Friday, December 20, 2013

A Maritime Disaster Leads to the Development of the Pocket Watch

In 1707, four British ships, under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, were shipwrecked on the coast of Sicily islands and around 2,000 marines died. The cause of this disaster was due to their inability to accurately calculate their naval position. At the time, this was considered one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history. The event resulted in Parliament announcing a prize of 2,000 pounds (which would be around 2 million pounds today or around $3+ million dollars) to the first person who could develop a practical way to measure longitude.

Many years later, in 1726, a clockmaker by the name of John Harrison, took up this challenge. He was 33 when he started this quest and he received the prize money when he was 80 years old.  It took him 47 years and many redesigns of the clock to solve all the necessary problems (such as being free from the rocking motion on a ship, able to withstand and salty moist air, being portable, and being very accurate). 

He made four basic clock designs over those years and with every step, the design and the performance improved.  The first clock was huge and weighed 39 Kg.  The second and third redesign were also very large clocks and took a lot of space.
Harrison's first sea clock (H1)
But something happened in the fourth redesign, or H4. It was totally unlike anything before. It was as if the thinking was out-of-the-box and it became almost pocket size. This time, it weighed only1.5 Kg and met all the necessary protocols to be sea worthy, accurate, and then some. It was much better than anyone had expected.
Harrison's "Sea Watch" No.1 (H4), with winding crank
The whole process of designing a solution to measure longitude reminded me of our quest to solve accurate logarithm tables, which is what triggered the need to build the first computer

The first commercial computer was built in 1944 and later became commercially available in June, 1951. At that time, it was made with 5,200 vacuum tubes and consumed 125 kW of power.  Later computer models were redesigned with a transistor and then an integrated circuit, so each redesign reduced the need for consuming electricity and also improved its computing ability. Then, in 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, sold the first Apple computer, which introduced personal computing to the masses. Later, in 1982 the internet protocols were standardized and consequently, the concept of a world-wide network of interconnected networks was introduced (called the internet).  The computer was again redesigned and this time combined with telephony in 1994. Today a huge percentage of computers sold are smartphones and do much more than we ever imagined (includes a computer, a phone, a camera, a video, a means to play music, a means to connect with the internet, etc.).

It seems that the problem solving journey begins with one goal, but in that quest, additional desires are included. Eventually there is a moment when something happens to cause a major shift and redesign to better accommodate everything gathered and learned along the way. We saw this with the redesign of the clock. We also saw this with the redesign of the computer. 

It will be fun to watch and observe the next great problem and its evolutionary process towards a solution. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be a remarkable journey and another great story.