Ruminations on the electronics industry from David Manners, Senior Components Editor on Electronics Weekly.
Science and Technology
“In Britain we have high regard for science,” says David Potter, founder of Psion, “science asks questions about the secrets Nature guards. ‘What is matter made of?’ ‘What is gravity?’ ‘Why do apples fall?’ We have high regard and high esteem for the activities associated with finding out about the things which were not made by Man. But we don’t have high regard for understanding the things which are made by Man.”
“What motivates scientists is curiosity,” adds Potter, “it’s nothing more or less than that. So why is it that we don’t have the same regard for asking questions about things which Man makes as for the things made by Nature? I think the questions that technologists ask are just as profound as those which scientists ask.”
“Scientific curiosity isn’t particularly noble. Scientists are not following some priestly goal to benefit mankind – they’re just motivated by curiosity. It’s selfish. There is no great nobility in curiosity just as there’s no great nobility in making a bigger chip”.
“In Britain the science establishment is enormously powerful - the Royal Society is intertwined into government. I don’t know of any Royal Society of Technology.”
“Edison personified the value and importance of technologist,” says Potter, “Edison is a great hero in America. He used our understanding of sound waves – the work of Boyle and others in the mid-19th-century – and he used this to record sounds. It was rather an extraordinary thing when you think about it, because up to then sound was something ephemeral – you couldn’t capture it. You listened to it, and it was gone. It wasn’t that Edison was motivated by a commercial drive, because at the time there was no commercial market, but once he had discovered the Phonogram, people said: ‘Wow! Isn’t that interesting? Is it possible to apply this?’
“Eventually some wag in his group came up with the idea of talking dolls. They made these and, in the 1880s, the salons of Paris and London and New York were full of these talking dolls – they were the Wonder of the Age – you pressed the doll’s tummy and it said: ‘Hi, I’m Petunia’, and people said ‘Wow! Isn’t that amazing?’”
“It took another eighteen years from the invention of the Phonogram until a different group of people, which became HMV (His Master’s Voice), realised you could use this technology to record the work of great artists and musicians and orchestras and singers,” continues Potter, “so then you’ve got the music industry created. And the benefits and value that has brought to mankind has been huge when you think of all the pleasure that has been created by being able to listen to music.”
“What that demonstrates is that there are actually three processes involved in creating new products: first, understanding the science; second understanding technology; third finding an application for commercial benefit. In Britain we have the strange idea that the latter activity – the latter two activities – are somehow less than the first.”
“In America it’s the other way round, and the same in Japan,” concludes Potter, “I think that is why we have not prospered in those other two activities, whereas we have in the first.”Tags: curiosity, mankind, nobility, phonogram, Psion