How We Got Here (33)

June 21, 2014


A few months after the end of World War I, a man named Orteig had offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Eight years later, the Orteig prize remained unclaimed, but several people were racing to be the first. They were all well known except the boy.

In September, 1926, a three-engine biplane carrying a three-men team led by French World War I ace Rene Fonck crashed and burned on takeoff, killing the two crewmen. The following April, two famed U.S. Naval aviators, testing another three-engine biplane, died when their plane, too, crashed on takeoff. In early May, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli disappeared at sea on a westward flight from Paris in a seaplane.

Two weeks later, three more airplanes were preparing to fly east from Long Island. One was a two-man team led by American air racer Clarence Chamberlin, and the other was a four-man team led by Commander (later Rear Admiral) Richard Byrd. The third was not a team but a lone 25-year-old pilot who, the year before, had been flying the air mail route between St. Louis and Chicago, and his airplane was a single-engine overhead-wing monoplane whose design and construction he had overseen during the winter.

He had much less flying experience than any of the others, none of it over water. He was financing the flight on a $15,000 bank loan, a $1,000 donation from his employer at Lambert Field, St. Louis, and his own small savings. He had had to teach himself great-circle navigation, because he was afraid that if he asked the military to teach him, he would be forbidden to make the attempt. In order to keep down inessential weight, he was flying without a radio. That meant that from eight a.m. May 20, 1927, all through the day and the long night and a good part of the next day, there was no way for the world to know if he was still alive and in the air, or had joined the six who had been killed in the weeks just past.

After that long night, he was spotted over the coast of Ireland, then over England, and then, at nearly 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, he landed at Le Bourget field in Paris, and he and his frail craft were overrun by a hysterically welcoming mob estimated at 150,000 people. The effect his successful flight produced was perhaps proportional to the anxiety caused by the long night – and the dead airmen who had preceded him.

The French Foreign Office flew the American flag for him, President Coolidge sent a Navy cruiser to bring him and his airplane home. The Post Office issued an Air Mail stamp in his honor. He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He was Time magazine’s first “Man of the Year.” His book We, published within months, sold 650,000 copies within a year, earning him a quarter of a million dollars. The boy his friends had always called Slim was being called Lucky Lindy, and The Lone Eagle.

His influence on aviation was phenomenal. Applications for pilot’s licenses in the U.S. tripled. The number of licensed aircraft quadrupled. The number of airline passengers grew 3,000%, to 173,405 in 1929, from 5,782 in 1926. Aviatrix Elinor Smith Sullivan later said that Lindbergh’s flight changed aviation forever because “after Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren’t enough planes to carry them.”

For more – much more —

Oh, and those other two teams that we left on Long Island waiting to fly? Chamberlain made it from New York to Germany in a 43 hour flight two weeks later. Byrd and his team left on June 29, reached Paris on July 1, and, being unable to land there due to weather conditions, wound up ditching in the ocean off Normandy. They both succeeded in making the crossing, and they did it within weeks of Lindbergh’s solo flight. But it didn’t matter. That flight – and something in his winning personality — made Charles A. Lindbergh into an icon, not only in his own country but all through Europe and around the world. And that fame lasted. More than 25 years later, he won a Pulitzer Price with The Spirit of St. Louis, which, among other things, told of his out-of-body experience and spiritual contacts during that long night over the North Atlantic.



How We Got Here (32)

June 20, 2014


Like John F. Kennedy later, Franklin Roosevelt was more than an American politician and statesman. Something in his demeanor and what he was thought to stand for caught people’s imagination. They invested hope in him. When he died, the crowds in England stood stunned, or wept, and felt as bereaved as if they had lost a member of their own family – and this was before television brought moving, talking images into the home. If they felt they knew Roosevelt, it was from the movie newsreels, and from the newspapers and radios, and from the feeling that they had that he had been the friend of the things they believed in, and had, therefore, been a friend to them. Wilson, as we shall see, was popular for a while, and the common people put their trust in him. But Roosevelt caught their imagination and their affection and their trust as no American had done since Lincoln, and none would do again until Kennedy, and perhaps Eisenhower.

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How We Got Here (31)

June 19, 2014

The atom in war and peace

I think it’s safe to say that we mostly look upon the atom as a curse, but there was a time when it looked like the bright shining hope for a better future for everybody, and a time before that when it looked like our one great hope for survival, and a time before that when we were in a deadly race, or thought we were, to create an atomic bomb before the Nazis did.

To work our way backward. Eisenhower in the 1950s announced Atoms For Peace, an attempt to harness the phenomenal power of atomic fission (and, perhaps one day,  the even more phenomenal power of atomic fusion) for peaceful purposes. At the time it was fantasized that atomic plants would provide clean electric power “too cheap to meter,” freeing industrial countries from dependence upon foreign oil and offering the possibility that underdeveloped countries could leapfrog the entire development cycle, beginning where we were winding up. among the unintended results was that of giving access to nuclear materials and know-how to countries that might have had a more difficult time, otherwise, developing their own bombs. Not England, Russia, France, or China, and not Israel, but perhaps India and Pakistan, anyway. And if it had not been for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, one shudders to think how much farther the plague would have spread, because it became ever easier, ever cheaper, to develop atomic bombs. What cost the United States a terrific effort could now be done by dime-store countries with spare change. Lucky us.

