Thursday, June 20, 2013

Technology Old And New

India's state-owned telecom company is planning to shut down what is considered the world's last telegraph service, citing losses of over $23 million a year. The world's last telegram will be sent on July 14.

We in the media kill things off so readily these days that it's easy to forget how long it actually takes a once-prevalent technology to vanish altogether. The telegram should serve as a reminder: It often takes a really, really long time. Had there been a TechCrunch or a Forbes.com a century ago, some scribe would have no doubt declared the telegram defunct even then, done in by the rise of the landline telephone (itself the frequent subject of exaggerated death reports these days). In fact, though, the telegraph's use in India peaked as recently as 1985, and it continues even now to play a role in the lives of some portion of the 74 percent of Indians who do not have mobile phones.

Asked how he manages to make such accurate predictions in his books, the novelist William Gibson once explained, "The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed." The fact that telegraph service still exists in at least one corner of the Earth as of June 17, 2013, suggests a corrollary to Gibson's axiom: The past is still here, it's just not evenly distributed.
Here's What It Looks Like When a Technology Actually Dies (Slate)

The telegraph itself replaced an earlier technology:
Before the web, before the computer, before the phone, even before Morse code, there was le systeme Chappe. Not for the first time or for the last, at the end of the 18th Century France made an important technological advance - only to see it overtaken by newer science. In this case, it was the world's first ever system of telegraphy.

According to most accounts, the very word "telegraph" - distance writing, in Greek - was coined to describe Claude Chappe's nationwide network of semaphore. At its most extensive, it comprised 534 stations covering more than 5,000km (3,106 miles). Messages sent from Paris could reach the outer fringes of the country in a matter of three or four hours. Before, it had taken despatch riders on horseback a similar number of days.

But then it ended almost quickly as it began. In the 1840s and 50s, electronic telegraphy - with stations set up along the new railway lines - began to take over. The Chappe stations disappeared into obscurity, plundered for materials and buried in vegetation. Only in recent years has a resurgence of amateur interest permitted a handful of sites to be rescued from oblivion.
How Napoleon's semaphore telegraph changed the world (BBC) See also Email in the 18th century: the optical telegraph (Low Tech Magazine)

But sometimes, technolgy comes back:
The researchers now know why ancient Roman concrete is so superior. They extracted from the floor of Italy’s Pozzuoili Bay, in the northern tip of the Bay of Naples, a sample of concrete breakwater that dates back to 37 B.C. and analyzed its mineral components at research labs in Europe and the U.S., including at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The analysis, the scientists believe, reveals the lost recipe of Roman concrete, and it also points to how much more stable and less environmentally damaging it is than today’s blend.

That’s why the findings, which were published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society and American Mineralogist, are considered so important for today’s industrial engineers and the future of the world’s cities and ports. “The building industry has been searching for a way to make more durable concretes,” Jackson points out.

Another remarkable quality of Roman concrete is that its production was exceptionally green, a far cry from modern techniques. “It’s not that modern concrete isn’t good—it’s so good we use 19 billion tons of it a year,” says Paulo Monteiro, a research collaborator and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “The problem is that manufacturing Portland cement accounts for 7 percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air.”

The secret to Roman concrete lies in its unique mineral formulation and production technique. As the researchers explain in a press release outlining their findings, “The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated—incorporating water molecules into its structure—and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.”

The Portland cement formula crucially lacks the lyme and volcanic ash mixture. As a result, it doesn’t bind quite as well when compared with the Roman concrete, researchers found. It is this inferior binding property that explains why structures made of Portland cement tend to weaken and crack after a few decades of use, Jackson says.

Adopting the materials (more volcanic ash) and production techniques of ancient Roman could revolutionize today’s building industry with a sturdier, less CO2-intensive concrete. “The question remains, can we translate the principles from ancient Rome to the production of modern concrete? I think that is what is so exciting about this new area of research,” Jackson says.
Ancient Roman Concrete Is About to Revolutionize Modern Architecture (Bloomberg)

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