I’ve spent all week at the Langley Research Center in Virginia; there is much good work going on here. We had no small number of discussion about ‘game changing technology’ without a good definition of what that phrase really means or how such a change takes place.
At the same time I am keenly aware of the surrounding area’s historical sites. Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are just up the road. There are Civil War sites all around. But the one that jumped out at me may have some lessons for those of us in the space business to consider. Just a few minutes from the Langley gates is the Mariner’s Museum with relics from the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, formerly Merrimack. There is a lesson in game changing technology there.
In the winter of 1861 a technology revolution was brewing in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Naval technology had progressed incrementally for a long time, centuries actually. Wooden ships with sails carrying broadsides of carronades. Recently steam engines had started appearing onboard oceangoing ships but these were auxiliary power, sails were still the prime mover. In the Crimean war around 1856 some innovative designs were partially tried out but the results were inconclusive. Tradition and the conventional wisdom of the day did not look to radical change.
The Confederacy knew they could never match the number and size of the Union fleet but they were desperate to break the naval blockade that was strangling their war effort. Something radical must be tried to overcome the Union advantage. A plan was developed to use a partially burned frigate hulk – the USS Merrimack- as the platform for something very radically different; a solely steam powered, iron clad floating battery that might just turn the tide of the war. This was the basis for the CSS Virginia; hull and steam engine from a conventional frigate with an upper deck unlike anything seen on the water; sloped and reinforced sides and top covered with iron sheeting.
They didn’t pay much attention to military secrecy; the entire activity was written up in the local newspapers. Maybe that was an early attempt at psych ops – fill the enemy with fear. Construction of the Virginia was widely reported and the news traveled north.
When the CSS Virginia became operational on March 8, 1862, she was nigh invincible. Steaming to the Union fleet she created total destruction leaving flaming and sinking wrecks in her wake as their cannon shells bounced harmlessly off. Only the outgoing tide and drawing sunset abated the Virginia’s destructive path.
The North was in a panic at the report. An invincible terror weapon had been unleashed on them and there was no defense.
Well, not exactly. At the earlier reports, the admirals turned to a truly wild man with crazy ideas: John Ericsson. He was the Elon Musk of his day; promising radical and unbelievable change. His design was unlike anything ever seen; a practically submerged main body of a ship with a rotating iron turret housing two cannons on top. With the southern warship well under construction, the admirals gave him 100 days to build this new vessel which was not much more than a concept. He did it in 118 days. (Note: 18% schedule overrun). It was ready just one day after the Virginia’s first foray.
You probably know the story; the two iron-clads slugged it out without doing any real damage to each other. Military historians call the action of March 9, 1862 a draw. Except, of course, that the blockade was not broken. Neither ship saw action again and within months both were destroyed.
But their encounter changed everything; in the blink of an eye naval design would never be the same. The age of wooden sailing warships was over. Every ship in every fleet in the world was instantly obsolete. “Monitor madness” ensued while nations around the world started building copies of Ericsson’s design.
Game changing technology.
So what is the lesson for us? Here are the first three that I can think of:
- There are harbingers out there.
- Only truly crazy revolutionaries make game changing inventions
- When the time is right, change will happen overnight
Can you think of more lessons?