What are the drivers/limiters of human technological progress? In my opinion, the top three are:
Human ingenuity: Clearly the prime mover of human technological progress is the incredible power of the human mind that is always looking for a better ways to do things and to make things.
Materials: You can’t make a pair of scissors from chipped flint. And as we will discuss below, wooden ball bearings are not very useful. Improving materials are an important key to human technological progress.
Manufacturing precision: The ability to hold tight tolerances on what is being built, is probably not what most people think of in terms of human progress. However, I will make the case that manufacturing precision is outrageously important to human progress. Let’s take the example of four human inventions: 1) the wheel, 2) ball bearings, 3) the steam engine, and 4) a computing machine. Let me first list the dates when these four essential inventions are first recorded in history:
The Wheel 3500 BC: The first appearance in recorded history of the wheel is roughly 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. A few wheels show up in carts used for agricultural purposes.
Ball Bearings 40 AD: The Romans developed ball bearings using wood as part of an advanced warship technology (Roman Nemi ships). As it turned out they were not very effective.
The Steam Engine ~100 AD: The earliest known example of a Steam Engine was developed by Heron of Alexandria in 1st century Roman Egypt.
Computing machine 1822: Englishman Charles Babbage developed a mechanical computer called a difference engine which was designed to calculate polynomial functions.
In each of these cases the inventions were not only conceived of, but also successfully prototyped. But as we will list below it is hundreds to thousands of years before these inventions see widespread use. Let’s list these inventions again and add the date that widespread use of these inventions started.
The Wheel 3500 BC – 2500 BC: One thousand years after the wheel makes its first appearance in history some early Egyptian engineers develop the precision to make reasonably long lasting and low friction bearings to make the chariot possible which revolutionizes transportation and makes the Egyptian military a formidable force.
Ball Bearings 40 AD – 1869: It takes almost 2000 years for metallurgy to provide better materials and manufacturing precision to provide tight enough tolerances to produce metal spheres and races to make the production of ball bearings practical. One of the first celebrated use of ball bearings was in bicycles where a famous bicycle race in France was won by the only entrant whose bike had ball bearings.
Steam Engines 100 AD – 1712: It took roughly 1600 years for English blacksmiths to create tight enough tolerances to make first the Newcomb steam engine to pump out mines and then the Watt engine to start the first industrial revolution.
Computing Machines 1822 – 1980: You could argue with the exact date, but I pick 1980 when the first IBM PC became available to the general public more than 150 years after Babbage’s difference engine. Of course there were some large computers before the PC but it was not until manufacturing precision allowed computers to be produced efficiently enough to make them widely available to the public that computing made a significant impact on societies and economies.
It is the same story for all of these examples. Human ingenuity conceived of and allowed prototypes to be developed. It is manufacturing precision that must advance in order for technology to progress to allow human technological progress in improve our economies and standard of living.
The remarkable progress of microelectronics is best described by Moore’s Law where the number of transistors on a chip has doubled every 18-24 months. Since 1975 the number of transistors on a chip has increased by more than 100 million times. While chip size and better packing of transistors may account for about a factor of 100 in the increase in transistors, the rest of the improvement, a factor of 1 million, can only be accounted for in the decrease in size of the transistors which has only been possible by improving the manufacturing precision. In other words Moore’s Law is more about improving manufacturing precision than anything else.
In fact, improved manufacturing precision inevitably leads to more efficient, longer lasting, higher performance, and more reliable products. And in the long run, lowers manufacturing costs. That is why Zyvex Labs is working towards the ultimate in manufacturing precision, Atomic Precision Manufacturing.