In September 1882, it was clear that the future would be different when Edison lit up the world’s first central electric power plant at the Pearl Street Station in New York City. It was equally clear in December 1913, when Henry Ford turned on the first modern production line in Detroit, and similarly in May 1952, when British Overseas Airlines inaugurated the first commercial jet flight in London. However it is important to remember that none of these events occur in isolation from so many other developments that make them possible. It turns out that nearly all new developments depend on at least two other previous developments. In general science we call it “the rule of threes”.
Consider the iPhone. It could not have been built were it not for the availability and maturity of three technologies that had come of age, none of which Apple or Steve Jobs had anything to do with: the silicon microprocessor, a pocket sized TV screen and the lithium battery.
Take any of these three technologies away and we have no iPhone. It takes nothing away from the genius of Jobs or Apple who were first to perform this technological trifecta, taking advantage of revolutionary tools invented decades earlier by others. All inventions are built on layers of combinations of other more foundational things which can be traced as Mark Mills said in his magnificent book The Cloud Revolution, “in a kind of Russian nesting doll structure”.
This technological rule of threes is seen over and over in history. Louis Daguerre inventor of the Daguerreotype, an early form of photography, employed high quality lenses, chemicals which could record and fix images, and the idea of fixed images which had been written about centuries before.
Samuel Morse, father of the telegraph which was built on three enabling technologies, the electro magnet, the battery and the ability to make cable.
Guglielmo Marconi, whose name was a synonym for radio for decades was a able to build the first “wireless” from the telegraph, telephone and the radio frequency vacuum tube, all of which were invented decades earlier.
Willis Carrier who produced the first useful air conditioner, credited with the rise of the American South, was based on three enabling technologies, the centrifugal compressor which he had already invented, the electric motor and the distribution of cheap electricity.
Henry Ford could not have built his great enterprise but for the confluence of the internal combustion engine, petroleum refining and the idea of an assembly line which was developed by Frederick Taylor who transformed steel production at the Bethlehem Iron Works almost 20 years earlier.
RCA’s founder David Sarnoff launched the era of television in 1941using the confluence of the cathode ray tube, the radio and the idea of a scanning technique to capture and transmit images.
IBM’s Thomas Watson brought the world the practical modern computer using three previous developments together, the silicon transistor, magnetic tape and the concept of computer logic now called software.
Shock of all shocks, not Al Gore, but Vinton Cerf is credited with inventing the Internet which was built of the confluence of pervasive computing and telecommunications and the concept of coded packet routing of information, all of which were invented earlier by others.
Mark Mills, once again in his marvelous book is able to carry the concept of threes into commerce itself. Richard Sears and Alva Roebuck in 1893 saw the possibilities to revolutionize retail shopping by starting a Catalogue shopping empire based on the railroads low cost distribution of goods, centralized manufacturing that brought about low cost fabrication of goods and the brand new chemically based mass production of pulp paper enabling the production of massive volumes of catalogues to be produced and distributed at low costs.
Finally Jeff Bezos brought together three classes of technologies he did not invent, the Internet, the smartphone and the data center to create Amazon. I think I hear their truck in your driveway now.
Note : Portions of this article were excerpted from the book THE CLOUD REVOLUTION: How The Convergence of NEW TECHNOLOGIES Will Unleash The Next ECONOMIC BOOM and a ROARING 2020s with permission of the author Mark Mills and the publisher Encounter Books. I strongly recommend this book to everyone fighting for the preservation of life in America.