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How We Got Here (30)

June 18, 2014


We tend to forget that before the world was changed by personal computers, the world was changed by mainframes. Computers were invented for gunnery control (if you were going to aim your cannons in fast-moving situations, or from fast-moving platforms, you had to make too many computations too fast to do it by hand). Like other things – like air conditioning, like airplanes, like so many other things, as we’ll see — the technology matured rapidly as money was poured into development, and as it moved from the military to the civilian sphere.

The first computers were electronic, but they were also mechanical. The computations themselves took place as fast as the electrons could hustle, but which paths they followed – what operations they performed, in what order, depended upon hard-wired boards that had to be switched out, one after another, in the correct order, to get the job done. It was a big breakthrough, the day someone figured out how to tell the machine to (in effect) change its own wiring, task by task. Enter the programmable computer. Now all the figuring out was done in advance. Instructions were fed into the machine via decks of punched IBM cards the size of the pre-war dollar bill. The machine read the deck card by card, executed each instruction one by one, and, if the programming was right, went from operation to operation at electronic, rather than at manual, speed.

Initially the machines were so expensive, that IBM president Thomas Watson estimated that worldwide demand for computers might be as high as six, an estimate that wasn’t spectacularly accurate.

At first they were programmed in what is called machine language, a binary digital language consisting of groups of zeros and ones. Machine language is also called microcode:  hence, Microcode Software – Microsoft. You can imagine how difficult it is to program. Then someone invented Assembler, which made matters easier. (If you’re interested, Then came FORmula TRANslation (FORTRAN) for scientific and mathematical calculations, and COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) for the relatively simple manipulation of massive amounts of data. These languages turned the computer into a practical way to automate many more real-world applications. COBOL for instance started to replace payroll calculations and bank statements.

This created a huge market, and IBM and other companies learned how to fill it. The IBM 360 and 370, particularly, poured into the business world in great numbers, creating large profits which could be, and were, poured back into further research and development.

By the 1960s, they were everywhere in business and government. (The space race wouldn’t have gone very far without them.) Less visibly, they were transforming military applications, as well. But the mainframe computer was never going to make its way into the home or small office, so the personal computer was a revolution built upon a revolution, which is practically shorthand for the story of technology in the 20th century.





Austin Chronicle – June 13, 2014

In The Four-Gated City, Doris Lessing wrote: “In any situation anywhere there is always a key fact, an essence. But it is usually every other fact, thousands of facts, that are seen, discussed, dealt with. The central fact is usually ignored, or not seen.”

A central fact stirs little debate but sets the terms of our days.

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How We Got Here (29)

June 17, 2014


They were both right. This American invention of the 1920s, not put into commercial production until after the second world war had ended, had a totally transformative impact on world culture, but with distinctly mixed effects. Like most American technology of the 20th century, it was technically superb and was continually improved upon, as it went from small black-and-white kinescopes with nine-inch screens to full-color sets with screens that stretched several feet in height and width. But, also like most American technology of the 20th century, the uses it was put to were often trivial or even harmful.

In 1962, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minnow by name, criticized commercial television as “a vast wasteland” of mediocre programming, repetitive, imitative, and unimaginative. He was so right. In television’s earliest years, unless you lived in one of the largest cities, your TV fare was restricted to a choice among three national commercial networks, perhaps augmented by an anemic public-television channel. Even the coming of cable TV (which came, at first, to areas that could not receive good broadcast quality) did little to expand the choice.

Communications-satellite links, and the installation of high-capacity fiber-optic cable in much of the urbanized part of the nation, broke the monopoly of the three networks. Now you could receive hundreds of channels. This transformed the situation, because now a single channel could specialize on one subject, day in and (increasingly) day out. Thus, news channels, sports channels, movie channels, shopping channels (!) etc. If you really wanted to watch Star Trek re-runs 24 hours a day, and you owned a TV remote, you could.

You could, and so could the world, and so American television flooded the world, just as American movies had done, beginning in the 1930s. in effect, perpetual free advertising for a certain version of the American way of life. It had an incalculable effect, but a big one. Some came to hate the “Coca Cola Culture,” others fell in love with a vision of a way of life they never otherwise would have dreamed of, and of course many people were pulled two ways. The one indisputable thing about television is that it changed everything it touched, and it touched everything.


How We Got Here (28)

June 16, 2014


After he was killed, this American president’s photograph could be found in people’s homes all over the world. This gringo president created wild enthusiasm in a brief tour of Central America in the summer of 1963, when only a few years earlier, then-vice president Richard Nixon had nearly been attacked by a hostile mob in Caracas. Yes, part of it may have been that for the first time ever, an American president shared their Roman Catholicism, but that wouldn’t explain the Kennedy-mania that swept Europe and other countries.

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