We're all familiar with Maxwell's equations, those four short and crisp formulas that define our electromagnetic world. Perhaps you've even seen the T-shirts with the equations, and at the bottom it reads: "and there was light."
There's only one problem with the equations. Yes, Maxwell did develop the essential electromagnetic theory, no question of that. But a fascinating article in Microwave Journal, "Twenty Three Years: The Acceptance of Maxwell's Theory" (July 2008), explains that his original equations were not the four we know today, but 20 simultaneous differential equations. Not only were they not accepted initially, they were incomprehensible to even the leading researchers and scientists of the day, such as Michael Faraday. Maxwell's equations only gained acceptance and actually became useful when the reclusive mathematical genius Oliver Heaviside reduced them to what we now call by that name.
The path to success in our industry is similarly convoluted, with lots of local swirls and eddies. Certainly, some products and standards become winners quicker than others, but we tend to forget how long it takes for even the faster ones to succeed. This forgetfulness makes both companies and their investors a pretty impatient bunch. That is not good for the realities of complicated technical progress and accomplishments. Too many players want that quick ROI, despite all the evidence against it happening.
But we tend to gloss over the reality. For example, people use the term "Rosetta stone" as a shorthand phrase for a magic key that instantly unlocks a mystery, as if the engraved stone unearthed by Napoleon's troops in Egypt in 1799 was a ready-to-use translation guide between classical Greek, hieroglyphic, and Demotic symbols and words. The reality is that it took the scholars about 30 years to translate and correlate the texts and symbols, aided by many other sources as well as some luck.
Engineering success builds on the efforts of others, and even those celebrated "and-then-the-light- came-on" moments usually require follow-through, persistence, planning, execution and even luck to really make it, since so much can go wrong, whether due to internal issues and external events.
Dutch Kindelberger, chief engineer of Douglas Aviation and a leading aircraft designer, said in his autobiography, "No one ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat that somebody didn't put in there first." There's a lot of truth in that to keep in mind.
Bill Schweber is Planet Analog's site editor.