View from Glen Hill: From steamships to semiconductors

Achieving the mind-bending technological feat of crossing the Atlantic safely in a steam-powered vessel was viewed as impossible before its accomplishment in 1819 by Captain Moses Rogers and his steamship Savannah. The result “changed mankind’s whole conception of time and space” by allowing travel on fixed schedules no longer solely at the mercy of wind and wave.

Such was the perspective offered by John Laurence Busch, opening speaker in the 11th year of the Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society’s very popular American history series with lead sponsorship by the Wilton League of Women Voters and friends of the series’ late planning chair, Louise Herot. This year’s focus is on technological development from the early 19th Century onward.

I wrote recently about the central role played by our federal government in inspiring and funding major technological advances from the Civil War onward. In the first part of the 19th Century though, such was not the case. This was especially so in the foundational technological advance that applied steam power to ocean-going vessels. There, individual visionaries led the way at enormous risk even as our government dragged its heels on both civilian and military applications of this revolutionary new technology.

Busch’s presentation was based on his seminal book Steam Coffin, whose very title succinctly captures the absolutely daunting prospect of ocean travel using steam. The general public and seamen alike feared boiler fire or explosion, or capsizing from the weight of paddle wheels in heavy seas, or one of the many other obvious-to-all and truly frightening risks.

Busch’s work draws upon his extensive research on first and early second generation steam-powered vessels spanning archives and libraries from Maine to Georgia and all across Europe. He has distilled from these disparate sources the story of the first perilous ocean crossing by a steam-powered vessel while also compiling a fascinating and comprehensive account of the many threads of technological development that made that accomplishment possible.

The result is great storytelling combined with scholarly reflection on causation in the context of broad historical and technological developments. But most fundamentally, Steam Coffin puts the specifics of the accomplishments of Captain Rogers and the Savannah into a broad historical context of the rise of inventions that not only revolutionized technology but also revolutionized that general sense of space and time prevalent for millennia, allowing in the Savannah’s case scheduled water-based travel no longer frustratingly subject entirely to the vagaries of nature.

In closing his presentation, Busch offered a fascinating overview of two centuries of American technological development in both the physical and the virtual worlds (the latter beginning with the telegraph and telephone and proceeding right up to the internet). These developments transformed mankind’s understanding of how time and distance could be narrowed dramatically not only in travel but also in communications. The resulting shift in perspective was unimaginable before the transformation that steam-powered vessels initiated.

The most recent session of the series focused on Igor Sikorsky and his pioneering work in fixed-wing aircraft, including design of the flying boats that became the staple of the Pan Am fleet in the 1930s before the advent of large airports rendered water landings unnecessary. The presentation then turned to Sikorsky’s work on the invention of the helicopter.

Sikorsky executive and Wiltonian Andy Driver brought Sikorsky’s inventive genius to life in captivating detail even as Driver also addressed the future of helicopters, offering high speed and incredible maneuverability combined with autonomous operation. Sikorsky’s vision was that his craft would be central to lifesaving operations (as indeed they are), and he put his own life on the line in that pursuit as chief early test pilot as well as chief designer!

This series’ final session, on March 18, will feature ASML Fellow and Wiltonian Chip Mason speaking on ASML’s cutting-edge work at the forefront of computer-chip technology, producing machines that image “the billions of tiny structures that define an integrated circuit’s functionality and performance.” ASML-Wilton invented the step-and-scan system that revolutionized the semiconductor industry. As Wilton’s largest employer with 1,200 employees, its recently announced major expansion of its state-of-the-art research and manufacturing facilities here — and the concomitant increase in its highly skilled workforce — represent a very encouraging development for our local economy as well as for our whole state.

In an earlier column, I wrote about the tremendously impressive and important work of women code-breakers in World War II. Barbara Holdridge alerted me to the fact that at least one of them was a Wiltonian: Navy Lt. Joan O’Hayer.