Sometimes Old Technology is the Best

From time to time revolutionary ideas emerge in technology that change everything and become indispensible. Think of wheels, axles and hammers. You can tweak the design a bit but the basic idea is still valid and important after thousands of years. In IT we have many such concepts: ICs (integrated circuits – Yes I am old enough to remember how crude things were before ICs…), Moore’s Law, stored programme computers, computer languages, operating systems, drivers, open standards, networking protocols, UNIX-like operating systems… It goes on endlessly.

My point is that we can overdo the extravagantly endless tweaking we do for IT: new PCs every few years, new releases several times per annum, so many “features” in an application that no one knows them all…

A counter-example demonstrating how IT might find more value per dollar for all of us: The brass bottle-necked rifle-cartridge. Check this out… The first such cartridge appeared about 1867 but by 1888, this became state-of-the-art:

8X57JS Cartridge, crimped Berdan primer

8X57JS Cartridge, crimped Berdan primer

Almost all rimless cartridges copied that design to the present day. Sure, there were many changes to the calibre of bullets and a few changes of length but the head of the cartridge, the rimless design and the diameter of the head are common to modern firearms like .308 Winchester and .30-’06 and all derivatives of those.

What made this concept so important was that for relatively little effort a cartridge could:

  • seal high-pressure propellent gases in the breech of a steel barrel,
  • the slight taper permitted easy feeding into the chamber and aligned the bullet with the bore,
  • the springiness of the brass permitted the case to expand momentarily to seal but still slide in and out without binding in a clean chamber,
  • with modern slow-burning propellants, the large volume of powder could maintain a higher pressure longer and obtain much higher velocities than are easily possible with black powder or a much longer cylindrical cartridge, and
  • rifles with short barrels could give velocities similar to longer barrels resulting in lighter (shorter barrels) and more accurate rifles (faster bullets leave sooner).

In effect, there is no downside to the basic good design and there is no reason to change it just for the sake of change. This has the enormous benefit that rifles of more than 100 years of age can still fire modern ammunition (NB the original 1888 rifles fired a .318″ diameter bullet (J) while the modern calibre is .323″ (JS). Some 1888 rifles were rebarreled about 1905 but others were not. You need to measure the bore to be sure. I have seen one with a prominent “S” on the receiver to designate the .323″ bore.). That‘s backward compatibility.

In IT I see a few people foolishly denigrate UNIX-like operating systems merely because some of the basic concepts of the technology are old, dating from the late 1960s but I can tell you a lot that looks new these days is derived from concepts current in those days. I know. I was there… GNU/Linux is the OS I usually use and it works really well. There is no reason at all to replace it with the latest issue from Apple or M$. There would be no benefit and lots of costs. For one they both charge money for the privilege of using hardware that you own, a bizarre concept. For another both restrict the use of their software arbitrarily (not based on technical reasons but marketing) which greatly increases the cost and complexity of IT for no benefit whatsoever. Look at Munich. Because they switched from M$’s OS to GNU/Linux it cost tens of $millions. If they had switched from UNIX to GNU/Linux the cost would have been much less because of many other irrelevant lock-ins that M$ uses to entrap users. With GNU/Linux you get an OS designed from the ground up to work rather than to enrich M$. I recommend Debian GNU/Linux.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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2 Responses to Sometimes Old Technology is the Best

  1. George Hostler says:

    Colt M1911 semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol is now 100 years old, yet it still remains a desirable weapon for its stopping power against assailants by law enforcement officers, the military and private owners.

    There are some things that have been so well designed initially that are hard to better to accomplish certain tasks.

    Similarly too, Linux is very efficient and one doesn’t need power hungry bloated hardware and software to accomplish tasks. I still like my ASUS 7″ Eee PC 4G Netbook with solid state disk because of its compactness, usefulness as a field portable workstation and long lasting battery of greater than 8 hours without charging.

  2. oiaohm says:

    There are some valid reason to look at UNIX and go what they heck did the more modern ones think.

    When Unix started most thinks were text based terminals. Unix was design to support effectively Text based terminals.

    X11 shows the classic example of hey lets place something on top and avoid having to rework the core to support more modern graphics.

    Of course a bug like that does not mean all the idea are bad. The old saying don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    When you look at KMS DRI2 and compare this to the old Unix multi text terminal system solutions you see similarities. Huge big bend away from Unix ideas has happened now we are seeing a return to it.

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