Steam engine time
I’ve been reading the “Science of the Discworld” series and enjoying the immensely. The science (for me at least) is fairly hard core and stretches my brain cells a fair bit, and I love anything by Terry Pratchett anyway — it makes a great combination.A concept that is referred to quite a bit in the third book is the idea of “Steam Engine Time”. The questions is would James Watt, who made several key advances in Steam Engine technology (and is commonly, but mistakenly, known as the inventor of the steam engine), been successful if it wasn’t “Steam Engine Time”. Another way of thinking about this, is if James didn’t come along, would someone else of had his insights?While it’s hard to unpick history, it’s clear that the Steam Engine has existed for many years, indeed powering various religious articles by steam dates back to ancient greece — if you’re an ancient priest, there is nothing like a mysterious door raised by steam power to impress the local supplicants and improve your standing with your God.The conclusion seems to be that almost certainly someone would of had the idea (indeed there were others on similar tracks at the same time). I’m not here to debate it in great detail, other than to say I think there is real merit in this concept that a “Steam Engine Time” comes along and everyone is on a similar path at the same time. For example, without the fact that there were wealthy mineowners who needed solutions for pumping water from ever deeper mines, James may not of got his funding, conversely, if he hadn’t come along, there would of still been a need for the solution and money to find it.Clearly the same phenomonom exists on the internet — in fact there is undoubtably an “Internet time” which was driven by many different causes, but regardless, I suspect something like the internet as we know it (World Wide Web) would of come along with, or without, Tim Berners-Lee. As we all know, the internet itself existed way back into the 70's.Another good example is the “Palm pilot time”, there were other devices (notably the Apple Newton) which did similar things and failed to various degree, eventually Palm were such a dominate player that there was a definite “Palm pilot time”.The clear connecting thread in all of these is that there is a period of lead up where different concepts and parts of the idea exist, followed by a boom when someone eventually clicks with the right combination and the idea becomes widely and inevitably accepted, often like wild-fire.I have several posts in mind over the next few days where I’ll refer back to this idea, so I wanted to make sure it was explained clearly first. Suffice to say, the question forming in my mind is simply “what time are we in now?”If innovation is a process of the right idea, in the right place and at the right time, how do we judge what the right time is and measure what is going on around us to hit the right spot?