Science Rocks

Science Week – Computers

ScienceI don’t think anyone takes computers for granted these days so there isn’t a lot of sense in telling everyone how important they are in the world. Instead I want to talk about how they, more than any politician, altered the economic landscape of the United States and mention of few of the most important names in the field. It’s important to understand why computer technology kept the U.S. as the world’s leading economy and why we are now, once again, in some danger of losing that power.

So my loyal followers, dig into your closets, find that oft used Time Travel cap, and place it firmly upon your head as we go … back … back … back to 1971.

Computers have been around for quite some time with even the ancients using calculating machines. I’m skipping past the fascinating stories of Hero of Alexandria, Wilhelm Shickard,  Charles Xavier Thomas, Ryoichio Yazu,  Joseph Marie Jacquard, Charles Babbage, Herman Hollerith, Arthur Pollen, and Konrad Zuse among a host of others. If you’ve time and inclination these are all interesting stories. However, I’m skipping ahead a bit.

In 1971 Intel developed the microprocessor for a Japanese computer company based on an invention of Robert Dennard. What I think is important here is that a U.S. company built it for a Japanese company. At this time Japan’s economy was growing while the U.S. was beginning a period of stagnation. Japanese cars were flooding the market and American consumers rightly found them to be superior to home built vehicles. Technology from Asia was beginning a flow that continues to this day with China leading the way.

Then in 1975 a little machine called the Altair 8800 was introduced and a group of young Americans began to play with it.  A couple of young fellows named Paul Allen and Bill Gates wrote something called a BASIC Interpreter for it. Two other young guys, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began to work on their own versions of home computers.

Now, I’m going to leave aside all the name dropping and get back to the economics of computers and how they changed the landscape of U.S. power. By the late 1970’s there was a feeling that the U.S. was losing it’s place as the preeminent economy in the world. Gasoline embargoes and the rise of Asian technological advances contributed to a perception that probably had some merit if was overblown.

Computers changed all that. With companies like Microsoft, Apple, a reinvigorated IBM, Hewlett Packard, Xerox, Commodore, and a host of others suddenly pumping huge sums of money into the economy and paying massive tax bills our economy grew at an astonishing rate. The link between economic growth and technical achievement is strong. However, the boost we gained from computers is waning as it does with all new technology. There are some arguments that this boost was less than others throughout history.

With new technology our living standards improve dramatically, our work week declines, our free time increases, and our buying power increases. I think many of these things are directly attributable to the rise of computers and their related technologies.

The lesson I take from all this is that if we want to continue to improve our lives then we need to continue to invest in emerging technologies and particularly reward entrepreneurship. Too much of late I see Crony Capitalism and regulations designed to empower the established businesses at the expense of the small innovators.

This is a core message of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. If the big companies squeezed out Microsoft, Apple and others with regulations and government intervention our lives would have suffered. The individual achiever must be allowed to innovate and achieve and then we all benefit.

In my opinion, the next new technology is alternate energy. If we continue to invest heavily in subsidies for oil we will fall behind other nations researching nuclear, wind, solar, wave, thermal and other sources of power. If this happens will will lose our place as the most powerful economy in the world. I’ll take that topic on in more detail soon.

For now I simply want to say thank you to all the men and women who bring me computer technology! Gentlemen, Ladies, thank you! Maybe you can take the time to head down into the little cave where your IT staff resides eating donuts and making fun of the technologically illiterate. Ignore the odors, the dank depression, the wild eyed maniac drooling in the corner, and any other strange things you might see, pop your head in with a cheery smile and say, “Thanks!” Then get out of there while you still can!

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist