When I was about 11 years old I chanced to read a science-fiction short story that was likely written in the 1940's or 50's. Alas, the title escapes me, as does the author. (Help me, please, if you can identify it.) All I remember is a key plot element: super-advanced extraterrestrials are spaceship-wrecked on Earth, and in order to repair their vehicle they have to teach the human engineers how to build machines to build machines to build machines ... to build the machines that the aliens need to use to fix their broken equipment.

It's a neat conceit --- and it underscores the pyramid of technology that hides behind the sophisticated systems that we all use every day. To send an email with the click of a mouse requires an almost-inconceivable conjunction of events, from the physical growing of ultrapure silicon crystals and insertion of infinitesimal amounts of impurities to make transistors ... to the laying out of the components that form logic circuit elements ... to the interconnection of those elements in the construction of electronic devices such as processors ... to the writing of machine-language instructions that command the processors to perform specific actions ... to the crafting of compilers that can translate higher-level specifications into more elementary operations ... to the building of operating systems that open window-like areas on a screen by flipping voltages applied to appropriate pixels ... to the creation of applications that can take "To:" and "Subject:" and "Body:" and cause them to vanish from my inbox and appear in somebody else's halfway around the world. (And that's a grossly oversimplified caricature.)

Which reminds me of the delightful parable told more than four decades ago by Leonard Read in his essay "I, Pencil". Read points out that to fabricate even the simplest lead pencil is something no human being knows how to do. It takes the combined talents of thousands of individuals plus a thicket of technology, scattered around the world, all guided into cooperation by the metaphorical "invisible hand" of Adam Smith's marketplace.

Speaking of which, Smith himself at the beginning of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) describes in charming fashion the magic that comes from collaboration and application of appropriate tools:

To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

That's an increase in productivity by two or three orders of magnitude --- and Smith doesn't even mention all the processes upstream of the pin factory, where metals are refined, wire is made, tools to cut and grind it are fashioned, ...

(see also EducationVersusEduction (30 Apr 1999), InTheName (19 Aug 1999), PyramidBuilding (21 Feb 2004), ThirdNormalForm (28 Feb 2004), KeyToTheTreasure (23 Apr 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicScience - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicEconomics - 2005-03-26

(correlates: SafetyFirst, WorthTheCost, AllSunsets, ...)