The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

One of my hobbies is the History of Technology. As I travel, I’ll visit nearby historical sites that have a tie to technology. What fascinates me about these sites is how our math, science and engineering predecessors tackled the challenges of the day and mastered them working only with what they had at the time. On a recent trip to Europe I managed to take in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and Bletchley Park, near London. At the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, I studied John Harrison’s sea clocks. John Harrison was a woodworker and self-taught clockmaker who built five versions of the sea clock or chronometer over his lifetime, each an improvement on its predecessor. His chronometers solved the centuries old problem of finding longitude and ushered in British domination of the sea. The challenge at Bletchley Park was the survival of Britain. At Bletchley, mathematicians, engineers, linguists, and 10000 other people cracked the Enigma coded enemy traffic, built the first computers, gave the Allies the upper hand in WWII; and kept it all a secret for over 30 years.

These are two fine examples of uniting unrelated disciplines to meet a challenge and there was a lot of trial and error in both. Innovation can come from anywhere, even from past efforts that didn’t quite work out. Near Shoreham, N.Y., in 1901 Nikola Tesla experimented with magnetic resonance coupling for wireless power transmission at his Wardenclyffe Tower. That didn’t quite work out, but 108 years later, in 2009 the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology tapped this concept to recharge a battery operated tram. The system transfers 62Kw to the bus on the fly every time it completes its circuit, allowing for a much smaller and cheaper on board battery pack.

On the flight home, the customary pre-flight safety announcement cautioned us that the nearest exit may be behind us. The same is true of inspiration; the best inspiration may come from an old concept; an old, perhaps abandoned, patent or even from a well-established idea from an unrelated field.

As always, questions, comments and suggestions are all welcome. I can be emailed at


John Harrison’s Sea Clocks
Bletchley Park
Wardenclyffe Tower

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