The Thinker: Rich Galen


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A Brief History of Technology

Rich Galen

Monday July 22, 2019

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  • I'm not ready to let go of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Give me one more whack at it.

  • In 1903, the unfortunately named Orville and Wilbur Wright flew what is generally accepted to be the first powered aircraft. It went about 120 feet.

  • In 1927, just 24 years later, Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from New York to Paris; a distance of about 3,600 miles.

  • In 1961, 34 years after that, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space - defined as between 50 (U.S.) and 62 (International) miles above mean sea level. Shepard's flight reached 116.5 statute miles and so qualified as having reached "space" in both systems.

  • In 1969, eight years on, two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, first walked on the moon. 240,000 miles from Earth.

  • All that to say: Technology, at least flight technology, increased at an astonishingly increasing rate over the first 70 years of the 20th century.

  • This composite photo above represents the difference in size between Shepard's Redstone rocket and Apollo 11's Saturn V (Images via NASA)

  • Being first is always a big deal. Don't believe me? Who were the two astronauts who followed Armstrong and Aldren as the second and third to walk on the moon on Apollo 12? I'll help you (I did look it up: Pete Conrad and Alan Bean.


    We all remember who was aboard Apollo 13 - Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxon.

    Nah. They're the actors who played astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise in the famous movie.

    Also, the phrase "Houston, we have a problem" was substituted for the real phrase "Houston we've had a problem" because director Ron Howard thought it was a stronger line than the original past-perfect sense.


  • Technology didn't do a full stop when the Apollo 17 mission signaled the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

  • The 1970s also saw the first personal computers. One of the earliest, the Altair 8800, was sold as a kit. BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), which had been developed at Dartmouth College, was seized upon by two guys who wrote a compiler for the language and sold it under the brand name Micro-Soft. The two guys were Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

  • About the same time, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak developed their own kit computer, the Apple I.

  • What's a computer that can't talk to another computer? A boat anchor.

  • So, on October 29, 1969 the first message was sent over what would become the Internet. A computer at UCLA was set up to send a message to a computer at Stanford over what was to become known as ARPANET (designed by the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA).

  • History records (as does
    The programmers attempted to type in and transmit the word "login," but the system crashed right after they typed in the "o."

  • As the saying goes: Áa change, plus c'est la mÍme chose.

  • The first commercial cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC, was released in 1984. It weighed over two pounds did little but send and receive phone calls, and cost about $10,000 in current dollars.

  • The total number of independent app developers in the world in 2006 was exactly zero. That's because Steve Jobs didn't announce the iPhone until 2007.

  • There were the Blackberry, the Palm Pilot, and others, but they were the Wright Brothers and the Mercury Redstone compared to the power and utility of modern smartphones.

  • The first SMS message wasn't sent until 1992 when a young engineer in the U.K. texted "Merry Christmas" to a colleague.

  • In 1989 the Magellan Navigation company released the first civilian GPS receiver. It's price was $2,900 and it received a "degraded" signal so bad guys couldn't use it. The current system of full operational capabilities wasn't available to civilians until 2000.

  • What's ahead? Genetic cures, digitally printed artificial organs, the whole field of robotics (from packing and delivering your order from Amazon to going to grandma's house for Christmas in a self-driving car).

  • Add your own here.

  • As cool as all these developments and inventions have been, for sheer audacity, scale, and significance, Apollo 11 still steals the show.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring Page today: Links to the histories of the space program, personal computing, cell phones, and the Internet.

    The Mullfoto is of a rainbow over Annapolis harbor last week.

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