Nothing new under the sun

With our biggest industries currently being reshaped by fundamental economic and environmental forces, it’s fair to say that we’re living thorough one of those periods of history where the conditions are ripe for the emergence of new technology.

But scratch beneath the surface of two of the UK’s current headline innovations – electric cars and renewable energy devices – and there’s more than meets the eye to today’s emerging technologies.

Indeed, while the Nissan Leaf and the offshore energy devices in the news last week have all the hallmarks of the young pretender, they are, in truth,  steeped in as much history as the current incumbents.

The first electric vehicles were developed more or less hand in hand with the first oil powered vehicles. Indeed, the first fleet of electric taxis were introduced in New York in 1897, while the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was launched by Chicago’s Wood Motor company in 1917.

In the world of renewables, tidal generation has been used for centuries, while The Engineer reported on the development of wind turbines for generating electricity way back in 1894. 

In both cases these intriguing developments remained curiosities, unable to compete with the energy density offered by an apparently inexhaustible, and benign supply of fossil fuel.

There are many more  examples of “ahead-of-their time” innovations. The technology for the fax machine was first demonstrated in 1851 but didn’t really take-off until the “yuppy” boom of the 1980. Similary, lasers, developed in 1960, remained a curiosity  until the dawn of the CD player, again in the 1980s.

In the face of all this it’s tempting to agree that there’s nothing new under the sun, but this week one of our correspondents suggested that as sensible as it is to tap into knowledge from the past, engineers do actually spend an inordinate amount of time reinventing the wheel.

With good solid examples of forgotten technologies re-emerging in the modern world, plenty of anecdotal evidence that many others may be languishing just out of living memory  – it seems that there might be great value in looking at how we could might make a trawl of engineering’s pre-digital age a meaningful and usable step in the innovation process? Watch this space for in-depth look at this fascinating concept.

Have you solved a problem using a solution from Engineering’s past? Can you think of any forgotten technologies whose time may finally have come? If so, we’d love to hear from you.