I was talking to my boss today in the lunch room and he told me he was watching Get Smart on DVD. It’s a television program from the 1960s that spoofs the spy/secret agent genre. Maxwell Smart, the super-spy main character, who is also a bumbling fool, has a super high-tech wireless phone built into his shoe. To use it, you rotate the heel and the ear piece is underneath.
My boss explained that in one episode, Smart was at the symphony and as the music started, the lights went down, and everyone shut up to watch the performance, Smart’s shoe phone started ringing. I wonder what the writers thought at the time. I imagine the viewers must have thought it was a completely ridiculous situation. Forty years later, it’s annoying and not nearly so ridiculous because some people forget to be considerate of others with their electronic devices.
It reminds me of one of the main points James Burke illustrates again and again in his fantastic documentary series, Connections. He said that no one who invents something new really has any idea what effect their creation will ultimately have on the world. Truer words…
One of my favourite examples is Alfred Nobel. Yea, he’s the guy behind the Nobel Prize, but it’s not his first claim to fame. What he discovered first was that nitroglycerin is far more stable and safer to handle if mixed with an inert substance. He patented the result in 1867 and called it dynamite.
According to the Wikipedia, Nobel later discovered that combining nitroglycerin with gun cotton resulted in a jelly-like substance that is also a more powerful explosive than dynamite. He patented Gelignite in 1876.
Twelve years later,
The erroneous publication in 1888 of a premature obituary of Nobel by a French newspaper, condemning him for his invention of dynamite, is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Upon his death in 1896, his will directed 31 million kronor to fund the Prize and it was first awarded in 1901. Converted, 31 million kronor is 4.2 million US dollars. That’s 4.2 million 1896 US dollars. Nobel made some serious money!
So he came up with an explosive and guilt fuelled by a premature obituary led him to create a better legacy in the form of the Nobel Prize.
My boss’s description of Smart’s shoe phone reminded me of a quote that foresaw the ubiquity of the cell phone more than a century ago:
There is no doubt that the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires and gutta-percha coverings and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities. Then, when a person wants to telegraph a friend, he knows not where, he will call in an electromagnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electromagnetic ear, but will be silent to everyone else. He will call ‘Where are you?’ and the reply will come ‘I am at the bottom of the coal-mine’ or ‘I am Crossing the Andes’ or ‘In the middle of the Pacific’; or perhaps no reply will come at all, and then he may conclude that his friend is dead.
I read this in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1984 book, 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures. Clarke credits W.E. Ayrton with writing the quoted text in 1897.
What Ayrton couldn’t have possibly imagined are the drawbacks of always being reachable and the consequent desire for screening one’s calls using call display.