January 1, 2000
TECHNOLOGY

WHEN THE INVENTION IS
ONLY A GOOD START

Some of the 20th century's most intriguing technological advances took decades to gain widespread acceptance. Others have yet to find their place in Americans' daily lives.

D. DIBA GHAMKHAR

FLIGHT

1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright achieve the world's first sustained, controllable powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Their airplane flies 120 feet in 12 seconds.
1957 Air passenger miles for travel in the United States for the first time exceed long-distance rail travel.


The Associated Press

TELEVISION

1927 Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth transmits an electronic image over the air in his lab in San Francisco.
1954 Some 15 years after television sets went on sale in the United States, more than half of all American households own one.


Sony

WIRELESS COMMUNICATION

1946 In St. Louis, AT&T introduces the first "mobile telephone service," allowing operator-assisted calls within a 50-mile radius of a powerful antenna.
1997 There are 55 million cellular phone users in the United States; it took 79 years for land-line phones to reach that mark.


SPACEFLIGHT

1957 The Soviets launch the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, heralding the start of the space age.
"Adventure travel will take place in the next 10 to 12 years -- if we make appropriate decisions, such as putting 10 people in the next-generation shuttle," says the former astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., now chairman of the Share Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes space tourism.

The Associated Press

INTERNET

1969 A team at U.C.L.A. sends the first bits of digitized text over an experimental computer network developed by the Defense Department. The recipients are at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.
2002-2003 Computer networks will be all-pervasive within two to three years, says John Patrick, vice president for Internet technology at I.B.M. "Things in our vocabulary -- such as 'Call us between 9 to 5, during normal business hours' -- will become artifacts in the next generation."

Apple Computer

GENE-THERAPY

1990 W. French Anderson and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health conduct the first human gene therapy experiment, treating a 4-year-old girl with an enzyme deficiency disorder.
BY 2025 Dr. Anderson says, "Gene therapy will be revolutionizing medicine, in that most major diseases will have gene therapy treatment."


PR NewsFoto


Technology Sprints, but Users Set Their Own Pace
By TIM RACE

Technology may leap, but anthropology creeps.

Of all the technology lessons from 20th-century America, that one may offer the best guidance for the coming decades.

The century did bring countless technical marvels. Sending sounds and pictures across continents through thin air and humans across the ocean in machines heavier than air. Tweaking the nuclei of atoms to light up, or blow up, cities. Going to the moon. In short, the century was one extended physics problem, with the variables of distance, velocity and mass all in play.

Yet, for all the breakthroughs and their cumulative effect on everyday life, the way people live hasn't changed as radically as the prophets of World's Fair promotionalism and Jetsonian democracy would have led us to expect. True, we live longer. Medical techniques enable the infertile to bear children. Scientists can manipulate genes to clone a sheep. But there are no atomic cars, no robotic butlers, no jet backpacks, no moon colonies, no universal cure for cancer. And despite the value of the personal computer, half the nation's households don't have one 20 years after its advent.

Technology may leap, but anthropology creeps. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. In our capitalist society, which rewards innovation and enterprise, technologies continue to be invented at a prolific rate. But because ours is a democratic capitalism, there usually must be a political or market consensus before we, the people, adopt a fundamentally new way of doing things.

After the Manhattan Project's physicists helped hasten the end of World War II, there was a drive to create a civilian atomic-energy era in the United States. But public resistance created such a political and regulatory backlash that nuclear reactors now play only a marginal role on the nation's power grid. A similar public debate now rages over genetically engineered crops for fear they will unleash mutants capable of untold environmental mischief. As researchers race to conclude the Human Genome Project -- a map of the 80,000 genes in every human cell -- the bioethics lobby is staking out office suites in Washington.

But this is a nation so conflicted about even generally accepted scientific thought that a Gallup poll last June found that 68 percent of all those surveyed agreed that schools should teach creationism as an alternative to evolution.

"It's part of the American myth that we are naturally a tinkering people and accepting of technological change," said Alex Roland, a professor at Duke University who specializes in the history of technology. "But we're not entirely devoid of Ludditism from time to time."

And often, it's not regulation or politics or religion but sheer market forces that reject what the technologists promote, as a company called Pointcast discovered a few years back with its ill-fated "push technology." Initially, investors swarmed to the idea of pushing information onto computer screens throughout the day. If you left the computer idle for a few minutes, headlines or stock prices or weather maps would be pushed onto your screen. You could choose to pay attention -- or to click the whole mess away with mounting annoyance.

Push technology was like an eager office temp trying too hard to make a good impression. Technology leapt, but anthropology couldn't stand all the interruptions.

Know-how alone is never enough. Before a new technology catches on, it typically goes through at least three phases. First comes the basic invention, then a period of refinement. Finally, there must come innovations that give people a motive and means for adopting the technology. Guglielmo Marconi's radio, invented in 1895, didn't become a mass phenomenon until the 1920's, after refinements like electronic amplification and innovations like news and entertainment programming made it parlor-friendly.

"The last stage, of innovation and making it marketable, is important -- and can take a long time," Professor Roland noted.

The Internet has obediently followed this arc. Invented in the late 60's to let arms engineers, scientists and Pentagon underwriters swap files and messages, the network gradually developed over a few decades. But roaming the Internet resembled the early days of automobile travel: there were no road maps, and it helped to have a mechanic ride along.

Then, in the early 90's, came easy-to-use network software like America Online's, which helped nonmechanics discover the utility and allure of e-mail. Next came the World Wide Web, a software overlay that made the broader Internet more navigable -- even if the market and the masses are still winnowing its potential uses.

The Internet's long march from cold-war research tool to nascent mass medium also illustrates the difficulty of predicting which technologies will be widely adopted. To cold-war seers, it was supposed to be outer space -- not cyberspace -- that would take the public on flights of fancy by 2000.

The charismatic rocket scientist Wernher von Braun went on the "Disneyland" television show in 1955 and proclaimed, "I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within 10 years." He even helped design an 80-foot model rocket that, when Disneyland opened in California that year, towered over tourists in Tomorrowland.

Such hype helped generate public support for the $40 billion the federal government would spend to land a man on the moon in 1969. But hyperbole in the name of financing technology may have little relation to what people want or need.

To borrow the lingo of today's technology entrepreneurs, manned spaceflight hasn't proved "scalable." It worked in small numbers at great cost. But it could not be scaled up to the high-volume, mass-market model that society typically demands of its technical innovations. At least not yet.

Technology may skyrocket, but anthropology still stands in line at Disneyland.

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New York Times
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