Happy birthday – to me, that is.
The Old Foggie
You see I was born on a long-ago day in March of 1933 – the day after St Patrick’s Day. I guess my Scotch/English mother held off so I wouldn’t be connected with the Irish. So that makes me about as old as dirt. What I don’t like is what passes for music now. Banging out chords and shrill notes on a guitar while shouting words I can’t understand into a microphone and dancing like a monkey is not my idea of music. Give me Glenn Miller and Moonlight serenade played by a big band with schooled musicians with lyrics that are meaningful and sung so you understand them (OK – so that is the old-foggy part of me).
But there’s a strange thing about being that old. I just don’t feel old. I like new technology, love to work on cars with young guys and now like to write stories about cars and people. Maybe the reason for this is that, throughout my long car-journey, it’s the up-to-the-minute inventions that have always fascinated me. You see, I grew up with the evolution of automotive technology. As an aerospace medical electronic engineer, I worked for 12 years on the testing of aircraft and automotive restraint systems. This included the first live tests of air bags. We never dared test beyond thirty miles per hour – much too dangerous. Now I read how distracted drivers merrily bang into each other at highway speeds and manage to survive. These same people probably wash their hands after going to the bathroom to avoid some remote bad consequence. The kinetic energy of an automotive collision is almost beyond comprehension. If they survived the unsurvivable, they can now believe in angels.
Another aspect of automotive development that is probably under appreciated by millennials is the development of disk brakes. You hit the brakes at eighty and come to a fast straight stop. Very routine. Now let me tell you about 1955 and drum brakes on a 1950 Oldsmobile Holiday hardtop. I was in Central City, Colorado enjoying some suds and fun with my date in that historic old town which at that time was just a rundown mountain mining town with the Tollgate bar full of drunk cowboys and Western fiddle music.
It was after midnight on a warm summer night when we headed back down the mountain road to Golden then onto Sixth Avenue and Denver. On the downhill road going into the outskirts of Golden, there was one lone traffic light. With the speedometer at eighty I saw the light change about a quarter mile ahead of me, and I put on the brakes. The car slowed to about fifty, and then it just kept going. I went thru the intersection with my feet standing on the brake pedal. If there had been a car there, I would be dead now.
I had heated the brakes coming down the mountain curves and the drums expanded away from the brake shoes, and I was the victim of “brake fade.” This along with “brain fade” was responsible for many accidents in that era. So now we can dismiss brake fade, but brain fade has become a paramount issue in today’s traffic. I got my driver’s license in 1955 and happy to say I have never even dented a fender. That in spite of driving some of the most powerful cars in each era. My favorite was my 1940 Ford hotrod which I feature in my book “The Bootlegger “40 Ford.” The fastest was the 1967 Corvette roadster with the 1963 Rochester fuel injected engine. You better believe I am a defensive driver. I still pucker a little when I think about that night in the Olds.
So now we have computer driven cars on the not too distant horizon. You say: “No way will I let my being be subjected to control by a computer!” Sorry folks, but if you have ever flown in a commercial jet you have to realize that the pilots are drinking coffee while a computer controls the plane on autopilot. I just hope they get it working in cars so when my eyes grow dim and knees shake I can still make it to a bar and back in one piece. (Should have said “church” but had a twinge of honesty)
The technology behind this revolution is mainly dependent on two things: microprocessors and Moore’s Law. Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. That means we now have super computational power in chips not much bigger that a postage stamp. When I designed the fuel injection system for the flathead Ford V8 engine, I figured that I needed the computer to fire a spark plug once every 20 milliseconds (.020 sec). If we scale back a modern microprocessor to work on a human time frame, it would be possible to fire a spark plug then go to lunch and take a nap before firing the next plug such is the phenomenal speed of current day electronics.
I just put a three terabyte backup memory in my desk top computer. That is a number so big you can hardly comprehend it. (1 TB = 1000000000000bytes) The module is not much larger than two packs of cigarettes. I remember in the early 90s when on a business trip to Mayo Clinic I saw a 10 megabyte disk drive that held all the text of their research articles. That means that if I had started writing stories on March 18, 1933 and wrote continuously and as fast as I can, I could not fill up the memory. So now do I have a repository of my knowledge for the ages or a sewer of the mind that should be flushed out now and then?
Everything Old is New Again
Well, I hope you love the old cars and the old music, and keep them in your heart. But don’t forget to keep your mind open to what promises to be a phenomenal future! Technologies may change, but the spirit of innovation remains a constant.
Hope you have the luck o’ the Irish this March.