of some fiber they had doped with titanium dioxide and got a figure of 10log(40/35.5) for a 29 meter piece of fiber or 17 db/km. Within two years they had substituted germanium for titanium and had an attenuation of 4 db. I'm sorry the image is poor. Last figure I can find says 1.6 billion km of optical fiber cable has been installed."
Joe: "My grandmother remembered when her family took her on a trip—I think it was down to North Carolina—to see one of the Wright Brother's flights, when they were getting pretty famous. She told me this shortly after she had watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on TV. Mind boggling indeed."
Bill Tyler: "In my own field, computing, my personal experience spans from the Bendix G-15, a computer designed in the early 1950s that used vacuum tubes, not transistors, and had a the equivalent of a few thousand bytes of memory (stored on a rotating magnetic drum, not core or RAM) up to today's large data centers, with thousands of computers cooperating to run the Internet services we all use. Meanwhile, my shirt pocket holds a computing device more powerful than the supercomputers of not that many years back, and it takes pictures, too."
mike plews (partial comment): "A story about change from a friend. Many years ago his family chipped in and had indoor plumbing installed in his grandfather's house. Grandpa was appalled and said 'you want me to do that INSIDE MY HOUSE!?' He found the whole idea disgusting and refused to use the new 'appliance'—until the dead of Winter when he underwent a sea change regarding the concept."
Jim Metzger: "About 20 years ago I sat in New York city at a small music venue listening to members of the Harmonic Choir performing overtone singing. While the performance was transcendent, it was the technology that was in the forefront that night. For what I believe was the first time, the audio feed from the microphones onstage was being transmitted via fiber optic cable to speakers located in an ancient Abbey in France. What we were hearing was the audio from the Abbey being transmitted back to NYC. At the speed of light. There was no discernible delay and the echo and resonance was astounding."
Scott Campbell (partial comment): "I think that the biggest generation to see technology upheaval was my grandfather's. He went from root-cellar to refrigerator, horse to automobile, steam locomotive to diesel, the first airplane, the moonwalk, indoor plumbing (hence outhouse to indoor loo), wood stove to electric stove, Kerosene lamp to electric light, telegraph to telephone to cell phone (he was still alive when they first came out), radio to TV, the computer, and more. The impact on the quality of life of these changes was truly profound. Truly."
Stephen Scharf: "I've been fortunate (perhaps blessed) as a molecular biologist to have happened to be in the right place and right time as one of the inventors of the technology known as Polymerase Chain Reaction aka PCR. PCR is literally to molecular biology what the development of the transistor was to electronics: a simple and affordable way to literally amplify a specific genetic signal against the background noise of the genome. PCR was conceived by my collegue at the time, Dr. Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. But, ideation alone is not invention, and I was part of a small but very effective team of scientists at Cetus Corpatation that reduced PCR to practice (required to become 'patentable').
"From the very first few experiments that I did just getting PCR to work (which at the time was very analagous to the Wright Bros.), to seeing it grow literally exponentially into the one most important methodologies of molecular biology of the 20th Century (and now the 21st Century), was truly something to behold. Like going from the Wright Bros. to astronauts on the moon, it was very gratifying to something so important come so very far so very fast.
"PCR is now the molecuar biology engine that powers almost everything in molecular biology: from next-gen sequencing to molecular and cancer diagnostics to infectious disease detection to the determination of human identity in DNA forensic casework, and much, much more. What an amazing journey it has been."
Jim: "I'm only 70 but...I learned about fiber optics 38 years ago from the guys at Bell Labs who were developing it into telecommunications systems. I founded a company in the business before there were any large-scale installations and sold the company 20 years later during a boom time as the Internet was going crazy. Today, 15 years later, I run the international professional society for fiber optics. I can attest to the astronomical growth of the industry and its impact on today's communications. But I also learned computer programming 54 years ago from IBM on computers that had tubes—before transistors—not integrated circuits, transistors—and I can also attest to the incredible growth in that technology also. However, my grandmother who was born in 1897 and lived 97 years used to brag that she grew up riding horses and lived to fly in jet airplanes."