Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Invention of the day: electric car starter.

There's a class of inventions that improve original breakthrough technologies to such a degree that the breakthroughs reach the mass market. In the beginning of the 21st century, invention of blogging democratized web publishing by helping people who didn't want to learn HTML create their own web pages. Even now, most blogging services, including blogspot and LiveJournal I use regularly, offer two editing modes, HTML and direct. With the latter, you don't need to know any HTML tags to orchestrate your text so that the browser understands how do display the content when it pulled from the server to your PC or mobile. The removal of the user skill constraint enables explosive growth.

 A hundred years ago the same thing happened to the automobile when Vincent Bendix invented an electric starter for gasoline engines. The starter is a miniature electric motor coupled to the main gas engine to crank up the engine from a dead stop. Today, you only need to turn on the ignition key or press a button to open a flow of electric current from the battery in your car to the starter. The starter turns and, being linked mechanically to the rest of the system, turns the crankshaft of the engine.
Before the invention, the driver had to do it manually. That is, using a hand crank, the driver had to crank up the engine - a feat that not only required significant physical abilities, but also the willingness to get down and dirty with mechanical tools on the road. (Just like a web designer would have to learn HTML codes, scripts, frames, etc. to put together a passable web page.) People who eschewed the mechanics of automobiles had to either hire a chauffeur or stay away from the automobile market altogether.

Introduction of the starter eliminated the problem, especially for middle class men and women. The horseless carriage, which most people at the time perceived as an expensive toy for men, became a mass market product that drove American innovations for more than 50 years. Consumer loans, the highway system, the oil and gas industry, tire manufacturing, suburban homes and other features of the modern life we love and loath are direct consequences of the automobile revolution. I can't say that Vincent Bendix of Memphis, Tennessee started it one hundred years ago, but he definitely contributed to the process.

tags: invention, problem, technology, improvement, industry, infrastructure, innovation, system,  constraint

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