Technology new and old

It was one of those moments when you instinctively respond and then, sometime afterwards, you realise the implications of what you have just agreed to. It is generally when you are distracted and not giving your full attention to the speaker. Kids are masters at deploying this technique to get their way and it is a device that is often used in comedy. Only this time I didn’t think it was funny. Well, OK, I did because you can’t take yourself too seriously, can you? The interchange started with the other person making a disparaging comment about 50s/60s technology. I automatically agreed with the sentiment. It was only when I was on my own that I realised with a start – I am 50s/60s technology! I may be in a minority here but I do not believe that this 50s/60s technology is ready to be replaced.

The rapid growth in certain areas of technology over recent years, coupled with some of the perceived personal benefits, means that we have been lulled into the automatic perception that new technology is particularly good. By default, this means that we perceive old technology as not so good and that it has been left far behind by modern innovations. Yet, if you consider the facts more carefully, this is not always the case. A recent programme on CNN looked at the history of the first appearances of renewable technologies. It made for enlightening viewing: hydrogen fuel cell, 1838; principle of solar power, generating electricity with no moving parts, 1876; wind turbine generator, 1888; commercial hydropower plant, 1893; and application of geothermal power, 1922. In fact, the only technology from recent years was wave power in 2000 and these prototypes are no longer in operation. In his column in the Sunday Times at the beginning of April, Luke Johnson refers to the opinions of two economists who believe that the1970s were the turning point in technological development. Radical technical advances in the lead up to the 1970s, such as the internal combustion engine and refrigerators, are unlikely to be repeated and the change in social and economic factors, before and after, mean that incomes and living standards have flattened out.

Anecdotally, it is easy to concur with these views. 50s/60s technology put a man on the moon and produced Concorde. The invention of the e-book was supposed to sound the death knell of the paper book, but paper books are just as popular today. Similarly, the MP3 player and online streaming are suddenly not sufficient to prevent a revival in the purchase of vinyl. When you examine some modern consumer technology, there haven’t been any major changes in products. It has tended to be incremental improvements on what has gone before, such as HD, brighter and larger TV screens, cars with satellite navigation and Bluetooth and smaller, portable devices.

The Sunday Times columnist went on to put forward his views on why we have not seen radical technological advances since the 70s, as were seen prior to this decade. Whilst his reasoning is logical, there are many factors at play and it is not easy to come up with a single explanation. One could suggest that technological advance is analogous to exploration and that all the obvious expeditions into the unknown have been successfully completed. All that is left is to do something that has been done before, but with an added extra challenge.

One discipline area that I think runs contrary to the hypotheses promulgated by the two economists is medical diagnosis. It could also be argued that NDT doesn’t fit the model. Whilst the NDT profession was developed prior to the 70s, some significant developments were made through the 70s and 80s. After a slight hiatus, further advances in equipment have been made in more recent years and are still being developed today, including ultrasonic phased arrays, digital detectors for radiography, advanced visible and infrared camera systems and robotic delivery technology. All these advances have the potential to deliver major benefits.

So, why should NDT be out of synchronisation on the technical development front? Could it be that we are still gripped by the search for the NDT Holy Grail, as we have been for the duration of my time in NDT? That one development that would be applicable to any inspection situation and deliver reliable detection and sizing of any defects? However, if one new technology cannot deliver this goal, then maybe the answer lies in combining a number of technologies, controlled by the next big thing: Artificial Intelligence. Watch this space!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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