Technology development: a New England inspiration

Sept. 1, 2001
The point is that advanced technology not only satisfies needs, it creates needs.

The point is that advanced technology not only satisfies needs, it creates needs.

John Rhea

WASHINGTON — With the recent demise of a passel of dotcoms and a general softening of the economy — particularly the high-tech sectors — there has been an understandable skepticism about technology for its own sake. In fact, entrepreneurship itself is coming under closer scrutiny.

I think this too shall pass. In defense of the viability of technology, I'd like to offer the diametrically opposed views of two 19th century New Englanders.

The first is Henry David Thoreau. He hated trains. Not just because they were noisy and smelly and dangerous, which they were in those days, but because he considered the whole idea of technological progress for its own sake an intrusion upon the simpler life he sought.

He buttressed his hostility to the emerging technology of his time with a logic that is deceptively simple. In this passage from Walden, Thoreau attempts to demonstrate why walking is more efficient than rail travel by telling a friend he can get to nearby Fitchburg, Mass., faster on foot:

"I say to my friend, suppose we try to see who will get there first. The distance is 30 miles; the fare 90 cents. That is almost a day's wages ... Well, I start now on foot and get there before night ... You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow ... Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you."

Deceptively simple, yes, and the logic was airtight for the time — if your vision was limited to trains as they existed in 1845, when Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond.

Since then, the energy contained in petroleum has spawned a revolution in transportation covering the surface of the globe and extending into the vertical dimension of space. The solitary walker is no match for a Boeing 747.

Critics of Amtrak might argue that Thoreau finally had his revenge on the railroads, but that's another story. In the famous Glenn Miller song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," it is said that "you leave the Pennsylvania station at a quarter to four, read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore." What the song doesn't tell you is that the magazine in question is the annual issue of the Applied Physics Letters covering all known theories of the creation of the universe, heavily footnoted and with an extensive bibliography.

Just five years after Thoreau published his Walden in 1854, Colonel (an honorific title) Edward Drake ushered in the age of petroleum by drilling the world's first oil well at Titusville, Pa. Only the most visionary person at that time could have appreciated how that seemingly insignificant event would totally transform human existence.

In another passage from Walden, Thoreau also questions the need for communications: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Sorry, Hank, but I suspect most every day somebody in Texas calls L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, to order boots or camping equipment.

His fellow Americans at the time didn't agree either. The telegraph, known colloquially in those days as "the lightning," was every bit as exciting as today's Internet. In fact, it could be argued that the telegraph was an even greater accomplishment. It represented the first time that messages were carried on any other basis than freight. Urgent communication became a matter of electrons rather than molecules.

Perhaps an even better role model for would-be entrepreneurs is Frederic Tudor, a New England businessman who in the early 19th century single-handedly created a product you use daily: ice.

Yes, ice. Until Tudor had the brainstorm to turn it into an industry, nobody saw the potential value of ice. He did, and he became America's first business tycoon in the process.

British commentator Alistair Cooke, the most astute observer of this country since Alexis de Tocqueville, tells a charming story of how Tudor dropped out of school at the age of 13, looked around for something to do, and seized upon trying to make a profit out of the ice ponds around Boston.

His first attempt ended in failure when he shipped 130 tons of ice to Martinique. Predictably, it melted before it got there. Oops. Time for more research and development. Tudor tried everything from straw to blankets. He finally settled on sawdust.

Another R&D project focused on cutting the ice into uniform blocks. The solution was an ice cutter with two parallel runners made of iron with saw teeth. These cutters were pulled across the ponds by horses.

With production under control, Tudor turned his attention to distribution. He set up icehouses in Havana, New Orleans, and Charleston, S.C., and established his own shipping fleet to deliver ice by the thousands of tons to the West Indies, Persia (Iran these days), India, and Europe.

The foreigners were delighted with the product, according to Cooke, but slightly bemused about what to do with it. So Tudor created a marketing program that anticipated our current age of manipulative advertising. He traveled around the world extolling the virtues of ice for health and good living.

Furthermore, his goal was to create a mass market. When competitors inevitably muscled into the ice business, Tudor streamlined his operations, undercut their prices, and eventually sold his ice at a penny a pound.

The point is that advanced technology — and using straw to insulate ice for ocean voyages was state-of-the-art technology of that time — not only satisfies needs, it creates needs.

Consider the staggering task facing Tudor: he had to create the technology, establish a distribution system, open new markets for something that nobody had ever thought about wanting, and finance the whole business — all at the same time.

This is a country that canonizes its risk-takers. A non-New Englander, Thomas Jefferson, added another chapter for himself in the history books by doubling the size of the young nation in a real estate deal with France that Congress had never authorized. Today a special prosecutor would be appointed to find the "smoking gun" of the Louisiana Purchase.

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