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Those Who Forget History… March 4, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.

One of my favorite magazines is going through a reorganization, having been bought out with the promise of being kept in print.  I’m referring to Invention & Technology, which offers up a widely varying history of technology, four times a year.  Here’s hoping they find they way out of their current difficulties to keep publishing.

I find the history of technology fascinating.  The lesson learned, over and over, is that what we are doing today, with our fancy computers and network gadgets, is no different from what other people did with sewing machines, or dishwashers, or airplanes, or cameras.  Throughout history, and certainly in the past 150 years, technology has brought about sudden and unexpected societal change.  That change is accompanied by bad investments, poor project management, horrible design decisions, unexpected outcomes, and undeserving heroes.

In many cases, the stories that originate in the 1800s provide the backdrop of the foundation of many modern companies.  Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher as a way to make a living after her husband died; her great-grandfather, John Fitch, had a working steamboat service in production 20 years before Robert Fulton. Josephine’s machine was a tremendous success, but women were not well-regarded as heads of industry; she sold her company which became, after a few name changes, KitchenAid.

Electricity was all the rage at the turn of the last century. Varying load demands led power companies to only generate power at night, when demand was more consistent. Earl Richardson, a supervisor at a California power plant, developed an electric iron to encourage housewives to use power during the day.  The iron was popular since it provided heat all the way to the tip of the iron, unlike other irons of the day.  The resulting appliance company? HotPoint, of course.

On and on the stories go, concisely captured for our review and edification.  We ignore them at our own peril; the lessons they teach about innovation, persistence, and leadership are as pertinent today as they were way back then.  Fortunately, the full twenty years of the magazine are preserved online, with a nice search engine atop the archive.  Take a moment to see how all these problems were solved by our forefathers; you just may find the solution to the problems you are battling today.


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