by Bernard Golden

History, IT Innovation and the Pace of Change

Sep 06, 20128 mins
CIOCloud ComputingInnovation

A visit to the English countryside gave columnist Bernard Golden the chance to see Roman ruins, a medieval church and a replica of the first supercomputer. It wasn't until he returned home and saw a driverless car on a California freeway that the scale of innovation he witnessed while sightseeing became clear.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to gain a vantage point on the pace of change we’re seeing in IT. To really get a grasp on it, though, I had to go back to Roman times. What I came away with was a confirmation that we are now confronting an unprecedented rate of innovation and change that will prove a challenge to everyone engaged in IT— user, vendor or service provider.

I did some sightseeing in the United Kingdom in June and July. One of the advantages of seeing a place such as the U.K. is that is has an extended history through which you can examine how humans have lived over time. It’s entirely unlike California, where I live, where everything seems to have been built in the last 50 years with little permanence. The building that housed the first chip manufacturing plant, for example, is now an unused vegetable stand.

One of my first stops was Verulamium, a Roman city near today’s St. Albans. Verulamium, one of the larger Roman settlements in the British Isles, bustled for hundreds of years. While much of the town was torn down to provide building material for the nearby abbey, portions of the Roman walls are still visible on the museum grounds.

The foundation of Verulamium’s London gate can still be seen as well, offering a powerful reminder of everyday life at that time. The gatehouse had a passageway for one wagon and two pedestrians. Nothing, whether goods or information, moved faster than someone could walk or a horse could gallop.

The Verulamium gate, the foundation of which is visible here, left room for one wagon and two pedestrians to pass through.

A few days later, I visited the small village of Olney, which has a rich history—a curate here composed the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Olney is also known for its yearly Shrove Tuesday pancake race, in which the women of the village race from the market square to the church while carrying, yes, a pan with a pancake in it.

My visit also coincided with Olney’s annual Cherry Fair, during which the church bellringers were providing bell tower tours. This proved to be fascinating and striking. The church itself was built in 1325. The tower is quite tall—185 feet—which you get a sense of when climbing the spiral staircase to the room the ringers stand in, which sits about 40 feet above the ground.

The bellringers recently rebuilt the framework from which the bells hang, as the wood had rotted. This framework sits above the actual area where the ringers stand when they pull the ringing ropes. The ringers built the new framework out of steel, which had to be sectioned so that it could pass the narrow staircase. They reckon that the old wooden framework dates back to the 16th century, as one of the bells is stamped with a reference to Queen Elizabeth I.

Onley Church Wood Framework
A section of the old wooden framework and the new steel framework (below) in Olney’s church.
Olney Church Steel Framework

Given the size and weight of the wooden framework, you have to wonder how it was raised into the tower. The engineering ingenuity of the tower and its construction can be seen in the interior shot looking up into the tower. Not only does the tower ascend about 140 feet, there are embedded wooden crosspieces about 90 feet up—and, by the way, look at the length and girth of those timbers. Because the builders worked with essentially the same capabilities as the Romans 12 centuries before them, but in a time of far less economic development, constructing such a tower seems remarkable.

Olney Church Cross Beams
How did medieval construction crews install these wooden cross beams at a height of 90 feet?

Turing’s Colossus: The Very First IT Innovation

A week after my tour through Roman and Gothic construction, I visited Bletchley Park, famous worksite of the WWII British boffins who broke the Enigma machine. Bletchley, quite rightly, has a celebrated role in the development of computing.

One thing that becomes clear during a visit is that Bletchley was critical to Britain’s WWII effort and operated under enormous pressure to provide vital military intelligence. Crucial to the story of innovation is that, when Germany began to use a more sophisticated encryption device, previous code-breaking methods proved insufficient. In response, mathematician and computer science giant Alan Turing and his colleagues designed the Colossus, the very first programmable computer.

Commentary: How Alan Turing Set the Rules for Computing

News: Google Donates $850,000 to Restore Bletchley Park

Certainly the pressure Bletchley Park’s mathematicians faced fostered their creativity and accelerated the development of computing. Progress stalled after the war, when Colossus was destroyed in the name of security, but a replica was built in 2007. Reconstruction engineers at Bletchley Park run Colossus pretty frequently. The sight and sound of the paper tape whirring through the optical reader is remarkable.

An engineer stands before a replica of Colossus, the first computing machine. British mathematicians led by Alan Turing built it to crack German codes during World War II.

Shortly after returning from the U.K., as I mentioned in my last post on “big security,” I pulled up next to a Google self-driving car on a California freeway. Just last week came news that California joined Nevada in legalizing these cars.

I believe the self-driving revolution will move much faster than people expect. Within 10 years this mode of transportation will be common, with unpredictable results. These cars will definitely enable greater work output, entertainment or social interaction; since drivers won’t need to pay attention to the road, they will be able to focus on other, more productive pursuits.

Lotus Formula One
Driverless cars such as this one may be a more common sight on California freeways now that the state legislature has legalized them.

From Draft Animals to Supercomputers to Driverless Cars to…?

This tour of history gave me an opportunity to reflect on change and the pace of innovation. While Verulamium and the Olney church are separated by more than a millennium, their technology and manifestation, impressive as they are, represent similar scale and achievement. Little innovation came to pass between Roman and Gothic times; both relied on human effort supplemented by draft animals.

Another 600 years passed between the building of Olney’s church and the creation of Colossus. Bletchley Park represents a massive step forward in human power and ability. Finally, computerization could be brought to bear to solve a problem a problem clearly beyond the capabilities of humans, no matter how smart or how many.

What is so mind-boggling is that it required 600 years to move from hand-built churches to the initial, quite limited, general computing of Colossus but only 70 years to go from Colossus to fully autonomous vehicles.

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There is no doubt that Colossus is a great achievement, but the complexity and scale it represents is miniscule compared to Google’s autonomous auto. Just consider some of the things the self-driving car must have in place to succeed:

  • Full digital maps that can be mapped against internal GPS positioning to enable trip planning and car positioning
  • Real-time monitoring of events surrounding the vehicle
  • A huge rules database to interpret events and phenomena and enable proper response
  • Sensors and actuators to control the vehicle

Of course, building all this for a single car is out of the question. The scale of the infrastructure only makes sense if it can be shared across millions of vehicles. The vision that Google is promulgating, then, is not that of standalone machines such as Colossus but a vast meshed grid of smart interoperating devices (in this case, autonomous cars) connected in real-time to an enormous processing and storage base located “in the cloud.”

Look at the pace of technology change and it seems self-evident that change is accelerating and innovation is exploding. Immense amounts of data, enormous computing capacity and fast networking are transforming our society—and the pace is picking up.

Commentary: IT Innovation Won’t Be Slowed by Cloud Concerns

The opportunity to see so much human history in such a short period of time and in such a compressed amount of geography is richly rewarding. It provides acute perspective on how our lives have changed. Plop someone from the Roman Empire in medieval times and he or she would have been able to get around. Plunk that same person in London circa 2012 and the experience would be bewildering, overwhelmed and terrifying. You have to wonder if the same reaction would occur if someone from 2012 were dropped into 2112.

Many of us in IT get caught up in the complexities and challenges of getting through each day—so much so that we fail to recognize the profound transformation going on right in front of us. The cure for that is simple. Get out and see some history.

Bernard Golden is the vice president of Enterprise Solutions for enStratus Networks, a cloud management software company. He is the author of three books on virtualization and cloud computing, including “Virtualization for Dummies.” Follow Bernard Golden on Twitter @bernardgolden.

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