Updated: Mar 18
We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters . . . though computer technology has witnessed a ‘relentless’ growth in recent years, other sectors have not seen significant progress in innovation . . . We are no longer living in a technologically accelerating world . . . There is an incredible sense of deceleration.
Many of us grew up with a belief that technical progress was inevitable and unstoppable. And in some areas that has been the case — particularly with regard to computer technology and Health Care. We may have drifted away from religion, but we are definitely members of the “Church of Progress”.
Yet, in many other areas progress seems to have been limited at best. That fact that technology does not always progress was brought home to me earlier this year as I was sorting through some family pictures.
I took the above picture at Uganda’s Kampala airport in the year 1971. The airplane is a VC10. It shows how little airplane design has changed in the last 50 years. The VC10 had an aluminum body, swept-back wings and was powered with four turbo-jet engines. The only major external change since then is that we would not put two engines adjacent to one another now — if one of those engines were to catch fire the one next to it would probably also ignite. (The internal control systems on a modern airplane are much more sophisticated due to advances in computer technology. I could not find data for the fuel consumption per passenger for each model — I suspect that the 737 is much better in that regard; it also has a smaller crew.)
The lack of change in airplane technology becomes clear if we compare the specifications for a VC10 with a modern airliner of roughly equivalent capacity: the Boeing 737-700.
VC10 737-700 Passengers 109 126 Cruising speed (km/hr) 900 962 Range (km) 9,000 6,370
Not only has there been a lack of progress, in some ways we have actually regressed. Even though I was an impecunious student, a free hot dinner was served on plates, accompanied by metal silverware. Pillows were provided, and there was actually sufficient leg room. Most remarkably there was no security — none; I just showed my boarding pass and walked on the airplane. And, in flight, when I got bored I asked to visit the cockpit and was welcomed up front — no questions asked. If I tried that now I would be arrested.
Stepping even further back in time, the very first flight that I ever took was in the year 1967. It was on a Finnair Sud Aviation Caravelle. As the picture shows, that airplane, which made its first flight in the year 1955, looks quite up to date. Not much has changed.
We conclude, therefore, that airplane design and performance have not fundamentally changed in fifty years or more — improvements have been incremental and mostly to do with cost savings. Indeed, if there have been radical changes they have been in the other direction. Five years after my 1971 flight in a VC10 the Concorde Supersonic airliner made its commercial debut. It was the fastest commercial airplane in the world with a cruising speed of 2170 km/hr (1350 miles per hour), more than twice the speed of sound. A London to New York crossing took a little less than three and a half hours. By contrast, the modern Airbus A380 has a top speed of 1020 km/hr and takes twice the time to cross the Atlantic.
The lack of fundamental progress can also be seen in automobile technology. The day before I went to Kampala airport to catch my VC10 flight I took the above picture of cars in downtown Kampala. Once more, the basic technology has not changed. Modern cars are safer, more reliable and have electronic gizmos such as satellite navigation systems. But they use the same basic technologies as those 50 year old cars: an internal combustion engine running on gasoline, four wheels, two rows of seats and a driver behind a steering wheel.
So much for the flying cars that we were promised in the year 1947.
A final example of lack of progress is, of course, manned space flight. We last landed a person on the moon in the year 1972 — just one year after I took the Uganda pictures.
So why have we not significantly improved the basic technology of automobiles and airplanes? Indeed, why — using the Concorde and the Apollo moon-landing missions as examples — do we seem to be regressing in some areas?
There are many possible answers to this question. But one factor is that the early 1970s were the time of low cost oil. Energy was cheap. But then came the oil shocks just a few years later. Although the price of oil fluctuates wildly (and, at the time of writing, is quite low) the reality is that the days of abundant, cheap energy are behind us. As we see in the posts ERoEI and Nine Pounds of Gold, energy costs are increasing inexorably. Indeed, energy costs may explain why we have made radical steps forward in areas such as computer design and medical technology. These areas use much less energy than starting another moon landing program.