Child's Play, The Citizen, November 2020 Invention That Changed the World

Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.

Gratitude.  That single word helps me through each day.  I am not an optimist, exactly.  I'm definitely a realist.  But, metaphorically speaking, I play the hand that I'm dealt and I try to find assets in my hand rather than complaining about my liabilities. 

Like the rest of you, I'm tired of masks, fear-mongering by the media, and the general disruption of life that the virus has presented us.  But I'm so grateful for this time in history.  The last major pandemic was over 100 years ago.  I can't imagine how hard a lock-down must have been in those days.

Of the inventions in history that have totally changed the world, most of us would agree on a fairly short list - the wheel, the internal combustion engine, and penicillin to name a few.  But in my lifetime, there is no single invention that has impacted our world more than digital technology - specifically the microchip.

In the 1960s and before, circuits were large boards with vacuum tubes.  Housing them required large cases so televisions, radios, and calculators were huge.  In fact the first computer occupied an entire room and was literally a series of dozens of wires that had to be manually moved from one slot to another in order to "program" the computer.  The first main-frame computer at the college where I work required an entire room, two air conditioners running full time, and didn't have a fraction of the computing power my cell phone has today. 

Because of the need to accommodate vacuum tubes, televisions and other devices drew monstrous amounts of energy.  My first calculator was a 5-function calculator (add, divide, subtract, multiply, and square root) that weighed about a pound and was 3  times the size of a modern cell phone.  It ran on 2 D-cell batteries that lasted about a week with heavy usage. 

As micro-technology has continued to advance, devices have gotten smaller, their energy demands have been drastically reduced, and the heat they produce has made it possible to carry a "computer" (also known as a cell phone) in your pocket without burning up.  Today, microchips are in nearly every area of our lives.  They are in our credit/debit cards, refrigerators, toasters, toys, cameras, and our cars.  Bulldozers grade property using GPS location and from a phone we have in our pocket we can track a UPS delivery we are expecting.  There is far more computer technology in even a cheap car today than there was available to NASA during the Apollo space program. 

So back to the virus.  Whether you realize it or not, the silicon microchip - digital technology - has allowed all of us to manage this virus.  Tele-working, tele-education, tele-medicine, and tele-mental health are all a part of our daily lives thanks to the silicon microchip.  Prior to last March, many of you had never heard of Zoom, most of you have not engaged in on-line education, and nearly all of us went to an office of some kind every day for work.

Today, as much as I miss my regular classroom and the advantages of seeing my clients face-to-face, I have saved hundreds of dollars in fuel and wear-and-tear on my vehicle, I work in comfortable clothes in my home office most days, and I have learned dozens of ways of doing things I never would have even thought about back in February.  Most of these things for which I'm very grateful are thanks to the computer microchip.

I can do my job using an app on my phone.  I can literally be almost anywhere in the world.  I can do my office work from the comfort of my little cabin on my farm.  I can answer phone calls from students and clients while hiking in the woods.  I can visit my children in other states on "work days" without having to miss my work obligations.

I'm not oblivious to the economic and personal hardships this virus has brought us.  But gratitude - what is right instead of what is wrong - is the thing that helps me cope and keeps my spirits up.  It might seem odd in a Thanksgiving season to express gratitude for an invention, but that is where I am.  Managing our lives in the context of this virus would be drastically different if it weren't for this one, amazing, fantastic invention - the silicon microchip.  And for that I am exceedingly grateful.  Happy Thanksgiving.

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