18
Sep
08

The horse wins the battle, but loses the war

As every computer geek (and especially Bill Gates) knows, when you’re demonstrating new technology, something usually goes wrong at exactly the worst moment.

The good news? Problems like that don’t just happen to computer people. On this day in 1830, the first U.S.-builte steam engine, Tom Thumb, performed beautifully on the first half of a dlemonstration trip. The little engine pulled a car full of 40 officials, dignitaries, and society stars from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills in about an hour.

But technology trouble awaited the engine on the return trip…

On the way back, a draft horse from the local stagecoach company pulled a similar passenger car on the adjacent track. The goal? To see whether the newly-founded Baltimore and Ohio Raioroad company would use horses or steam engines on their tracks.

As the engine built up steam, the horse easily pulled ahead in the race. But the locomotive slowly caught up and then pulled ahead, accompanied by plenty of cheers.

Then, the “technology demonstration effect” (also known as Murphy’s Law) struck, as a drive band somewhere in the locomotive slipped from its place. The engine coasted to a stop while the horse-drawn carriage caught up and then continued on. Although repairs quickly put the engine back into action, the horse easily won the race.

It’s good to know that some things — like technology demos — never change.

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