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."