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The (slowly) emerging picture

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We take a lot for granted in this digital, ever shrinking, accelerating age but do we stop to reflect how long it took to get to this stage or how much research, development and design were involved?

I am old enough to remember hard copy texting (Telex), mobile phones the size of a brick and loudspeakers you could only lift with two hands. And, although it only seems like yesterday, it isactually about 30 years ago so, slower progress than we might think.

Telex machine

Large speakersHuge mobile phone

Emerging technology, transferable across sectors

Innovate UK and Williams F1 recently ran a conference to showcase technology, which is transferable across sectors. The Emerging Technology session focused on two aspects: how long it takes to commercialise breakthroughs in science and, the opportunities and challenges presented by small companies working with large organisations.

The history of lasers and GPS

I looked at two product areas:

  1. lasers
  2. navigation aids based on the Global Positioning System (GPS).

   1. Lasers: 50 years to create substantial market

Sales of laser systems now amount to c. £6 billion globally but it was almost 35 years ago that the laser-read audio disk debuted in 1982 and ten years before that when the ubiquitous bar code scanners appeared. The first commercial products were launched in 1961 so it has taken approx. 50 years to create this substantial market.


Sales of lasers

But how long did it take to develop the first commercial products? Well it was in 1951 that the MASER (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was conceived by Charles H Townes and 1957 when the LASER saw the light of day but the concept goes back to our friend Einstein who, in 1917, proposed the concept of stimulated emission of light, over 40 years before the first product sales.

   2. GPS: began many years before 1990s

Closer to most people’s experience is GPS or the navigation aids based on the Global Positioning System, connected to satellites. Cars, bikes, boats and ships, vhf radios, mobile phones and now wristwatches all make use of GPS and the combined sales of Garmin and TomTom currently amount to around £2.5b having reached £3.5b in 2007.

Garmin’s Forerunner 620 running watch

Garmin’s Forerunner 620 running watch

Garmin was founded in 1989 and took six years to generate any revenue. Tom Tom was founded in 1991 and took even longer to generate any sales, a full eleven years, and it was a further 15-20 years to reach peak revenue.

Sales of sat navs by Garmin & Tom Tom

However, the development of the technology, which enabled and supported GPS, began many years before the 1990s. Pinpointing how long before is difficult but it could be considered as:

  • 1983, when the USA allowed access to their military satellite system DNSS following the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007
  • 1957, when Sputnik, the first satellite, was launched
  • 1940, when radio navigation was first used and which led on to radar navigation.

Developing emerging technology requires patience

The fact is advances in technology on this scale do not happen overnight. From first commercial products to peak sales or from an understanding of the science to first prototype takes longer than, for example a 5 year parliamentary term.

So, you need to be patient. Eventually there are many, unforeseen spin-offs and benefits and few would have forecast the myriad applications of lasers encompassing:

  • cutting
  • welding
  • scanning bar codes
  • reading CDs
  • cooling atoms
  • laser/optical tweezers

Similarly GPS based navigation aids have spread way beyond road vehicles to include:

  • farming
  • construction
  • mining
  • surveying
  • package delivery and logistics

Sectors such as communications networks, banking systems, financial markets and power grids also depend heavily on GPS for precise time synchronization.

But it’s not a neat, linear progression.

Technology commercialisation requires faith, flexibility and patience but the greatest of these is patience.

Follow me on Twitter: @NeilNjinnov

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  1. Comment by Erik Cox posted on

    MASER is an acronym for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, not 'Magnified'. This is extremely poor coming from Innovate UK.

    • Replies to Erik Cox>

      Comment by Neil Johnston posted on

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention and I apologise for getting this wrong. The blog is now corrected.

  2. Comment by Michael Kenward posted on

    When I worked as a research physicist in the late-1960s, lasers were new and the subject of many "death ray" stories in science fiction. But back then we would joke that the only way in which you could harm anyone with a laser would be to beat them over the head with it. The power output was pathetic, in the case of the helium-neon lasers that we used to align kit, or came in intense but very short nanosecond pulses from pulsed solid-state lasers.

    This illustrates a common path for many technologies. They start as spiffy new toys for research scientists who want to try out something. Eventually, the cost comes down, and the reliability goes up, to a stage when they can become useful tools in industry. The consumer market may well come at the end of the process.

    By the way, one school of thought is averse to using GPS for vehicles, especially self driving cars. Just not reliable and accurate enough. Spot on, though, about farming, as a recent article in Ingenia magazine explained.