Leading Through Technological Leaps

No comments
William Huskisson panicked at the approach of an opposite direction engine. He attempted to cling to the door of the carriage, which swung open and put him in the path of The Rocket

The challenges of really huge technological leaps, after they have already occurred, are difficult for our brains to imagine. One of the most significant leaps in human history was from animal-powered to mechanical locomotion. In our automated world, it is nearly impossible to imagine the rapid adjustment required from the natural movements of horses to the formidable power of steam and steel. A very unfortunate beginning holds valuable lessons for managing any technological change.

The opening ceremony included 33 cars in 8 trains, including a special VIP train for the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington.

In 1830, the 1st public railway journey, Manchester to Liverpool, was made with great fanfare & dignitaries galore. The Duke of Wellington, Prime Minister, was carried in his own VIP train. Also present was a noted Member of Parliament, William Huskisson, an economist and president of the Board of Trade.

The 30 mile (48 km) route between the port at Liverpool and the industrial center of Manchester was the world’s 1st regular passenger and freight steam locomotive-run route. The route greatly lowered costs of getting imported cotton to the textile mills of Manchester.

When the procession stopped half way on the 30 mile (48 km) journey for refilling water, Huskisson stepped off the train to make amends with the Prime Minister regarding a political falling out. Meanwhile, a prototype engine with no brakes (it could only be stopped by reversing the wheels), The Rocket, was approaching on parallel tracks from the opposite direction. Not fully aware of the dangers and necessary precautions brought about by the technological leap in which things moved much faster and with more force, Huskisson became the 1st casualty on the 1st public train when he fell into the path of The Rocket.

Public reaction to this and subsequent incidents pushed the rail industry to become the 1st High Reliability Organization. It built an army of disciplined, highly-trained workers–conductors, engine firemen, drivers, brakemen, track inspectors, signalmen, station masters, telegraph operators & dispatchers– using good judgment in a complex system where a single mistake could be fatal. Most significantly, the industry developed the accident investigation system where lessons learned & recommendations were shared with all competing companies. Engineering fixes spread rapidly saving many lives.

Technological change at increasing speed can overwhelm our senses. But we see from previous experience that we can adapt with thoughtful reflection & community effort.


Leave a Reply