We’ve come a long way since then, and I’ve been lucky to walk by the side of several amazing machines.
One of the earliest I met was when I was 12. My father, a smoker, took me on a tour of a cigarette factory. It remains my first recognition of the amazing creativity and genius of those who design manufacturing equipment. Imagine, a series of machines working in harmony to take tobacco and paper, cut the paper into small pieces, pour tobacco into each, roll the paper around it creating a cigarette, place 20 cigarettes into a package and then 10 packages into a box. It was fascinating. It was an amazing accomplishment. I still think so even though I now am fully aware of the negatives of tobacco and the tricks of the industry to addict us. It’s interesting that, at the end of the tour, my father was given a pack of cigarettes. And I was given a pack of candy cigarettes. Obvious now to see the deceitful goal: get the kid to fondle a fake cigarette like a real one and learn the feel of something in his mouth. It worked in one sense: I did mimic the actions of my father. But I won the long-term battle through luck more than anything. I never became a smoker.
My college had one of the first electronic computers. There had been earlier ones constructed from electromechanical devices, but the use of vacuum tubes promised increased speed and versatility. The machine was on two floors. At the heart of computers is the flip-flop, a device that is always in one of two states and thus can remember a single binary digit. There are several flip-flops in computers. In the machine at my school, known as Whirlwind, each one cost $200 in 1950’s dollars! I may be wrong here, but I seem to recall the machine had a gigantic 1000 words of memory! Now the smallest cell phone has more power by a huge factor than Whirlwind. But at the time it was an amazing achievement and made an impression on me I will never forget.
Advances in computers allowed phone companies to enter the electronic age and the Electronic Switching System was developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s. Before then phone communication was all electromechanical and I had the opportunity to tour an office where all the relays were opening and closing, allowing the routing of calls. It was an amazing experience as the clicking of moving parts was constant. I learned much of the logical design of the mechanical circuits that made up the system and was once again struck by the creativity of those who had conceived them. In the 1970s I taught a course in switching theory which related to the design of computers and phone systems. I took my class to a telephone office where we saw the new electronic system in operation. No more clicking.
I visited our local newspaper building, back in the days when physical papers were widely read. I saw linotype machines and huge presses that took gigantic rolls of paper and turned them into printed and folded newspapers ready for delivery. Another testimony to the creativity of humans.
I once worked on a project to improve the efficiency of the post office. I got to see machines that cancelled stamps and other minor functions. What impressed me most was a new device, experimental at the time, that could read addresses and route the letter along the correct path. One result of our study was to recommend that the country be divided into zones with an identifying number for each zone so that an initial machine sorting could easily direct a letter to the proper route. We were told, in the elaborate gigantic office of the prissy Assistant Postmaster General, that the public would never accept such a concept and our recommendation was rejected. It wasn’t much later that saner minds accepted the concept of zip code, but that was independent of our work. As an interesting sidelight, back then there were postal boxes everywhere and another of our recommendations was to have two at each location, one for local mail and one for out of town. This would eliminate a major initial sorting and hence increase efficiency. We were told that was unworkable because they had tried it. When the boxes were emptied, the worker had dumped both contents into the same bag!
Ingenuity has no limits. Humans constantly push the boundary of creation. Just think about modern computers, phones, self-driving cars, space vehicles, drones, medical devices, and so much more. I will always be amazed and look forward to what comes next.