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Old ideas fuel new technology

An English Rose in Georgia

POSTED: August 3, 2017 7:30 p.m.
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Lesley Francis grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009.

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I am not someone who always has to have the latest gadget or car, but when there is a solid reason to upgrade because I need the technology for my work or because my old one is damaged or becomes unreliable then I enjoy selecting something new, and am usually amazed by the rate of change and technical advances.

I recently upgraded to a new smartphone and it really is super-smart. I know I am not yet using all its functions. It is amazing to think that when I was at school we managed without this technology – I even learned to touch type on an old fashioned manual typewriter because I knew that for a career in PR it would be helpful for old fashioned word processing! That turned out to be a super-smart decision in the computer age and has saved me countless hours at my desk.

At 51, I am old enough to remember functioning as an adult before the mobile phone, but young enough to embrace all the technology that has come along in recent decades. For example, the mobile phone is only about 30 years old – and began as car phones or brick type objects that needed their own special case to be portable. Even more surprising, the smartphone, which is officially defined as a phone that serves many of the functions of a computer including access to the Internet, is less than 20 years old. According to Pew Research, 95 percent of US adults have cellphones today. While those over 65 years old are only at 80 percent and bring the overall average down a bit, the 18-29 year old age group is at an astonishing 100 percent; visit www.pewresearch.org

Now that the vast majority of Americans carry a super-computer around in their pocket, it seems like the rate of technological change is accelerating. Every month, another important gadget, app or technology appears to come along that quickly becomes embedded in our daily lives. And that made me wonder, where do all these ideas come from?

Some of these are based on ideas that go back a century or more. Cell phones themselves have roots back to 1920 when the first car-to-car radios were used by police. The idea for the first satnav arguably can be traced back to the 1920’s "Plus Fours Routefinder," a nifty little British invention that was mounted on a wristwatch, with little pre-written route maps in the form of tiny scrolls. The user simply turned the scrolls as he went on his journey until he got to the point it said "END."

What about robots? Maybe we should credit Thomas Edison with the first attempt. After he invented the wildly successful phonograph, the businessman in him started looking for other ways to package and sell them. He decided to launch the Edison Phonograph Doll in 1890. These each had a little metal record inside with the song "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on it, every one individually recorded by a team of women hired for the job. Despite his business genius, this one flopped since most people thought they were just plain creepy. This was one idea that was definitely before it time!

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, also had a go at building the world’s first metal detector. His goal was not to make money but to save the life of the president of the United States.

President James Garfield was shot in an assassination attempt in July 1881. Doctors from far and wide went to Washington, DC, to try to figure out how to find and remove the bullet, and during the two months that the President lived on, there was a lot of probing and poking around in the wound, creating infections and other complications. Bell decided to get involved and devised an electromagnetic transmitter that would make a noise if the transmission was interrupted by metal. The device worked well enough during testing but failed when used on Garfield. Some accounts say the device worked fine but the attending doctor wouldn’t let it be used in the correct area of the body; others say that it picked up metal on the bedsprings and was deemed a failure. In any event, the president died, but the idea for the metal detector lived on. Check out The Smithsonian Institute’s magazine (www.smithsonianmag.com) for more information on these and other strange technologies of yesteryear.

Maybe the underlying ideas for much of today’s technology is not new and special. Instead, maybe we are just getting better at delivering it faster, more accurately and efficiently, and packaging it up in a more user-friendly way. Dean Kamen, American inventor of another unusual device, that self-balancing people transporter known as the Segway, says "Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation," I could not agree more.

God bless America!

 She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or via her PR agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

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