Saturday, July 12, 2008

Distributed processing

I have been reading L. T. C. Rolt's now outdated and excessively reverential biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest of a generation of audacious engineers who dragged the world into the Age of Steam and Iron. I read the book before, as I recall, back in the late 1960s when I was studying the history of science and technology in London. Then I traveled about England, Wales and Scotland visiting the railways, bridges, tunnels, canals, and buildings of iron and glass of Marc and Isambard Brunel, Thomas Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, John Rennie, Joseph Paxton, and others of that intrepid band of engineers. Within a lifetime they transformed Britain from a mostly rural, agricultural nation into a thriving industrial colossus that ruled a mighty empire.

Steam and iron. And human muscle. Armies of laborers, often toiling under almost inhuman conditions, high above precipitous gorges, deep in the bowels of the earth, or beside a hissing boiler in the belly of a leviathan ship, dying in industrial accidents with a frequency that would not be tolerated today. The engineers were not adverse to sharing the dangers; Brunel nearly lost his life on several occasions. And, Lordy, what awesome projects, conceived and executed by the force of a single brain. I remember standing by the Menai Strait in Wales and seeing Thomas Telford's suspension bridge and Robert Stephenson's tubular railway bridge still usefully spanning the race. These were the pioneers who showed what was possible, and their names are indelibly attached to their works.

We are, of course, in the midst of another technological revolution, no less significant that the one of steam and iron. For the engineers of the Industrial Revolution, the direction of imagination was to bigger and faster. Today the thrust is to smaller and faster. What would Brunel have thought of this little box on which I type, linked by a web of wires and waves to hundreds of millions of other boxes girding the globe, an electronic snowstorm of ones and zeros distributed at nearly the speed of light. The new commodity is not coal, or iron, or the products of smoky factories, but information. This is a revolution of mind, not muscle. No sweating navies wreck their health or lose their lives in the cushy corporate precincts of Google. The names of a few techno-entrepreneurs are familiar -- Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind -- but the engineers who drive the electronic revolution are mostly nameless.