A brief history of warfare

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over time, the human race has devoted a lot of energy to finding creative new ways to hurt or kill each other. Back in the dragging women back to the cave by their hair days, sticks and stones were the order of the day. Plentiful and easily fashioned, these devices would do the job but it would be messy and time consuming. Not only that, but if both of you are similarly armed, regardless of the victor, it’s highly likely you will both be hurting afterwards. Sooner or later, one bright caveman realised that if you took a very small, sharp stone and attached it to a stick, it could be thrown some distance with accuracy. Once the spear had been invented, cavemen no longer had to fight at such close quarters.

Sharpened flints were all well and good, but they were a bit crude. When metals were discovered, weapons could be much more strong and finely constructed. The sword became the order of the day. Some of them were sharp and some of them were heavy, but they were all effective. In response to this, metalworkers developed armour and shields. In order to breech the armour, bows and arrows and crossbows came about. Nothing struck fear into the heart of a warrior in plate mail armour than a crossbowman.

For a time, occupiers built castles which were a hardy defence to most of the weapons of the day. With the advent of gunpowder and cannons, the balance of power changed yet again. The walls could be easily breached and deadly missiles could rain down into the interior of the castle. Muskets and rifles reduced the skill level required of the average foot soldier and increased his range.

During world war I, there were a number of advancements. Aeroplanes were used for reconnaissance and later for bombing missions. Once the bombers became enough of a nuisance, fighters were developed. The most famous of which being Baron von Richthofen in his glorious red Fokker DR1 triplane. Trench warfare was the order of the day. The only way to advance was to assemble a large number of men and go “over the top”. With the advent of the machine gun, such tactics were stopped in their tracks. A well aimed machine gun operated by a handful of men could take out hundreds of soldiers. In order to counter this, the tank was developed. Because it was bulletproof and had caterpillar tracks, the tank could advance with impunity.

By the time world war II started, aircraft could fly much further and could carry a lot more. It is hard to believe now, but at times during world war II, it was routine for London and Berlin, both European capital cities, to have many tons of high explosives dropped on them on a nightly basis. When you think that the slightest innocent casualty in a war today causes an outcry, it’s a sobering thought. With the advent of the V1 and V2 rockets, missile technology was well and truly here to stay. When the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, the scene was set for the cold war.

Fast forward to the first gulf war and the tales of cruise missiles flying down streets and navigating through towns were absolutely mesmerising. By the time we got to the second gulf war, laser guided missiles meant that explosives could be delivered with pinpoint accuracy. With all this technology, sometimes the most effective weapons are the most simple and Improvised Explosive Devices (or IEDs) have been used to murderous effect by the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Weapons get more sophisticated by the day. Bullets can now go round corners and there is enough destructive power in the world’s nuclear arsenal to lay waste to our wonderful planet several times over. It is no wonder that Albert Einstein said that he had no idea what weapons would be used in world war III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Heavy weather

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have found Steve Jobs biography to be tough going. It’s not the writing, it’s the subject. Before I started reading the book, I had no real image of Steve Jobs in my head other than his public persona. The more I read of his life story, the less I find myself liking him. I try to persevere – but it’s hard work.

So I was interested to see Walter Isaacson, the author presenting at IBM’s Impact conference last week. I didn’t really know much about him either, but it turns out that Steve Jobs is not the only subject of his biographies. He has also written the life stories of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Apparently, Steve Jobs approached him and asked why not do his biography next. Walter joked about Jobs thinking his name being the next name in the sequence after Einstein & Franklin showing a distinct lack of humility.

He argued that smart people are relatively common, but what set his subjects apart was imagination. He told the story about Steve Jobs painting a fence with his father. Confounded by his suggestion to apply as much care and attention to the back of the fence as to the front, Steve Jobs asked why – who will know? His father told Jobs that he would know. That notion of caring obsessively about every facet of his products extended throughout his career.

Walter went on to say that innovation requires passion and curiosity. Einstein’s father gave him a childhood gift of a compass. He became fascinated with the idea of magnetic fields and Maxwell’s equations They state that the speed of the magnetic field remains constant regardless of your speed or direction. Einstein couldn’t understand why this would be the case until he fathomed out the theory of relativity.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin spent a lot of time on ships going to and fro across the Atlantic Ocean. He couldn’t understand why the journey was shorter going one way than the other. So he began experimenting by pulling buckets behind the ship and sampling the water as the ship travelled. Through experimentation, he discovered that the water in one direction was warmer than the other which accounted for the ease of passage.

Benjamin Franklin was also very open and collaborative, which Walter argued was also important to innovation. He told a story about the declaration of independence which because of my lack of familiarity with the document didn’t mean that much to me, but I assume it illustrated his point. Paradoxically – Apple is not what you would describe as an open and collaborative company but there you go.

The slogan from Apple’s famous Orwellian advertising campaign was “Think Different” which all of Isaacson’s subjects live up to.

So, will my Steve Jobs biography become easier having seen the author himself. Unfortunately – probably not. But I am tempted to try another of Walter’s books. He is currently working on a history of computing which sounds like it would be right up my street.