Lessons of the past – revisited…

Sept. 10, 2018

Wow, did I screw up… Those of you who carefully read my last post Lessons of the past no doubt noticed a glaring error. One thoughtful reader pointed it out (thanks David) and so I would like to offer this correction: John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson did not build the S.S. Great Britain (or indeed any ships of its ilk). That distinction belongs to Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Brunel was a master engineer and one of the most imaginative and courageous entrepreneurs of his age. My error, however does provide a very convenient segue into how Brunel illustrates my previous point; that standards rule the day, and proprietary solutions don’t last.

In 1836, Brunel partnered with Thomas Guppy (and others) to form the Great Western Steamship company. Their first ship, the S.S. Great Western was of wooden construction, but it proved that bigger was better; at 236 feet, it was the longest ship ever built and missed being the first steam powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean by a whisker. At the time, conventional wisdom was that a ship this big would never float, but it did - and it did it well. From this point of departure, Brunel went on to design and build two remarkable all-metal hulled ships.

Changing the standard forever

“Wait,” you say, “what about ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson?” Well, it turns out Wilkinson (who invented a large iron bore for cannon that was later used to improve steam engines) did build a metal ship (a 500-ton barge) but this only inspired Brunel to the innovations that so moved the Royal Navy.  In 1843, Brunel built the 3,000-ton S.S. Great Britain - the first propeller-driven, steam-powered metal vessel to cross the Atlantic. That was the design that changed the “standard” for shipbuilding forever.

Brunel was successful at setting a standard because he controlled every part of the enterprise; he did not have to “fit in” with established infrastructures. (Well, except for the launching of his third ship, the S.S Great Eastern, which could not be launched conventionally because it was simply too big. Oops).

Therein lies the lesson - one that Brunel learned early on: when working in an established infrastructure, standardization is crucial.

Before he revolutionized shipbuilding, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a railroad man. In 1833, at the age of 27, he was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway where he set the mark for quality and comfort unsurpassed by any competitors of the day. Rather than use the standard 4 feet 8-1⁄2 inch track width, he proposed and succeeded in building a 240-mile railway with a 7-foot width. The line was faster, smoother and more comfortable - clearly the “wave of the future”.

Standards matter

It turns out - not so much. As there were, at the time, over 2,000 miles of “standard” gauge rail already in use in Britain, Brunel’s grand (technically superior) “non-standard” railroad quickly became unserviceable due to its uniqueness.  By 1892, the Great Western was standard gauge. Yes, standards matter, but not just in ‘gauge’: rather, they must fit in every way - from how they are bought, how they are used and how they are maintained.

At Abaco, we recognize that it isn’t just building things to the standard ‘gauge’ but building them so they fit well into the “use case”; work as seamlessly as possible within larger systems and infrastructures; and be affordable and easy to integrate.

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