Developing, Engineering, Educating, Volunteering.

Tech I love – BE Broadband competition

There has been an incredible amount of progression made in technology over the past few years and the output of this can be seen just about everywhere: the cars we drive; the music we listen to. As there’s far too many to list here, I wanted to focus on some of the breakthroughs that have affected me most in the past few years.

Perhaps one of the most important inventions made is something we’ve all grown to love, something many businesses are now built upon (including my own)…

The internet

Whilst it might not be seen as that recent, it has been pinnacle to most of the technology I now revolve my life around. Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at CERN, created the first proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989. His idea was to make it easier for physicists around the world to communicate with each other and soon led development of software which could communicate with CERN’s Internet system. It’s this ‘web’ that we can reach websites through today, all built on the proprietary World Wide Web system, accessible via the Internet.

Image: Tim Berners-Lee – best known for inventing the Internet. Source: All About Jazz

For me, I’ve grown up during the decades that the Internet was still in its infancy; 15 years ago it was still something inaccessible to most people due to the skill required to use it. I remember when I was younger being fascinated by how websites were made, and began to learn website development at the age of 10.

Whilst I enjoyed making basic (and somewhat hideous) websites, no-one was finding it in the huge complex web that the Internet formed. It was only when search engines came along that the huge volume of content the worldwide network was able to offer became truly available.

The later introduction of social networks has since made the art of self-publication tremendously easier, where creating online content went from being only for those with website development skills to something almost anyone can do. You could say this isn’t such a good thing, but can giving more people a voice have anything but a positive effect?

As a side note, one aspect of the research at CERN that I deeply respect is how outcomes from the research undertaken are made freely available to the world. Commercial and military interests play no role in the research undertaken – researchers are able to explore what they want to, where later uses for research simply being a by-product… This is at least the idea, though I’m sure there are many who do question how true it is.

Image: Part of the LHC at CERN, Switzerland. Source: Reality Pod

Mobile phones

When mobiles first came along (the brick come to mind), many questioned whether they’d really ever catch on. Their biggest issue was their size – I think it’s fair to ask if the term ‘mobile’ phone really was applicable to these. However, their size soon reduced, and at the age of 11 I was given my first mobile phone. The Nokia 3410 (pictured below). Whilst it might look ugly when compared to the standards today, I fell in love with the freedom that came with it though at the time never dreamed that games, speedy internet and touchscreen technology would be the next-in-line features.

Image: The Nokia 3410, my phone in, 2000 compared to the iPhone 4S. Sources: Extra GSM; CNET

Skype has also since came along, providing free phone calls all over the world. I only really appreciated this when I found myself in Africa, able to call home on my mobile with almost no lag thanks to WiFi and Skype. If you have been following technology business news lately, I’m sure Microsoft’s acquisition of the company hasn’t passed you by, though with their large number of staff and significant cash balance Skype’s future looks pretty promising in my eyes.

The bigger scale

Whilst we all know about and appreciate technology such as phones and the Internet, there’s a host of research and developments that are improving our lives in ways most of us never even consider. As a civil engineer I have been particularly interested recently by research into tunnelling methods lately – much of which was employed by the LHC project. Have you ever considered how kilometres of tunnels are excavated, removing the mega-tonnes of soil with millimetre accuracy? Unless you’re a civil engineer the answer’s most likely no, but the engineering behind it really is fascinating.

Image: An example of a tunnel boring machine. Source: Project Camalot

These mega-machines are in use on a host of projects at the moment, such as extensions to the London Underground and the Cross-rail project. Their rotating heads slowly grind away rock which is sent along the internal conveyor belts, whilst the machine automatically sprays liquid concrete with reinforcement fixed to the outer perimeter of the tunnel.

The world’s largest tunnel was completed through the Alps in 2007 at 21 miles (34 km) in length, costing 4.3 bn Swiss francs (around £1.75bn or $3.5bn). Such work required tremendous accuracy and would not be possible without such mechanical technology, nor all the other developments that have become available in recent years like incredibly accurate GPS and improved geotechnical understanding.

All of these kinds of technology really are changing our lives and I very much look forward to seeing where development takes us over the next decade. What is your favourite technology and developments? Leave a comment as I’d love to hear from you!

This post gained the runner up prize in Be Broadband’s Tech I Love competition. Judge Vicky Woollaston from Web User said: “Oliver’s blog post was brilliant and covered some of the same technology as other people but he did it in much more personal and informative way. I loved the way he linked to stories and put his comments into context, and I learnt a thing or two as well.” Thank you Be!