A Bridge Made of Iron

Whenever a new technology comes along, it is used for familiar tasks. It’s not surprising really. Here’s an example from the 1700s:-

Photograph of an old stone arch bridge over a narrow road.

Building Bridges
How do you cross a river? Well you can ford it if it's shallow but otherwise your only option is to build a bridge and this has been done for thousands of years with very little change. There are two way to do it: arches and spans.

Arches are built using stones or bricks, each of which is very short. 

Photograph of the wooden Mathematical Bridge at Cambridge.

But you can also span a river using wood, which is a long material. 

By joining lengths of wood together you can span a river - and the way you join two pieces of wood together is by making a joint.

The best known joint, and the most beautiful, is the dovetail joint.

Diagram of a dovetail joint.

Dovetail joint

The Arrival of Cast Iron
It all changed in the mid 1700s when the Industrial Revolution began to take its first faltering steps and iron was produced in large quantities for the first time. Prior to this iron ore had to be heated over a fire and you only got small lumps. Good for forging axes and plough shares but not enough to cross a river.

Suddenly, it was possible to pour iron into moulds and make it into long lengths.

For the first time in history it was possible to build a bridge using iron and it happened in Shropshire, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The town is still called Ironbridge and the bridge is still there as you can see in this picture.

Photograph of the iron bridge at Ironbridge in Shropshire.

The iron bridge at Ironbridge in Shropshire



Close up of the dovetail joints on the iron bridge at Ironbridge in Shropshire.

But the early builders faced a problem - how do you join long lengths of iron together? Until that time iron had been worked by beating it on an anvil. No-one had ever had to join long lengths of iron together on this scale. So how did they do it?

The answer is that they did what users of all new technologies do. They used familiar methods. They cast dovetail joints and pegged them with iron pegs! It sounds crazy now but for them it was the most logical thing in the world. 

They were at the white heat of technological innovation and they were doing new things with a new material. But they did what we all do with a new technology - they used it for a familiar task. Admittedly, it did it did rather better than the old technology (wood), but there was nothing really new happening. They used iron in place of wood and they joined the pieces together the only way they knew how.

This happens with every new technology. We have to go through the process of getting familiar with it by doing familiar things. Then, in due course someone comes along with exciting new ideas and the technology takes off.

Hot rivetingWelding

Hot riveting and welding

New Ideas
It wasn’t until hot rivets and welding were invented that the new technology came into its own. And when it did, the effects were amazing - iron ships that floated and steam engines that could do the work of a hundred horses!
The consequences were enormous and started a revolution:
The Industrial Revolution

Diagram of an iron ship asking how it can float (because iron sinks in water)

Iron sinks - yet a boat made of it can float

When I first wrote this page, back in the 1990s, I  believed that almost everything we had done with computers up until then had been little more than using new technology to do traditional tasks. We'd been using dovetail joints.

For example, word processing has advantages over pen and ink - you can erase easily and the results look professional - but it’s not a new activity. Even desktop publishing, very popular in 2000, was nothing new. It brought the power of the printshop to your desktop - but wasn’t a new idea.

What are the New Ideas We Are Waiting For?
I asked what the first “electronic rivet” might be? What would the first example of “electronic welding” be? I thought that perhaps the Internet was the first really new idea (it was still very new in the 1990s). We accessed it using dial-up and it was a very slow process. Any page that had pictures on it took a long time to load - but it did have new elements. You could access a wealth of information, 24 hours a day, from the comfort of your own home.

Was it just an electronic library or was it a really new idea?

Now, twenty years later, we can see real change. Thanks to broadband, those static web pages have been replaced by vibrant, media-rich, user-generated content, online shopping, virtual reality . . . . and identity theft (not all good then?)

But we haven’t finished yet.



Superfast Broadband
Superfast broadband is the next step, currently neing trumpetted by governments. It will have profound consequences - it’s just not possible for our brains to make that conceptual leap. Current indications are Big Data and Artificial Intelligence which are leading to driverless cars and will probably eventually replace the professions in the same way that robots have replaced factory jobs.

Medicine will probably change from being a reactive process where you visit your GP when you have symptoms and damage has already begun in your body, to a pro-actice one in which wearable technology is monitoring you 24 hours a day and the health system calls you in long before you know anything is amiss.

A design representing superfast broadband

Before you leave this page you might like to see a film I made in the 1990s, in which I tried to capture that idea of using new technologies to do familiar things:

When the builders of the first iron bridge started exploiting their new wonder material, iron, they had no idea what the consequeces would be.

When we look forward and imagine life in a world where superfast broadband is completely ubiquitous - available everywhere by technology that’s embedded into everything, we think we can see the consequences. But we can’t.

Let’s look at one more example from the past. This is the story of Type Setting.

Next: A Better way to Set Type


© Brian Smith 2015