Recently I was up in Cape Cod with my family. It rained the week we were there- quite badly in fact – so while waiting for a break in the weather so we could walk the beach- we found ourselves one day at the Museum at the National Seashore which is in fact a National Park.
In the small museum nestled amongst exhibits on the local native -American culture and whaling industry (is it ever possible for one to get too much scrimshaw…?) there was a bicycle from the 1890’s. This bike was interesting in that while it had many wooden components including the actual wheels and spokes, the frame itself along with the gears, pedals, handle bars and even brakes pretty much resembled my current bikes. Okay. It didn’t have the benefit of full Dura-Ace components like my whippy steel LeMonde Maillot Jeune road bike, but the actual layout of the frame (basically two triangles arranged in a trapezoidal format) was very familiar. Now there have been about a zillion improvements to bicycles and all kinds of nutty variations, most of which never achieved anything other than niche status, but frankly, there is no question that Lance Armstrong and my 10 year old son would immediately recognize this as a fairly standard BICYCLE albeit with wood wheels. Why is this? I’m asking myself if there are other example of mechanical / technology items that essentially remain unchanged or if this is just a fluke? I’m looking around my office, and there are a lot of musical instruments which serve as useful tools for procrastination. I play sax and flute and collect older versions of each. Strangely enough even my most modern Flutes and Saxes are almost identical with those designed and made by Msrs. Theo. Boehm and Adolph Sax in the 1850’s. Not only does each have the same number and layout of keys (okay, some will quibble about the split high F key on the sax) but the actual semi-decorative design of the keys themselves is very, very similar.
On the other hand, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, two brilliant, iconoclastic, society changing, consumer-industrialists have produced very different versions of the telephone that frankly bear only the merest resemblance. Again, why is this so? In fact, even before the advent of the iPhone, telephones had been changing at a fairly persistent rate over the decades. In my “short” life thus far, I’ve witnessed changes from clunky Bell-owned dial phones, to “modern” touch-tone, to the cordless electric phones now ubiquitously sold at WalMart and Best Buy in sets of four. Perhaps it is changes in usage that have driven the changes in technology and therefore fundamental form and design. Or, maybe the take away is more that changes come very slowly unless there is a very real need on either the demand or supply side. The usage of both bicycles and flutes have basically remained pretty much the same over the last 100 years, so there has been no reason to change the form factors too significantly. On the other hand phone usage has evolved and morphed significantly part and parcel of the changes in society in general. Where as at one time the phone was a formal and expensive luxury used only when absolutely necessary and in short bursts, its evolution as a game changing mode of communication that changed even the role that communication plays in everyday life (think of teenagers spending hours on the phone,) necessitated the development of easier to use (push button), smaller, more portable devices.
So what does this mean for other mechanical/ technology items moving forward? I’m writing this little musing on a notebook PC that is really not that different from models made and sold on the eve of the internet age. Many of the conventions such as the opening up Microsoft applications, using the keyboard as the primary input mode and using the specific format of pull down menus with abbreviated state names every time I need to fill out an online form are unchanged for the most part. Recent developments like the functionality and interface on the iPhone and especially the iPad seem to incorporate major re-thinks on a number of fundamental elements of usage such as more active use of touch screens and the use of single purpose apps as that substitute for web browsers for many functions.
Perhaps this rethinking is driven by the afore-mentioned supply and demand driven factors related to fundamental changes in how the devices are used and the functions they play in serving us, a solid indicator that the “so-called PC” is finally undergoing major changes more akin to how the telephone evolved and less like the path of the bicycle- wooden wheels and spokes or not.
What do you think?

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