One interesting, if not addictive, facet of YouTube is its ability to learn your preferences and suggest additional clips based on its perception of your interests.  If this sometimes leads you down rabbit holes, it can occasionally can lead you toward unexpected paths.

YouTube knows I like European history, so it presents me regularly with interesting clips and lecture series.  One day, it decided I would enjoy watching some excerpts from recent movies about WW I aerial combat – Flyboys (WWI US flyers) and The Red Baron (same, but from a German perspective), both made in about 2008.

In both cases, the actors and associated CGI are breathtaking – the illusion of air combat reality can yield a real feeling of vertigo-inducing dizziness as you “fly” with the planes as they dive and weave to avoid enemy machine gun fire.  But – what really makes an impression is the positive primitiveness of the machines.  Pilots on all sides flew what were essentially crates with wings, engines, and guns.  There was little protection, guns were fired by sight, and flown “seat of the pants”.  Tactics were literally written on the fly.  BUT: considering that the first heavier than air flight by the Wright brothers was something like only 15 years in the past, the technological advances are breathtaking.

Several weeks later, YouTube decided that I would enjoy watching clips from the movie “The Battle of Britain” (1969), which as can be guessed, is about the air war over England in 1940-41.  Again, the CGI and acting are outstanding.  But – there is much less vertigo because the tactics have changed, but now more deadly.  No more flying crates, open cockpits, colorful insignia, bi/triplanes, and firing of machine guns through spinning propellers.  The Spitfires, Messerschmitts, and Henkel bombers look a lot more familiar and modern.  Yet – the time frame is only about 20 years (1918 – 1940), and aircraft have advanced at about the same huge rate as they did in 1903 –1918. 

When I was in 7th or 8th grade (early 1960’s), we had a substitute teacher who was a  pilot in the 1930’s and talked about the transition from biplanes to single wing aircraft.  He said the joke among pilots was that single-wing planes were so sensitive that if you parted your hair too much to one side, the plane would tilt when flying.  News magazines from the 1940’s showed crashed prototypes of B-17 and B-29 bombers, saying that “they were too much plane for a pilot to fly”.

Now  – advance to the Viet Nam period of the late 1960’s (no movies necessary – watch real news clips).  The Phantoms and MIG’s have advanced as much over their WW II ancestors as WWII planes over WWI aircraft: advanced jet propulsion, exotic metal alloys, supersonic flight, smart weapons (toward the end): another set of huge technical leaps. 

But – advance another 30-40 years, into the early 21st century….technical change has slowed down – incremental vs. revolutionary.  The jet fighters of today, as advanced as they are, would be instantly recognizable to a Phantom pilot of the 1960’s…..he might even be able to fly them with minimal instruction.  There are better electronics, better weaponry, etc., etc. but nowhere near the radical changes of 1903 – 1968. 

Or…consider the advances in Micro/Personal Computers.  The first PC, in early 1975, was a kit – the Altair, and many of its advertised accessories were unavailable until many months later.  But – this sparked a revolution and the creation of many start-ups devoted to PC’s – Kentucky Fried Computers, Apple, Sinclair, Commodore, etc.  As computers evolved rapidly, their development modeled that of aircraft between 1903 – 1965 (but even faster): new storage devices, faster microprocessors, improved screen displays, better operating systems.  The computers of the early 2000’s bore only a superficial resemblance to those of 1975. 

But – after 2005, technology improvements slowed down, and today’s improvements are incremental rather than revolutionary.  And – the same model applies to radios, televisions, etc.

 So – how do you model technical advances…?  I would say the best model is how grass grows in the spring and summer.  The initial germination in late March/early April is akin the development of a novel, new technology.  After the initial germination of the grass is completed, the grass grows at an accelerated rate, fueled by mid-spring sun and showers (those of you who have lawns to mow know this pattern all too well).  This is similar to the accelerated growth of a new technology as advance leads to advance, creating a forced convection situation.  Then as the summer wears down, the grass grows at a seriously reduced rate … an incremental once a week or every two-week cutting suffices.  And…even after the weather cools and the rains return in mid-September,  the grass does not return to its spring growth, and eventually stops during the late fall and winter.

 So it is with technology…. After that initial burst of convective growth, a given technology sees reduced, incremental improvement.  It typically will never regain that bloom of youth.  As stated above, one can follow similar trends in TV’s (clunky 1950’s black and white sets to sleeker color TV’s of the late 1960’s to flat-screen units), typewriters (primitive 1890 versions to the peak of manual designs in the 1940’s to IBM Selectrics in the 1960’s to Word Processors to obsolescence), etc. etc.

 There is one interesting characteristic of technical evolution compared to natural growth rates.  While grass growth rates uniformly slow down once their spring peak passes, technologies show a final burst of growth just before they go obsolescent, similar to the guttering of candle before it goes out.  An excellent example is air-controlled (pneumatic) chemical process control instrumentation.  Over a period of years, from 1940 –1970, the technology became more sophisticated and capable of more precise control.  Starting in 1975, the first computer controlled instrumentation was introduced.  These devices were comparatively primitive, but engineering personnel could see the advantage of digital control vs. analogue control.  As digital controls became more sophisticated, the competitive environment led to a renaissance of pneumatic control.  These were beautiful to see – they used springs, bellows, and sophisticated analogue loops to gain precise process control. And… then they went obsolete…one final gasp before fading out.  The same trend could be seen for typewriters.  The final, semi-electronic models used first-pass electronic controls to do spell checking and auto-erase functions, before PC’s wiped them out beginning in 1985. 

Grass never does this….

So… are these similar characteristics simply coincidences, so do they reveal some unitary Truth about natural and technical events and humanity’s interaction with them? 

As can be seen from the above, a YouTube addiction can lead to all sorts of interesting intellectual musings….

JTS – 6/27/17

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