A Night At The Museum: Contemporary Lessons from Yesteryear

3rd Oct, 2014

On Wednesday evening this week I had the privilege of being invited to a guided tour of the “Making the modern world” gallery at the Science Museum in London.

Our guide was the inspirational David Rooney, the Museum’s “Curator of time” (a candidate for the best job title in the Universe, surely?). The gallery traces the development of the modern world from the early industrial revolution to the start of the current millennium by presenting a series of artefacts that were techological ‘firsts’. And, as David says with relish, they are all ‘the real thing’, no replicas or working models here. The Stephenson’s Rocket on display is THE Stephenson’s Rocket and so on.

The evening was always going to be interesting and fun. What I had not anticipated was its relevance to our work in helping clients understand the take up or rejection of new technologies. At the start of the tour David made the point that each exhibit represented the ‘future’ and the ‘white heat of technology’ of their own day. He recounted the thrills and fears of the first passengers to travel at 30mph on Stephenson’s Rocket. As David talked through why some of the exhibits had taken off, and why some had not quite made it, it was clear there were many important lessons for today’s technology innovations.

Most striking was the interconnectedness or inter-dependency of many innovations. The railway revolution would not have taken place without the creation of the Bessemer Converter, for example. The latter enabling the mass production of high quality steel (for rails, just as importantly for the locomotives). This made me reflect on our current dependence on the mobile network to deliver all the transformational applications on our mobile devices.

A recurring theme was that the ‘best’ technologies do not always win. Key to the success of some exhibits was an understanding of the wider world. Smart economics and commerce and the application of what today we would call marketing, communication and government relations skills, were decisive in bringing technology innovations to fruition. Apparently, if you want a Parliamentary Committee to approve your plans for the Forth Railway Bridge (over a competing scheme from the West coast) apparently it helps to bring a long a beautifully crafted, silver plated two meter long replica to plonk on the table in the Committee room.

There was also a reminder that new technology is often accompanied by fears and moral panics. No doubt the first passengers on Stephenson’s Rocket were relieved that the high speeds did not make their heads fall off, as some ‘experts’ had predicted. Some of these concerns were justified, of course. For example, aircraft, originally a military technology, needed to work on their safety record for passenger flight to reach its potential.

Finally, the evening made me reflect on the two-way interaction between technology and socio-economics. Yes, technology can be dependent on socio-economics to succeed, but when it is successful technology also transforms our socio-economics. The gallery holds the first Model T Ford to come to Britain (the real thing, of course). David reminded us that the Model T’s success in the US allowed the transformation of trade in the mid-west. For the first time people could sell their wares away from their own town. Further, this travel also led to the formation of relationships and marriages that brought some welcome diversity to the gene pools of previously remote communities.

A truly inspiring evening. Many thanks to Charlotte Hughes and her colleagues for the invitation