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The Past Does Not Repeat Itself; It Rhymes | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
September 12, 2018
Photo of hands typing on an old typewriter, a machine referenced in an anecdote in this blog

‘The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’

That quotation is usually attributed to Mark Twain. While there is no strong evidence he is the source of that gem, Twain does play an important part in the story for this week.  

Twain was a big fan of American ingenuity, so it is no surprise that he was drawn in the summer of 1874 to a “type writing machine”. The machine he first saw could write an astonishing 57 words per minute with a skilled operator – far faster than Twain could write by hand.  

It had shortcomings. For example, you could not see what you had typed – it was inside the machine! But Twain bought the machine anyway, a Remington No. 1, and used it to write a note to his brother: “THE MACHINE HAS SEVERAL VIRTUES.”

Yet while that machine was a breakthrough, it was built on several well-known elements. The idea of using movable type to create written communications goes back to Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. The keys were adaptations of telegraph keys. Moving the carriage in sync with the keys can be imagined by anyone who studies a clock.  

It was the unique combination of existing technological elements that created this breakthrough. As Isaac Newton put it, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  

As we said in Week 1, to succeed in a technological business requires mastering technological change. This week our course focuses on the “dynamics” of that change. 

The initial typewriter story demonstrates that even major advances are built on unique combinations of existing technology. Further, it turns out that most technical breakthroughs follow a specific pattern, called an “S-Curve.”

The S-Curve starts with a fundamental breakthrough. Typically, initial progress after the breakthrough is slow, as it takes time and experimentation to really understand what the new knowledge means. There are early failures. Often new tools must be developed to use the breakthrough, and new business models need to be conceived and built to bring it to customers. This can be excruciatingly slow, and many ideas simply die. 

But for the best ideas, progress accelerates as knowledge and a community build around the opportunity. With the foundation in place, many people can expand on the idea, and improve upon it. An overall “architecture” emerges, making additional effort more focused and productive. Performance starts to advance quickly, leveraging the prior work. 

Finally, the limitations of the technology come into focus. Key physical constraints are approached, as the architecture eventually reveals its limitations. Performance advances slowly, as effort turns to cost reduction or minor incremental improvements.  

This blog is part of a 14-week series by TLI Senior Fellow and Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management, Steve Webster. Each post will focus on one concept or idea discussed in his course MOT 5001- Technological Business Fundamentals. Other posts in the series can be found here.

About the Author

Photo of Steven Webster

Steven Webster

  • Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management
  • Senior Fellow

Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management

Steven Webster brings 31 years of experience with 3M to TLI’s graduate programs. Teaching primarily innovation classes and leading the Management of Technology minor program, Webster has expertise in new product development and commercialization; technology foresight, planning, and development; innovative organization and design and effectiveness; leadership development; global business; Six Sigma, display technology; consumer electronics, and communications technology.

Steve Webster, TLI senior fellow and Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management, discusses the limitations of technology, in this blog as part of his 14-part series on technology business fundamentals.

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