North America is allegedly leading the world in the equipment of homes with digital control systems. Bandwaggoning corporations are offering keypad-operated residential installations that give to US and Canadian sybarites, in every nook or cranny of every room, easy choices of ambient heat, light, sound and atmosphere, telephony, television, personal computing, internet access, closed-circuit security surveillance and remote (possibly spoken) command of domestic appliances.

I receive these excited reports with some fatigue and disappointment.

Half a century ago, when computers were so young that people were still arguing whether the machines would best be analogue or digital, the prophets of the new electronic age promised such things as wristlet-mounted instant interpreters for multilingual conversation, high-speed readers that would cope with any quality of handwriting, and domestic robots that would do all the household chores at every level and in every awkward corner of interior space, climbing upstairs or downstairs or taking lifts or elevators if necessary: robots of higher grade would provide perfect and articulate personal service as butlers. All these desirable artefacts have failed to appear in the catalogues.

I think that we have been let down by the slowness of the electronic revolutionisers, and that the market for power has been denied the growth it deserved.

Power takes imagination

Here is a story told to me by the public relations officer of a certain European power station.

An undergraduate applied for a vacation job at the station. To test his mettle the personnel officer challenged him at his interview to explain how he would use a barometer to determine the height of one of the station’s cooling towers.

Misunderstanding what he thought was a twinkle in his interlocutor’s eye, the undergraduate proposed lowering his barometer from the top of the tower on the end of a long string, measuring the length of the string, and then adding the length of the string to the length of the barometer. The personnel officer bristled and showed the saucy young man the door.

The saucy young man appealed to the station manager against unjust rejection. His ground for appeal, he stated in a well-written letter, was that the method he had proposed was one that would undoubtedly work. The manager felt moved to entertain the plea but he pointed out that the undergraduate’s solution had not demonstrated much technical knowledge. He said that he would give the student a chance to put that right however, and he would allow him seven minutes for an oral answer.

The young man duly presented himself in the station manager’s office. The grim-faced personnel officer, present as a witness, pressed a button to start an electronic timing device. After six minutes’ silence the aspiring power engineer was warned that his time was running out. He replied that he was finding it hard to choose between several answers.

One was to drop the barometer from the top of the tower, measure the time from release to impact with the ground, and then calculate the distance travelled. But the precious barometer would be destroyed.

A less destructive experiment would be to compare the length of the instrument’s shadow with the length of the cooling tower’s, and apply simple proportion arithmetic to do the rest. If that seemed too simple, and something more scientific were preferred, the barometer could be swung as a pendulum bob at ground level, first from a point near ground level and then from the top of the cooling tower. The height of the tower could of course be computed from measurements of the periodic times, the lengths of the pendulums and the height of the lower suspension point.

The young man sighed as he said how boringly old-fashioned it would be to observe the barometric pressure at ground and tower-top levels and to work out the altitude from the difference between the two readings. So, he concluded, probably the best method would be to offer the shiny instrument to one of the power station’s maintenance men in exchange for the official dimension.

The electronic timer emitted a loud ping and the saucy young man got the job. Now, in maturity, he likes to say how grateful he remains to that percipient station manager, whose post he eventually inherited.