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The rocky road of technology development

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

The Luddites were famous for destroying steam-powered looms in the period 1811-16 in England. Their destructive actions were driven by their fear of job loss. If steam power made cloth production easier, they would lose some of their jobs, hence their source of sustenance.

Today, we laugh at them. But we are no different.

I am the chief among Luddites when it comes to some of the green energy ideas that are bandied about (even though I have solar panels on our home). My daughter, a senior engineer/scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is chief among proponents of new ways.

However, if we look at the development of technology, especially over the short 200 years since the time of the Luddites, we find that progress is not a straightforward path. For instance, I doubt that Edward Lee McClain, benefactor of the fabulous high school in Greenfield, vigorously welcomed the automobile. He had made his fortune with a cleverly designed horse collar. The automobile was not his – nor his employees’ – friend.

I dare say it took 100 years to develop the fully refined gasoline-powered automobile we see today. It was a collaboration of private industry, buyer acceptance (and in some cases rejection), competitive pressures and even government intervention that brought the automobile to the state of development we see today.

For instance, in my personal livery now, my 2019 Honda HRV seems light years more advanced than my 1964 Corvair Monza convertible. Yet, these vehicles are only 55 years apart in age. The Corvair seems more closely related to the Ford Model A than it does to the Honda HRV.

Another example: the kerosene lamp. Mainstream, modern societies see it as an antique. A short 170 years ago, it was a revolutionary device fueled by a revolutionary new substance – a product of oil extraction, not whale oil. In fact, when Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was tried for monopolistic practices in the early 1900s, it was for its lock on kerosene for illumination. Gasoline was barely in use for the automobile was so new. There was no way at the time of that trial that anyone could have possibly seen the future of gasoline – the United States barely had any paved highways.

When we look at today’s windmills, solar panels and such, we are looking at very early attempts to develop these “green” energy sources. In another 50 or 100 years, these technologies will look entirely different. Contemporaries of those coming days will laugh at the efforts to cover Highland County in solar panels today. Today’s solar panels will be as obsolete as my Corvair. And Highland County’s farmlands will be returned to agricultural uses.

Today’s electric automobiles will suffer the same fate. Future developments will likely render today’s as laughable, primitive efforts.

It is the crucible of criticism, competitiveness and practicality that moves technology acceptance forward.

So, we will continue to rant, rave and accept new technologies. The rantings and ravings are a part of the process of perfection. Who knows how long the nascent technologies of today will take to perfect? I suspect it will be a shorter time than it has taken in the past, but it is clear that they are not in their final form today.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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