Unexpected Surprises From Great Technologies

Two stories from history … and a third story that we are living through at this very moment.

First story: The transcontinental railroad was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, engineering achievement of the 19th century. But what is surprising to note is that when the great Union Pacific-Central Pacific line finally linked the two coasts of the United States in May, 1869, the achievement was most celebrated for what it meant to trade and travel outside the country, rather than within.

Here's a description of that thinking from Stephen Ambrose's "Nothing Like it in the World":

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"Throughout the building of the [rail]road, its proponents had predicted that the China-Japan-India trade from the East Coast of America and with Europe would pass through San Francisco and then over the transcontinental railroad to points east, or to be shipped to Europe via New York. The first through-car on the transcontinental line carried a shipment of India tea, forerunner of the future.

"But trade with Asia didn't happen, certainly not to the extent that people hoped … "

Instead, the real impact of the transcontinental railroad was upon trade and migration within the U.S.; indeed, it opened up continental America to everyday citizens, not just intrepid pioneers. Meanwhile, the much promise international trade instead found its way through another new engineering marvel: the Suez Canal.

Second story: The microprocessor, perhaps the single most ubiquitous and influential invention of the 20th century, was invented by a team of four scientists, Federico Faggin, Ted Hoff, Stan Mazor and Masatoshi Shima, at the end of that annus mirabilis (wonderful year), 1969.

The microprocessor, it almost goes without saying, went on to sell by the billions, and transform every corner of modern life, from cars and planes to personal computers and cell phones to medical equipment to games to the World Wide Web. In the process, as the leading supplier of microprocessors, Intel quickly became a hugely wealthy company and, justly, described as "the world's most important company."

Less well known is that, at first, Intel wasn't even sure it wanted this so-called "computer on a chip."

Intel had been founded a couple years before as a memory chip company and had done extremely well in that business. Indeed, the microprocessor project had been merely a way to help one of Intel's calculator clients, Japan's Busicom, build a competitive product that would, it was hoped, help sell more Intel memory chips in the future. When Busicom complained about the project taking too long, Intel agreed to a lower fee, but demanded ownership of the technology, believing that it could be used to sell Intel memory chips to other companies.

The Microprocessor's True Believers

Now, with the Intel 4004 and 8008 microprocessors completed, Intel found itself not only with a fast-growing existing business, but owning the most celebrated new chip technology on the planet. The Intel leadership troika of Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove were smart enough business people to know that a young company had neither the workforce nor the resources to tackle two exploding businesses at the same time. So, the growing consensus inside the company was to stick to what Intel knew -- memory -- and license away the microprocessor.

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