The Rise and Fall of American Technology

By Lynn G. Gref | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3. THE PACE OF TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT

“There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see
it take place too quickly.”—Georg C. Lichtenberg

Chapter 1 presented a review of the history of some examples of technologies that had a significant impact on America during the twentieth century. Nearly a hundred years transpired between the discovery of the underlying principle of semiconductors and the demonstration of the first transistor. It took essentially ten years from Bell Labs initiation of a concerted effort to develop the transistor until the first commercial products employing the transistor made it to the marketplace. This was after two decades of research on semiconductors in search of a solid-state amplifier.

Albert Einstein identified the principle underlying lasers in a paper in 1905. It was not until 1960 that Theodore Maiman demonstrated the first laser and it was not until 1969 that Xerox demonstrated the first product (a laser printer) using lasers. It took another ten years before IBM introduced the first commercial laser printer. The story is similar for the solar cell. Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, Charles Fritts demonstrated the first solar cell in 1877, Einstein established the theoretical basis in 1905, Bell Labs’ researchers demonstrated the first solar battery in 1954, and NASA launched the first satellite employing solar cells in 1958.

The examples presented in Chapter 1 suggest that the technology development cycle frequently takes decades to complete. On the other hand, the clarions of the news media point to the ever-quickening pace of technology development. The captains of the technology sector of industry tout the rapidity with which technology is moving. Moreover, everyone has experienced the obsolescence of their high-tech products—cell phones, home or office computer, software, et cetera. The temptation is to believe that the pace of technology development is no longer of decadal duration but rather one of a year or so.

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