What Is Watt? It Is the Innovation That Counts.

July 11, 2015

Years ago I worked with a polymath named Fred Czufin. Czufin was an author, writer, consultant, and former Office of Strategic Services cartographic specialist. Today Czufin would be buried in geocoding.

Why am I mentioning a fellow who died in 2009.

Czufin introduced me to James Watt. I knew the steam engine thing, but Czufin was bonkers over James Watt’s innovative streak.

I thought of Czufin, my ignorance of an important scientist, and our reasonably fun times when we collaborated on some interesting projects.

I read “A Twelve Year Flash of Genius.” The write up sparked anew my effort to chip away at my ignorance of this 18th century inventor. Watt struggled with the engineering problems of early Newcomen pumps. Mostly these puppies exploded.

Watt went for a walk and cook dup the idea of a condenser. Eureka. Steam engines mostly worked. Even my server room air conditioner contains a version of Watt’s invention.

I am not going to take sides in the flash of genius approach to innovation. One can argue that the antecedents for Watt’s thinking littered the laboratories of his predecessors, tinkerers, and fellow scientists.

My hunch is that there was no single epiphany. The result of sifting through many facts, fiddling around, and then trying to figure out if and then why something worked made him a bright person.

As I think about James Watt, I wonder when a similar thinker will come up with a breakthrough in information access. Most of the search systems with which I am familiar are in their pre-condenser stage. They blow up, fizzle, disappoint, hiss, and produce more angst than smiley faces.

My hunch is that Czufin would be as impatient as I about the opportunity a modern day James Watt can deliver. Search has more in common with Newcomen’s pump than a solution to a very important information problem.

Stephen E Arnold, July 11, 2015


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