Bob Kerns: Thinking

Thinking about Science, Engineering, and Technology


Q: Why is it so hard for old people to understand how incredible the technology of today is?

Note: I have not yet added the images to this version. I hope to do so soon.

Q: Why is it so hard for old people to understand how incredible the technology of today is?

I doubt you fully understand how incredible the technology of today is. I really, really doubt it.

Let me give you some perspective. This is long, but I think you’ll find it rewarding. I’m retired now, so I’ve been around a while.

When my father was a kid, he farmed using horse-drawn plows. Electricity hadn’t been invented yet — well, it hadn’t come to rural America until the advent of the Rural Electrification Act, May 20, 1936, which led (over time) to the farms finally receiving electricity, long after cities did.

So, kerosene lamps, coal-burning cookstoves and heating, outhouses, water obtained by a hand pump…. I myself have used all of these. I know how to control the temperature on a cook surface by adjusting the draft and positioning the fuel. I know how to prime an old hand pump, and change the leather seals on the pistons when they wear out.

Oh, and milk came from cows. Cream was separated by a hand-cranked centrifuge. It didn’t keep long, because — no refrigeration. In the summer, meat had to be used or wasted. Later, packing plants arose in rural towns, with refrigeration and the ability to store excess meat for people, and make ice. You could pick up some of your meat periodically and take it home along with some ice for your icebox.

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But a block of ice only lasts so long.

I have used ice tongs to load blocks of ice into an icebox.

Washing machines didn’t wait for electricity — some used small gasoline motors. I’ve never used one (just the electric successor, still with hand-cranked wringer, instead of a spin cycle). But I learned about small motors by taking apart and reassembling the motor from one.

The last time I visited the family farm, water still was pumped using a windmill. I remember when they got indoor plumbing, with an electric pump and pressure tank to supply the water.

My maternal grandparents traveled from South Dakota, for my grandfather to attend divinity school at Boston University, until the depression ended that and he returned to South Dakota. They traveled in a Model T — long distance auto travel was still a new thing — the model T came out when he was about 7. The bridges over the Mississippi at the time were designed for rail and wagons.

My mother was born in a mining shack. After she was born, my grandfather built a sod house for the new family — near the one my great grandfather built in 1910 (and which is still standing).

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[Edit: Here’s my grandfather explaining how it was done, in a letter to my brother: This is a letter from my father, Robert Orloff Dragoo to my son, Thomas Kerns, grade 5 (1966) for a school project ]

When my maternal grandfather retired, he built a home in Montana, using wood from the site. He and my father dug the well — by hand, with shovels, pickaxes and breaker bars. Still, outhouses, wood-burning cookstove. Heat was from a stove made from an old ink barrel from a “nearby” newspaper.

When my parents retired they built an earth-sheltered home in the Ozarks. Heat from a wood stove.

Let’s back up now, to my youth. We had dial telephones, but they were on party lines. That is, several neighbors shared the same line, with different ring patterns to indicate who an incoming call was for. You could listen in on other conversations — that was considered very rude, but it happened. And you had to pick up to listen to see if the line was free, before making a call.

At my grandparents’ places, though, they still had phones with cranks. These turned a magneto. The voltage from that flagged the operator that you wanted to make a call — which she then patched in via patch cords.

I took apart a lot of those, for the cool horseshoe magnets in the magnetos, or the magnetos themselves.

Long distance calls were quite expensive, so calls were reserved for special occasions, and kept short.

Mail was far slower and far less reliable than today. Today, I get email from the US postal service every day, telling me what letters will be arriving in my mailbox. Back then airmail was an option, but it was expensive, and to keep the costs down, there were special lightweight envelopes and papers you’d use.

Air travel was still unusual, and it was many years after I left home before I first flew, aboard a turboprop plane, on Pan American Airlines (which no longer exists), from Chicago to Des Moines. Probably around 1975?

I first started working with computers in 1970. Punch card was king. When you got a bill in the mail, it usually came with a punch card that had your account number and the amount on it — you’d send that back with your check.

I would drive 30 miles to get to the computer. I’d wait for a turn at a keypunch to punch my code and/or data. Then I’d wait my turn to load it into the reader’s hopper, and hope I got everything right that time. Results were printed on a line printer with wide 132 column fanfold paper.

The big banks had bigger computers. Huge computers, taking up an entire floor of a building with special air conditioning, raised floors…all the stuff you see in Hollywood movies. But it was real.

NASA had computers for the Apollo program, too:

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My wristwatch has millions of times more storage capacity and computing power. Plus it communicates over the cellular networks, WiFi, Bluetooth, both voice and data.

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Smaller banks didn’t have computers. Savings accounts had little books in which deposits and withdrawals were recorded. Written by hand.

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In July of 1969, I watched the Apollo moon landing, on a television set I had repaired. They used vacuum tubes back then — unreliable, hot, power-hungry, and big. The screens were these massive CRT tubes — basically an electron accelerator, accelerated with 15,000 volts, with some focusing electrodes steered by electromagnets to a spot on a screen, swept back and forth to cover the screen and form an image. Mine were all black-and-white. Color was still too expensive, still too new. (I remember when we got our first TV, a decade earlier. Watched Lassie, Mr. Ed, and Walter Cronkite.)

