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Technological inheritance

  "Many times a day," wrote Albert Einstein, "I realize how much my outer and
  inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and
  dead." The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary knowledge
  and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree on the efforts
  of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural investment in
  science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In fact, very little of
  what we as a society produce today can be said to derive from the work,
  risk, and imagination of citizens now living. Achievements from earlier
  eras, including fundamental ideas such as literacy, movable type, simple
  arithmetic, and algebra, have become so integrated into our daily lives
  that we take them for granted. What we accomplish today stands atop a
  Gibraltar of technological inheritance. Seemingly contemporary
  transformations inevitably build on knowledge accumulated over generations.
  For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr College,
  observes that "synthesizing organic chemicals...could not have been done
  without an understanding of chemical transformations and the arrangement of
  atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the production of coal tar and
  its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs, explosives, solvents,
  fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals...By the early 1900's the
  new chemicals were already becoming an essential input for metallurgy,
  petroleum, and paper."
  Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world's richest
  individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a
  technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer,
  should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history
  as well as of significant public investment. 
  The personal computer itself--without which Gates's software would not be
  possible--owes its development to sustained federal spending during World
  War II and the Cold War. "Most of [the] 'great ideas in computer design'
  were first explored with considerable government support," according to
  historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist
  in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18
  of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and
  1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases
  the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example,
  Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S.
  computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951. 
  The government's shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the
  way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful
  PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate's colleague [and now fellow
  billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates
  to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade
  computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical
  contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National
  Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And
  indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair's developer,
  could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market
  without the long preceding period of technological incubation. 
  Thousands of links in a chain of development--our shared inheritance--were
  in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if this
  is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other wealthy
  entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we admit that
  what any one person, group, generation, or even nation contributes in one
  moment of time is minuscule compared with all that the past bequeaths like
  a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question the basic principles by
  which we distribute our technological inheritance.
  (Opening paragraphs from Gar Alperovitz's article "Distributing Our
  Technological Inheritance" in Oct. 94, Technology Review)