The History of Steam-Powered Ships
|This column originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 1988 issue of the Data Base Newsletter.|
Every great period of innovation has its trials and tribulations. As struggling IT professionals, I suppose we can take some comfort there.
For your reading enjoyment, let me recount a few incidents from the history of steam-powered ships that illustrate. As I do, keep in mind the key question: where are the earlier technologies (i.e., sailing ships) today?!
Act 1. Credit for the first authentic steamer ship trial is given to a Frenchman, Denis Papin, way back in 1707. At that very early date, M. Papin sailed (or rather, steamed) a steamer down a tributary of the River Weser in Germany. It was a huge success. Unfortunately for M. Papin, the local bargemen's guild felt so threatened that they destroyed and sank the craft in wrath.
Moral: In challenging the technological status quo, established groups are all but certain to get up in arms against you.
Act 2. In Britain in 1802, Richard Symington tested a new steam technology, a version of the double-acting rotary steam engine, within his craft, the Charlotte Dundas. The test, in which the Dundas towed two fully-laden vessels 20 miles along the Forth-Clyde Canal in only six hours, was an incredible feat for that time. Local authorities vetoed any further tests, however, when they found the wash had broken up the banks along the canal.
Moral: Any technological transition will make waves, literally or figuratively. Unfortunately, these often become inhibiting as they reveal structural weakness in unanticipated places.
Act 3. By 1838, steam ships already vied for the lucrative passenger business across the Atlantic. In that year, a celebrated race took place between the Sirius, a steam vessel with 94 passengers, and the Great Western, a sailing ship twice its size. Everyone had anticipated that the Sirius would lose, and it did. But it astounded everyone by losing only by several days -- less of a margin than even the most optimistic had dared predict. The margin could have been even less, however, if its captain had not had other problems during the crossing -- namely, a virtual mutiny among his 94 passengers who insisted that the steam-powered Sirius put up sails for at least part of the crossing.
Moral: Technological innovation makes enemies because it threatens what is familiar and thought appropriate. Tactical support of human factors is therefore a very key ingredient in any viable technology strategy.
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