Later, I had a computer screen with some interesting technology. It remembered the characters on the screen, by sending their codes down a wire by mechanically twisting it, then reading them on the other end, and sending them back down again, all in synchrony with that electron beam painting the screen. This unconventional memory stored …. around 14,400 bits. That’s 1,800 bytes.

When I went to MIT, I drove much the same route my grandfather had. Cars had progressed a lot by then. They still needed a lot of maintenance, were hugely fuel inefficient, smelly polluting exhaust.

The air in Gary, Indiana, was horrible, thick smoke from the steel mills.

But the trip only took my dad and I two days. I’m sure it took my grandfather much longer. My wife is presently in Japan — it took her about 11 hours to get there.

When I got to MIT in 1972, I discovered the internet. Well, it was the ARPAnet back then. Artificial Intelligence was a fairly new field, then.

Instead of handwriting or typing papers, I wrote and edited them on the computer, printing them on an early graphics printer called the XGP. I began working at the Lab for Computer Science, on the Macsyma project — software which does symbolic math. You can download it (now called Maxima) here: Maxima, a Computer Algebra System

After a few more years, I left MIT to join Symbolics. Four more years, and Symbolics became the very first .com company, with the issuance of the domain name: World’s first and oldest registered domain name on the Internet

At MIT, in the mid ‘70s, I wrote a remote printer driver. Dunno if it was the first. I created an online learning system that taught the Lisp programming language — for my thesis proposal. (I never did write the thesis). I do believe it was the first online system that didn’t require special hardware and $$$ to access. (The Plato system predated it). It featured interactive assistance from a community of volunteers if you got stuck.

Yes, we had online chat then. Screen sharing, too. Email.

At the time, my mother couldn’t really grasp the idea of computer networking, or why you’d want them to talk to each other, or what email was for. But fast forward a few years, to 2000. After years of being the “computer person” for various schools she taught art at, she cofounded “Quilt University”. Both she and her cofounder have passed away (my mother two years ago), but a successor site still operates.

Since about 2004, I have been wearing an insulin pump. This was invented in 1971 by Dean Kamen, and he commercialized it as the AutoSyringe.

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My pump is similar to the one on the right, though a few generations later. It not only continuously delivers insulin, but integrates with a continuous glucose sensor. It enables far more precise glucose control than can be obtained by injections, and with far more safety. (An overdose of insulin can be lethal).

Insulin itself was discovered in 1921, 4 years before my father was born. Before that, diabetes was a death sentence.

Around 2008, due to increasing physical disability, I began using a Segway for mobility. A huge step up from a wheelchair, either manual as I had used for a time, or powered as my father had used.

This is me and my daughter in 2008:

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My mother came to visit, tried out my Segway, and went and bought one for herself, and then another. (This one’s a rental I rented so we could travel around together).

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Here she is at a quilting show.

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She used it right up to the day of her fatal stroke at age 82 1/2. After her death, they were donated to Segs4Vets, where they help a couple of disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict.

Segways use Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries, and store an incredible amount of energy. They’ll take you 24 miles / 38 km on a charge. I have about 12,000 miles / 19,000 km on them.

The Segway was invented by Dean Kamen — the same Dean Kamen who invented the insulin pump.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of making a big electric motor, and using it to power a tractor. In 2000, I bought my first Prius hybrid vehicle. When commuting to work on my Segway, I used to pass by the local Tesla dealership. I have seen cars driving themselves.

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I took this from my Segway, back when Google was just getting started. I thought it especially cool, since I have studied the algorithms used in self-driving cars. I even considered applying to work on the project, but the commute would have been too much.

I used to live on a sailboat. I had radar, Loran-C radio navigation .. and a sextant, and six hardbound volumes of spherical trigonometry tables to convert the observations of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, to positions on the earth’s surface, using those books and pencil and paper.

Today, my phone knows where I am from listening to satellites orbiting the earth.

I began creating web applications in 1994. I’ve connected AI tools to the web. My kids grew up using the web and Google. They take it for granted. My older daughter is an industrial designer; she helped engineer and build satellites, and her artwork has flown in space:

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OK, let’s let that sink in a bit. I watched the moon landing, done with computers a millionth of my wristwatch. Images broadcast in very slow scan, poor resolution black and white.

My daughter built satellites that take high resolution photos of the earth’s surface, every day.

Images I can call up on my wristwatch. With no wires. My phone talks to satellites.

But we don’t see on TV “Live via satellite” anymore, as we did in my youth, news reporting bringing us video at extraordinary expense.

That’s because we’ve crisscrossed the ocean with fiber optic cables — sending vast amounts of data through tiny fibers of glass by shining lasers through them.

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As a young man, I had occasion to phone to Greece (as well as send those lightweight airmail letters). It was hugely expensive — now you can talk for an hour for $0.60. Or email or Skype for free!

My first cell phone was bigger than a brick, and almost as heavy. (It sits at the bottom of Boston Harbor, thanks to an untimely gust of wind). Everything it did — my watch does better. For less.

Not only do I appreciate modern technology — I’ve lived through its evolution to heights unimaginable in my youth. I’ve even helped build parts of it, and know the people who built a lot more of it.

You young folks really have no idea how truly incredible it is, to wear a computer on your wrist, to have a camera and a personal assistant and the world’s knowledge in your pocket.