Lessons from the past

Aug. 20, 2018

Ah, the past… Sometimes, we all get nostalgic for the way things used to be. The rush of technology brings something new all the time - and especially in the world of computing. But there is no place for nostalgia in computing - or is there?

The DoD in recent years has put enormous emphasis on open standards; VITA standards, interface standards, software standards, you name it. While some in the industry lament this over-standardization, it is time for us to embrace it for the just plain common sense of it all. A lesson learned by the largest military in the world over 150 years ago teaches us still.

Somewhere around 1800 or so, the British Royal Navy (then the world’s superpower) was building ever larger and more powerful (albeit wooden) ships – by hand, and employing ever more sophisticated mechanisms that were also built by hand.

All change

But this would all change in the next 40 years with the launch of John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson’s S.S Great Britain; a 3,000-ton, steam powered, metal ship. It crossed the Atlantic in a mean 14 days. The success of this venture (and the successes that followed, such as the massive S.S. Great Eastern) did not pass the notice of the Royal Navy. In fact, in 1857 a draft design for an armored corvette was proposed and in early 1859 the Royal Navy started construction of armored frigates. By 1861, the decision to move to an all-armored battle fleet was made.

Metal warships became possible in large part because of the rise of precision tool-making. This used machines that could produce high precision things consistently and in the volume needed for complex systems. Technologies developed for making clocks and locks transformed shipbuilding in the hands of Henry Maudslay and James Nasmyth - but the point of this story lies with Joseph Whitworth (one of Maudslay’s assistants).

Whitworth was a fanatic (indeed he developed the standard for “flatness” that existed until the microtechnology of the late 20th century). The lathes and other machine tools available in the day allowed Whitworth and his contemporary tool makers to make superior threaded fasteners, but each maker had their own size and thread standards; no two manufacturer’s fasteners mated (this was still a far cry from the hand-made matched pairs of nut and bolt previously used).


Whitworth, however, was exceptional, and having made a 5-foot long bolt of 500 threads per inch (with a matching 600 thread nut) in 1840, the British Admiralty took note. It could certainly be said that Whitworth’s expertise was a “strategic differentiator” in his market: he (and the Admiralty, one assumes) recognized that standardization would eventually be needed, and so in 1841 he successfully campaigned for all British manufacturers to standardize screw and bolt sizes, thread pitch, and depth. Whitworth created the British Standard Whitworth (BSW) system which was used for more than a century.

It should be clear that the message of standardization in computing is just as important to the military today as the standardization of precision fasteners was to the Royal Navy in the late 1800s. Computer development enjoyed a heyday of wild innovation, making the electronic equivalent of “clocks and locks“ with a plethora of “standards” in everything from processors to operating systems. This was fine for a while - but when critical operation and consistent supply became mandatory, standards became mandatory also.

Abaco embraces open standards and, just like those tool-makers 150 years ago, avoids proprietary ‘standards’ as a differentiator. Instead, we choose to build standards to a higher standard. 

About the Author

Larry Schaffer | Bus Dev

Larry Schaffer has been with us in a business development role since 2001, and works to create and maintain long-term, strategic relationships with key companies engaged in embedded computing for ground systems applications with a strong emphasis on image processing and distribution. He was born in Pennsylvania and educated as an Electrical Engineer in New Jersey and California (where he now lives). Just don’t ask him to tell you about being a war baby.

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