Welcome to the future -- 1946 is here! Sixty-nine years after its debut on Dick Tracy's arm, Apple has finally given us our "two-way wrist radio" in the guise of the Apple watch. Not to be outdone, Samsung recently released a teaser video of its own version of a smart watch. I eagerly await revolutionary advances in crime fighting (which, I've come to accept, are far more likely than a watch making me lose weight.)
What took so long? Clearly the problem wasn't a lack of ideas. All of the components for the wrist radio -- and even Dick Tracy's later "two-way wrist TV" -- not only existed in 1946, but were in widespread acceptance. Sure, building a wrist radio without transistors would have been difficult, but Bell Labs gave us those in 1947. So the idea was there. The components were there. What was missing?
The answer is research and lots of it, much underwritten by the federal government. The original transistor was certainly impressive, but it was also gigantic (half the size of the Apple Watch!) and way too slow for radio frequencies. Transforming the original transistor into the devices that adorn the Apple Watch didn't require one advance, or ten advances, or even a hundred advances -- it took decades of effort by thousands of scientists and engineers in academic and industrial labs across the U.S. Every aspect of the transistor, from the material it was made of to the way it was wired, had to be tweaked, refined, and tweaked again.
Teleporting state-of-the-art transistors back to 1946 wouldn't have helped Dick Tracy. There was also the problem of power. Sure, we had batteries back in 1946, even rechargeable batteries. But they were heavy and full of acid. Poor Dick wouldn't have been able to lift his arm, much less run after bad guys. Do you remember Apple's first laptop -- 16 pounds of computing pleasure with a lead-acid battery just like an Oldsmobile?
Transforming the batteries of my childhood into the sleek, high efficiency beauties in the Apple Watch didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen in one step. It required fundamental research on surface chemistry, the development of new electroactive materials, and an army of scientists and engineers.
Finally, there was integration. You don't think they solder each of the hundred million or so transistors in the Apple Watch, do you? That would never work. The circuit is far too complex. Most of today's transistors are fabricated all wired together and ready to go in an extraordinarily precise and highly choreographed process. These integrated circuits enable a breathtaking level of complexity and reproducibility, all at a modest cost. The first integrated circuit contained only a handful of components. How did we get to hundreds of millions of components? You guessed it -- another army of scientists and engineers in both industry and academia, working steadily since the early 1960's.
Who do we have to thank for the Apple Watch or the soon-to-be-launched Samsung Gear S2? Steve Jobs? Jony Ive? The armies of engineers and scientists? Yes, of course. But also my grandparents and my parents and maybe yours, too. Because they were the ones who paid -- via their taxes -- for the basic research in chemistry, physics, and engineering that made the Apple Watch possible.
Do we need more basic research in this golden age? We already have fantastic transistors, batteries, flat panel displays, and more! Ask yourself that as you charge your Apple Watch every 18 hours, as you scratch your iPhone's display, as you lose cell phone reception in the basement. No company -- not even Apple -- can afford to develop everything from scratch.
Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- the government agency responsible for basic research in science and engineering -- receives a little less than $2 a month from the average U.S. taxpayer, the equivalent of half a comic book. In 2007 with strong support from Congress, President Bush signed the America COMPETES Act which authorized doubling the NSF budget over five years. In 2011, President Obama reauthorized that law, again with strong support. The result? The NSF budget has increased by a measly 25 percent since 2007, far from the authorized doubling, while comic book prices have risen 33 percent. Dick Tracy might call that a crime.
We are each investing less than half a comic book a month in our future. Just imagine what wonders we would reap by investing an entire comic book a month or possibly even two. Maybe 1947 would get here just a little bit faster...