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By Steve Kelman

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Creative inspiration transforms new tech beyond original intentions

The inventors of radio technology believed its main use would be for ship-to-shore communications. They didn't foresee the generation of teenage ham radio operators — including David Sarnoff, who later founded RCA, which eventually became NBC — who found new uses for it. Nor did they anticipate its rise in the 1920s as a news and entertainment medium.

Similarly, when the telephone was first invented, it was thought of as a more efficient way to transfer Morse code telegraph signals.

Today, we see how political activists have used Facebook and Twitter to spread word about protests and demonstrations.

That should remind us of a really important fact about new technologies: People often end up using the technologies in ways their inventors never imagined. And those unimagined applications of a technology often turn out to be far more important than the uses initially imagined by the technology's inventors.

I was reminded of this by a fascinating article in the Jan. 29 issue of The Economist of London — the best magazine in the world, by the way — titled "Not Just Talk," about innovative ways that cell phone technology is being used in developing countries. Many of these countries have bypassed fixed-line telephony altogether and gone directly from no phone service to cell phone service. In developing countries, there are now about 70 cell phones per 100 people!

But the point of the article is to note that cell phones are increasingly being used for applications that do not involve having a conversation over the phone. The cell phone is in effect the only computer that many of these people in poor countries have. People use mobile phone voice services to check on market prices for the commodities they sold, directing people to bring their produce to markets where the prices are best. But the article in the Economist discusses many cell phone applications in developing countries that the inventors of cell phone technology certainly never imagined — such as an identification number on a drug package that can be typed into the phone and linked to a database to determine whether the pharmaceutical is real or fake, cash transfers using text messaging that cuts out expensive middlemen, etc. Some experts are referring to these apps as ushering in Development 2.0.

This has lessons for government. In my view, the strongest argument for making more government data available online is not the standard transparency argument but the view that once the information is available, people outside government can come up with ways to use it that government would never have thought of itself. I also believe that we don't do nearly enough inside government to encourage users to come up with new ways to use IT applications that the government develops for its own use. Too often, we allow users simply to be passive vessels for our IT applications rather than active formulators of new uses for them that their initial developers never conceived.

Posted on Feb 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Sat, Feb 19, 2011

Steve, thanks for the reference work you provided. I am familiar with Susan Douglas’ book, and while I appreciate, and agree with the interpretation that teenage amateur wireless operators during the period 1906 - 1912 may helped popularize and bring to public view Marconi’s wireless system of telegraphy, the only significant role they played was to make available an engineering talent pool for what later became radio (following the invention of Armstrong’s audion feedback circuit in 1912). These teenagers played virtually no substantive role in either improving upon the technology or use of wireless.

I think your response confuses Robert Sarnoff wit his father, David Sarnoff. Robert Sarnoff succeeded his father as Chairman of RCA, and many consider his tenure to have been a disaster, as he led the company to its eventual financial ruin and fire sale to General Electric (which broke up RCA).

David Sarnoff was never an amateur radio operator. He was at one point a wireless telegrapher for American Marconi and in 1912 he alleged that he was one of the operators working at Marconi’s station at the Wanamaker Department Store in NYC when the Titanic sunk. Great doubt has been placed on this claim for a number of reasons. First, Sarnoff implied that he was the sole operator at the station for three days while information about the Titanic was relayed to NYC. This claim was later proved to be false (there were at least three operators). Second, great doubt has been placed on whether Marconi was ever even at the station when the Titanic sunk (by 1912 Sarnoff was in a management position at American Marconi and it would have been unlikely that he was working as a telegrapher at the time). Lastly, the Titanic sank on a Sunday and the Wanamaker station was closed that day.
The history of wireless, radio and broadcasting is full of myths and legends, some of them later repeated by respected academics. Two excellent works I highly recommend about the development of technology, and radio in particular, are Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States To 1933, Oxford University Press, 1966, and Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, HarperCollins, 1991. This later work in particular depicts Sarnoff as a ruthless businessman whose technical contributions to radio and broadcasting were meager.

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 Steve Kelman

Thanks for the detailed comments! My source on the role of teenage wireless operators in coming up with new uses for radio is Ch. 6 and 9 of Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922 (Johns Hopkins University Press). I was wrong about Robert Sarnoff founding RCA, but I remember a long time ago reading a biography either of Sarnoff or of William Paley (of CBS) that discussed Sarnoff's role as a ham radio operator; my memory from that Sarnoff was one of the teenage ham radio operators either involved in or inspired by the role of ham radio after the sinking of the Titanic -- although that is a bit of a sidebar to the interesting story, which is -- as you agree -- that radio ended up having very different uses from those originally envisioned by its inventors.

Thu, Feb 10, 2011

Steve, you may want to research your facts more closely before reaching overarching conclusions about technological developments, particularly in electronics. Your assertion that inventors of technology often cannot envision how their inventions will ultimately be used is interesting, but your two historical examples: 1) the development of radio broadcasting, and 2) early telephone development; contain serious factual flaws.

Technology often evolves not because people find more creative uses for existing technology, but because inventors improve or refine technology to permit wider uses (e.g., the ability to “broadcast” became possible only after wireless, and ultimately radio, advanced to the point of being capable of reproducing speech and music as opposed to crude Morse code “spark gap” signals).

Your specific example of radio is particularly romanticized if you imagine any significant role for “teenage ham radio operators” in the development of broadcasting. That was not the case. Broadcasting, like much of today’s IT developments, was not the product of backyard tinkerers. It was almost entirely engineered and demonstrated by institutionally backed engineers and scientists.

It’s true that early users of “wireless” believed its future would be in point-to-point communications, but this was because the technology they initially employed was electro-mechanical and could not intelligibly transmit the human voice (it was not “radio”). They could not envision “broadcasting” because this feat did not become possible until the vacuum tube was perfected and new circuits developed to permit speech to be transmitted.

David Sarnoff was never an amateur radio operator and did not found RCA. RCA was founded as a corporate patent pool by Owen Young of General Electric. Sarnoff was an RCA corporate manager who eventually became Chairman.

I have seen no source material suggesting that early telephones were ever intended to be used to transmit Morse code. Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application used the claim an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”. He was not referring to the Morse code, but rather sound or speech through electrical wires.

The development of modern electronics, whether it be radio or IT, was largely the product of intense research undertaken by numerous scientists and engineers, many of them backed by large corporate entities. The notion that these advances were the product of Horatio Alger amateurs finds little support in the historical evidence.

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