Game Changing Technology

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:

  1. There are harbingers out there.
  2. Only truly crazy revolutionaries make game changing inventions
  3. When the time is right, change will happen overnight

Can you think of more lessons?

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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18 Responses to Game Changing Technology

  1. Bob C says:

    One other factor, from this example, is a time of very high stakes.

  2. norebound29 says:

    4) Sometimes change is what happens when you’ve exhausted all other logical options.

  3. first one that came to my mind was Jimmy Doolittle…

  4. Walt Pinkston says:

    Excellent insight into the Monitor and the Merrimack, and how they both changed naval warships almost overnight.

    I just finished reading a book (“The One Device” by Brian Merchant) which described all of the technologies that were fundamental into bringing the iPhone to market. There were lengthy discussions about lithium batteries, ultra hard glass, multitouch screens, the World Wide Web, user interfaces, radio communications, image stabilization, security and much more. These discussions sometimes went back two hundred years or more to the roots of the technology, and were fascinating.

    But the smartphone was first introduced to the world in 1993 by a small office from IBM. It went nowhere, relatively speaking. And that was that. That is, until Steve Jobs and his crew at Apple picked up the concept and decided to make it work. The ability to bring all of the right technologies together into one product and sprinkle on a bit of their own “magic” created a game changing electronic device that has taken on the world now.

    Overnight is still a vague concept. It took a few years for the iPhone to really sell. And it took years for navies around the world to adopt iron ships with steam engines. Sometimes it’s difficult to really accept an innovation, even when it is obvious that it is necessary to do so.

    • DerekL says:

      IBM’s smartphone in 1993 was like Kodak’s digital camera of 1975 – a tour de force for it’s day, but the technology and infrastructure just wasn’t there. The iPhone on the other hand, could capitalize on the existence of both. Or, as the saying in the alternate history community goes, “you can’t railroad until it’s time to railroad”.

      In the same way the switch to steam was complicated by infrastructure requirements (on top of institutional reluctance). (Something little realized by naval historians who should know better, and tend to concentrate on the technological and institutional issues.) A sailing ship needed rather little infrastructure (relatively speaking), and could obtain water and food practically anywhere. A steamship on the other hand required an (expensive and extensive) network of fueling stations if it wasn’t to be limited to purely coastal and local work. Even when those stations were established, it was still tempting to keep sails around to minimize the TCO. It took a while for naval architects to work out that this was a false economy – it cost more coal to haul the masts and sails around than the masts and sails saved.

      • Coastal Ron says:

        I like your analogy between sailing ships and steam powered ships, and what came to mine was where we we’re at with single-launch space transportation architectures today, versus where we need to be with refueling depots – similar to the infrastructure requirements sailing ships needed before they could be practical.

      • Paul451 says:

        “Or, as the saying in the alternate history community goes, “you can’t railroad until it’s time to railroad”. ”

        I always find that a weird example to use. Railroads are pretty much the perfect example of the exception to that rule. For a hundred years before the first railroad, the UK had been building canals. Demand from interregional trade was so high that digging artificial rivers was considered a reasonable cost. If someone had cracked a practical steam engine a century earlier, it would have been adopted a century earlier.

        Likewise there are other obvious inventions that would have been heralded at nearly any time in history. Telescopes for long distance observation. Spark-gap radio for communication. Etc. The Babylonians would have welcomed both.

      • DerekL says:

        “Railroads are pretty much the perfect example of the exception to that rule.”

        How are the any kind of example to the exception to that rule?

        “Likewise there are other obvious inventions that would have been heralded at nearly any time in history.”

        You completely misunderstand my point, and the point of the quote then. That the inventions would have been heralded is irrelevant. The point is, most inventors “stand on the shoulders of giants” and most inventions have precursors that without which they simply can’t exist. The same goes for commercial viability – NASA was using digital imagery decades before the general public, because they could afford it and the associated processing power and storage. The general public had to wait until the microprocessor revolution and the subsequent computer revolution brought the costs down and made them widely available. Much the same goes for the smartphone.

  5. Pete Goldie says:

    Glad you mentioned Elon Musk, because he has already forced ULA to reduce launches by $200 million. Now that’s a game-changer!

  6. Dan Adamo says:

    Looking to more recent naval game-changing history, I’m always mindful of Admiral Rickover’s lesson learned: “The devil’s in the details, but so is salvation.” All too many advocates for interplanetary space travel and colonization set arbitrary deadlines in the 2030s, scorn concepts like the cislunar proving ground as a waste of time, and reject substantiated cost estimates as “myth”. The result is we’ve been less than 20 years from landing humans on Mars since Werner Von Braun researched “Das Markprojekt” in the late 1940s. I hope “the time is right” soon, but imposing “faster better cheaper” on the 99% perspiration required to reach human spaceflight goals like Mars will only martyr astronauts and waste money in the long run.

  7. Cioletti, Louis (JSC-SA4)[ALL POINTS LOGISTICS] says:

    Mr. Hale,

    Following on with your nautical innovation during the Civil War, your “Game Changing Technology” #2 blog should bring up the invention of submersibles (ex: CSS Hunley) and the world’s first combat use.
    Thanks for sharing your blog articles. Much appreciated.

    Louis Cioletti

  8. Charley S says:

    That the crazies that don’t succeed are forgotten.

  9. heroineworshipper says:

    So when are you going to work for SpaceX?

  10. christopher a spacone says:

    Another lesson: Don’t resist, embrace and extend.

  11. Dave H. says:

    Next up, the CSS Hunley. It has been proven that war drives the advancement of technology faster than either peace or the marketplace. I was in Myrtle Beach when the Hunley was recovered from Charleston harbor and to describe it as surreal would be an understatement at best.

  12. pinballgraham says:

    Lesson: Even game changing technology doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the game.
    However: Without it, you’ll probably lose the game.

  13. GH47 says:

    Wayne, Are you familiar with this footage of Columbia’s reentry?

    It seems amazing in that you can see the orbiter shortly before breakup, whereas I was under the impression that you could not see the orbiter an any known footage or in any of the footage NASA used for its investigation.

    • waynehale says:

      I personally had not seen this view but NASA did make use of many private citizen videos and still photos of Columbia during its re-entry. This is well documented in the CAIB report

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